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The thrill of the chase was once a regular pastime at Minnesota's rural fairs, where spectators chuckled at the chaotic scene of children pursuing a greased-up pig.

A similar scene would be illegal today.

The state bans anyone from holding a contest to chase and capture a greased pig, a little-known statute that is often cited among the internet's many annals of unusual laws.

Reader Caroline Beattie first learned of this law while watching "Jeopardy!" last summer. The clue was: "Minnesota forbade contests in which this animal, 'greased (or) oiled ... is released & wherein the object is capture of' one," according to the fan-run database (A philosophy professor contestant answered correctly, earning $400.)

Beattie turned to Curious Minnesota, the Star Tribune's reader-powered reporting project, to ask why the law was passed.

"I just think it's funny, because you imagine if you're going to make a law about something that's kind of obscure, there would have been an incident," Beattie said.

The history, it turns out, is just as slippery as the pigs in question.

A boy in Oregon held the greased pig he caught during a contest there in 1941.
A boy in Oregon held the greased pig he caught during a contest there in 1941.

Library of Congress

Oiling up swine and chasing them was regularly advertised in notices for county fairs, fall festivals and even Fourth of July celebrations, according to archived newspapers from around Minnesota. Usually, children were the participants.

"This porker will be slathered with the ooziest, blackest, slipperiest grease available — with the eager contestants having their work cut out for them," the Daily Journal of Fergus Falls wrote about an upcoming contest in 1972.

Jim Heynen, a St. Paul author who has written extensively about his youth on a farm in northwest Iowa, remembered how crowds would applaud the child that snatched the swine — and the fact that the winner took the pig home.

Most were indifferent to the animal's fear, he said. But some fairgoers took notice.

"I can remember city folks coming by and just looking astonished at how farm folks behaved," he said.

Legislature intervenes

The Minnesota Legislature passed the statute in 1971. "The new law, passed without much public attention, turned up in a batch of bills being compiled by [the secretary of state]," the Associated Press reported at the time. Coverage of the bill was otherwise scant.

Weeks-old piglets slept at the Minnesota Zoo in 2005.
Weeks-old piglets slept at the Minnesota Zoo in 2005.

Joey McLeister / Star Tribune

In fact, the legislation slipped by so quietly that some pig chases continued after they had been outlawed — including the event previewed in the Fergus Falls paper, which was held months after the law's passage.

Leather-bound copies of House and Senate proceedings and paper meeting minutes housed at the Minnesota Historical Society offered little additional information about the law's origins. The committee minutes only noted that the Minnesota State Humane Society testified in favor of the bill to House and Senate committees.

Linda Challeen, director of the Humane Society, wrote in an email that no one at the organization today is familiar with the law's history.

All five of the former state House members who introduced the original bill have since died. The lead author was Julian J. Hook, a lawyer who represented St. Louis Park. He died in 2022. His wife said in a phone interview that she had no recollection of the legislation at all.

Keith Streff, the supervising humane agent for the Animal Humane Society in Minnesota, guessed that something might have happened at the high-profile Minnesota State Fair — spurring a public backlash.

But a representative of the State Fair wrote in an email there was no historical record of visitors to the Great Minnesota Get-Together ever pursuing a lubricated hog.

There's also little indication in newspapers of a public controversy before the law's passage. One exception was a 1970 letter that P.C. Neilsen of the Newport Animal Adoption Center submitted to the Minneapolis Star, criticizing news footage he'd seen of a pig chase in Hugo.

"The pigs were running scared, to the delight of the most heartless crowd," he wrote.

Neilsen also noted that some communities in Minnesota still "throw chickens up for grabs to greedy people." That kind of activity was banned in the same 1971 law, which referred to it as a "turkey scramble."

A 'terrifying experience'

The law is part of the state's anti-animal cruelty rules, indicating there was a concern for the animals involved. Gemma Vaughan, a captive animal case specialist with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals or PETA, said the chases are "an incredibly terrifying experience" for the pig involved, which is sometimes injured in the process.

Pigs on a farm in southern Minnesota in 2005.
Pigs on a farm in southern Minnesota in 2005.

Glen Stubbe / Star Tribune

The pig chases are still happening in other places around the country, said Vaughan, who is based in Norfolk, Va. Events where a chicken or turkey is thrown into the air to be caught are much rarer, she added.

Some celebrations switched to alternatives like competitions to catch a greased watermelon, which Vaughan said was "actually quite funny to watch." But each year, it's a little less common for PETA to hear that people are chasing pigs.

"We are just hopeful, actually, that the fewer reports are indicative that the events are being phased out," she said.

Streff, who investigates reports of animal mistreatment in Minnesota, said that he will occasionally warn an event organizer against slicking up a swine and setting it loose.

"Every now and then, a small carnival [or] a younger generation of carnival operators aren't familiar" with the law, Streff said. Animals are still part of some fair events, like pigs that race against each other, but they have to participate at their own leisure, without the pressure of a chase, he added.

Pigs raced at the Washington County Fair in 2013.
Pigs raced at the Washington County Fair in 2013.

Jerry Holt / Star Tribune

Minnesota's obscure pig-protection law, which carries a misdemeanor penalty, seems to have rarely reached the courts. Kyle Christopherson, a spokesman for the state's judicial branch, said there was no record of the greased pig statute being prosecuted since 2010.

One incident did test the law, however. In 1980, the Northern Minnesota Pork Producers Association's "Pork Days" in Thief River Falls ended in charges for four men who organized a pig wrestle, according to a report in the Star Tribune. Teams were supposed to catch a 250-pound swine and put the animal in a barrel.

A judge in Pennington County threw out the case against one of the men, however, because there was no grease applied to the pig.

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Correction: Previous versions of this article misstated Jim Heynen’s city of residence.