The sign, handwritten on a torn piece of a grocery bag early yesterday, was attached to the side of the pen where a pink-and-black sow lay on her side in obvious discomfort. "Hi. My name is Spot!!" it read. "I should be having piglets sometime soon!"
Soon must have a different meaning for pigs.
She lay there for hours as people came and went, spending a lot of time watching her expectantly. More and more fairgoers found this small corner of the Cow Palace at the Maryland State Fair in Timonium, tucked between the display of Christmas trees and the exhibit where for 50 cents people could try their hand at milking a cow. She was the prime attraction yesterday at the fair's Animal Birthing Center, where crowds have been known to wait and wait and wait to catch a glimpse of pigs and cows delivering their young.
"I bet you're waiting to see some pigs born," Tom Hartsock, an animal science professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, said, microphone in hand, shortly after noon. "Hopefully, we'll accommodate you -- in an hour or two or three or four. It's worth waiting for -- I don't know for how long."
The fair's birthing center has grown in popularity since it was introduced three years ago. Fairgoers have shown so much interest that organizers are trying to extend its run at the fair. Traditionally it has been presented during the final weekend, culminating on Labor Day, as it will today. If the logistics can be worked out, plans are in the works to operate the birthing center for the 11-day run of the fair, said Guy Hohenhaus, the center's veterinarian.
As Saturday night turned into yesterday morning, a group of 40 or so people -- including about a dozen young children -- stayed in the birthing center waiting for a sow named Dusty to finish delivering her litter. The center was permitted by fair officials to stay open until about 3 a.m., long past the 11 p.m. closing time. But people were transfixed and didn't want to leave. In the end, nine piglets emerged, one of them stillborn.
"There's something about birthing and the early life process that's fascinating to people," Hohenhaus said. "There's an awful lot of repeat customers. We could have ceiling seating and they'd be full."
It is especially popular with urban and suburban residents. "I think it's a neat thing for my children to see -- the miracle of something being born, up close," said Mary Clark Gibbons, who brought her three young daughters from Lutherville. "We don't live on a farm, so we'd probably not get to see it otherwise."
The cows come from a dairy farm in Carroll County; the pigs from Baltimore County. The farmers pretty much know when their animals will be ready to give birth and they bring them over when it's nearing that time. Cows give birth about once a year -- a cow's gestational phase is about as long as a human's -- so on farms with large herds, one is always about to be due.
Billie, a 4-year-old Holstein, was the next animal expected to give birth. Yesterday was her due date, and -- "to make sure we stick to the script," the veterinarian said -- labor had been induced the day before.
But by mid-afternoon, the cow looked as she had all day -- and no closer to giving birth.
In the pig pen, it was another story. Spot was ready. She was just slow. Hartsock entertained those gathered around, answering all kinds of questions to keep boredom from setting in. "The most frequent question is, 'When, when, when?'" he told them. "The most frequent answer is: 'What the heck do I know?'"
About 1:05 p.m., University of Maryland animal science graduate student Rachael Quinn -- chosen because she has the smallest wrists -- gave Spot an internal examination to see how things were progressing. She felt a piglet's nose and estimated that babies would emerge within the hour.
"So far, we've established that there really are pigs inside her," Hartsock said. "After a few hours, people stop believing us."
An hour passed with no piglets. But people stayed. Spot got a hormone injection to help about 2:10 p.m. No piglets. Another Maryland student, Jenny Krueger, examined her at 2:15 p.m.
At 2:25 p.m., she pulled out the first of Spot's piglets.
"It's a she," Hartsock proclaimed.
And the crowd stayed for more.