For $1, a fair-goer received 10 chances to win a goldfish -- all thecontestant had to do was toss a pingpong ball into a pint-size fishbowl.
The game was besieged by people, young and old, all trying toleave the Sykesville Fireman's Park with more than a stuffed animal and stuffed belly.
About 100 were successful each night, said a game operator, who refused to give his name.
"The kids enjoy it," the man said, as he gathered balls for the next eager competitor. "People tell us about the fish that they have from years before -- and they're getting bigger."
Sykesville is not the only carnival where living creatures arethe rewards for a successful attempt in a game of chance. Across thecounty, goldfish, bunny rabbits and other small animals are popular prizes at game booths.
"The live animals are an attraction -- there's no doubt about it," said Nicky Ratliff, director of the Carroll County Humane Society. But, she said, "They shouldn't be viewed as novelties or toys. They're living, breathing things, and they should notbe given away as a prize."
Under state law "a person may not giveaway any live animal, equine or bird as a prize for, or an inducement to enter any contest, game, or other competition," without prior approval by Maryland's Secretary of Agriculture Wayne A. Cawley Jr. Violators can be fined $500.
So far this year, Cawley made two such exceptions in Carroll County -- in Taneytown and in Hampstead -- said Harold Kanarek, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
Ratliff is not alone in her condemnation of live prizes. The Humane Society, which enforces laws regulating animals in Carroll, receives numerous calls each year from residents unhappy about the treatment of the creatures, she said.
One concerned resident brought her complaints to the county Agriculture Commission, which advises the Board of County Commissioners on agriculture issues.
"If that thing'salive and breathing, it should be treated like something alive and breathing," said Catherine E. Rauschenberg, the project leader for theCarroll County 4-H Rabbit Club for the past 23 years.
As a resultof residents' complaints, the Agriculture Commission, in conjunctionwith the County Commissioners, sent a letter to Cawley asking him not to allow exception requests in Carroll, said William R. Powel, executive secretary of the Agriculture Commission.
But the AgricultureDepartment's counsel says Cawley cannot legally grant the commissioners' request, Kanarek said.
"We can't legally say, 'Oh, well, because you live in Carroll County this law doesn't apply to you,' " Kanarek said. "It would be discrimination against one county."
The commission also sent letters to town managers, the school board, the Carroll County Farm Museum director and fire company presidents, informing them of the state law and the actions taken to not allow exceptions in Carroll, Powel said.
"It's not a complaint about the carnivalitself or the people who give (the animals) away," Powel said. "The action was taken because citizens have reported the abuse of animals by the people who won them."
"It's a pretty cut and dry issue," said Commissioner President Donald I. Dell. "People win these prizes who really don't want the animal or the pet, and in some instances the animals don't get proper care."
Some people who play the games have no plans to keep the animal, and often don't have tanks, cages or food, Ratliff said.
"It's a spontaneous thing," she said. "They're not necessarily interested in having goldfish or a rabbit for any length of time."
Instead, people use the bags that hold fish as waterballoons, and the goldfish are seen "flopping around in the parking lot" at the end of the night, Ratliff said. In addition, the fish areexposed to the heat of the sun's rays and lack oxygen if they are left in the bags more than about 15 hours.
"If you want a goldfish you know where to get them," she said. "And they don't cost much."
At The Pet Shop in Westminster, the feeder goldfish given out at fairs sell for $1 a dozen, said Mary E. Scott, the store owner's 23-year-old daughter.
Ralph V. Knox, owner of the Sykesville game, said hepays between 4 cents and 15 cents each for the fish.
Jamie A. Nelson, whose young daughter was holding the two fish the family won andwould add to their aquarium, agreed that not all of the competitors intended to care for their prizes.
"The average person doesn't have a fish tank," said the 21-year-old Sykesville resident. "They just do it (play the game) for the kids."
Rather than taking the fish home and letting it die, Nelson said, people should give the fish backto the game operators.
"If they don't want them, I don't see whatthey play the game for," said Knox, who has been in the business forabout 30 years. Knox, a Taneytown resident, said he received an exception to give out goldfish at the fair.
One reason people want theliving prize could be that a goldfish or rabbit is more of an attraction to a teen-age couple than a stuffed animal, Ratliff suggested.
Eleven-year-old Stacey A. Lefebvre of Sykesville said she has no problem with game operators giving fish as prizes.
But, she said, "Idon't think they should give out rabbits."
Ratliff disagreed: "How much different is a rabbit from a fish? Where do you draw the line?
"You shouldn't give life away as a prize," Ratliff said. When youdo, she said, "Everything that 4-H and the Agriculture Commission stands for is violated."