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Fair questions

You can't be serious, people said, when I announced my intention to spend the better part of the weekend at the Maryland State Fair. True, I no longer had small children. Who, then, would be clamoring for more tickets to go on more rides, more cash to buy more deep-fried snacks?

Therein lies the error. The fair is not about the rides and the greasy food — at least not to me. If you want rides, go to Hershey Park. The State Fair is an agricultural festival. It's all about the animals.

The midway teemed with people, sandwiched between the glitz of the rides and the food vendors. Breathless voices from flushed faces ordered deep-fried Oreos with chocolate sauce, deep-fried Twinkies with strawberry sauce, deep-fried candy bars, and even deep-fried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Children squealed for more money to try one more time to win the big stuffed clown or the inflatable dolphin.

Inside the Cow Palace, in the corner set aside for the birthing center, a different kind of squealing pierced the excited murmurs of the waiting crowd — the squealing of newborn piglets. For three hours, I sat spellbound, my eyes darting from the laboring pig directly in front of me, suckling her seven live newborns (she'd also delivered two stillborns), to the cow in the next pen, heaving with the effort of her contractions, slight panic in her big brown eyes. Straight ahead, the pig grunted and expelled something that was not a piglet. A chorus of "Eews" rose from the audience as an animal sciences student, attending to the pig, held up something that looked like a string of sausages, grinned, and said, "It's the placentas."

"What's a placenta?" a small boy asked his mother. The mother pretended not to hear. Aren't the piggies cute? Look at how pink they are, all except for the one with the black and grey spots. Look at their flat little noses. The child tugged at his mother's sleeve. "Mommy, what's a placenta?"

The mother smiled. "Johnny, do you want to go get a corn dog now?" The child looked from his mother to the pig with her piglets, indecisive, until the mother tugged him by the hand out of the Cow Palace, murmuring about ice cream and fresh-squeezed lemonade.

But the rest of us remained transfixed, trying to take in the birth scenes all around us. I considered moving to the other side of the birthing center, where a new pregnant pig had just been led, but the student attending "our" pig suddenly gasped and said, "Look at this!" Buried in the birth matter, a small dark lump fell to the ground.

"Is it poop?" a little girl asked.

"No," the student answered, staring at the brown lump in awe. "It's a fossilized fetus." She turned it over in her hand, opening and closing the tiny jaw. "All the soft tissue — the organs and muscle — get reabsorbed and all that's left is the bones. It probably died about halfway through the pregnancy."

Any residual questions about the fossilized piglet fell silent on our lips, as two bony hooves appeared just below the tail of the laboring cow, and, assisted by metal chains, her calf slithered onto the fresh straw. The cow bit at the umbilical cord and licked her coal-black baby, then turned abruptly and ate the placenta, right there in front of the horrified crowd. The amniotic sac, still filled with fluid, emerged below the cow's tail and hung there, pendulous, fluids gushing out around it.

A professor began to field questions.

"Can't you pull that thing off the cow so we don't have to look at it?" a woman wanted to know.

"The cow will expel it in her own good time. If you can't bear to look at it, then don't."

"Did my mommy have to bite me loose and lick me clean?" a young boy asked. The parents began to snicker.

"Don't laugh," the professor admonished. "This is your child's first experience with birth. You brought him here to see something wonderful, but what he just saw may have been both disgusting and scary to him." To the boy, he said, "Animal births are similar to human births in many ways, and different in others. Human mothers labor just like the cow, and they squeeze the baby out just like the cow. But human babies are not removed with chains, and they are not cleaned by licking. They are wiped clean with cloths, just like if you were taking a bath."

"But did she poop me out, too?" The boy's parents were no longer laughing. In fact, they seemed quite afraid of the answer.

"Well, no, but the cow didn't poop her baby out either," the professor explained. "Females have different holes for poop and for babies, just like you have different holes for poop and for pee."

The boy seemed satisfied, but I wondered what kinds of questions he would continue to ask his parents, and how they would respond. I had seen a lot that had overwhelmed me in the past two days at the birth center, and I'd delivered three babies of my own. My head was full of questions I'd heard from the swarms of children present, and their parents' awkward attempts to answer — or avoid — them.

Why, I wondered, would a parent take young children to witness a birth and not prepare them for the blood they would see? Not be willing to answer their questions? Not expect questions to be asked?

In a society where parents expose their children to sexual innuendos (if not blatant sex) through careless television viewing and think nothing of it, where young girls show up at school in revealing clothing meant for nightclubs, and where teenagers give birth to babies at an alarming rate, it's hard to imagine that a simple explanation of a placenta as "the thing that nourishes the baby inside the mother" would be somehow inappropriate or shameful. A parent I observed had no qualms about allowing a child to watch piglets slither out of a pig's vagina, only to exclaim in embarrassment, "Tommy, shhh!" when the child observed (aloud) that "the mommy pig has boobies."

Why is it OK to invite sexual curiosity through today's myriad of media choices, yet label the simplest facts of life — such as how a baby is nourished — as taboo?

Inside the Cow Palace, the newborn calf folded its legs under itself, pushing up a few inches from the straw before flopping back down. The children pointed and stared, giggled and clapped. They'd forgotten about the placenta and the gushing of bloody fluids from the cow; they no longer cared that she licked the blood and slime from her baby. They were swept up in the wonder of the newborn calf.

Outside, I knew, children were still pleading with their parents for one more ride, and vendors still hawked their fried creations. Many of the parents in the Cow Palace now wished they had remained outside with their youngsters, eating funnel cakes topped with powdered sugar.

Lauren Eisenberg Davis, coordinator of the Maryland Writers Association Nonfiction Critique Group, is a computer scientist by day and a musician, artist and writer in her leisure time. Her works have appeared in both literary and technical publications. Her e-mail is

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