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The calls to shut down a church's pig wrestling event piled up on Friday, but St. Patrick Parish in rural Outagamie County has no intention of canceling its long-standing event.

We're continuing on, said Ken Bilgrien, deacon at St. Patrick. It's our annual festival.

RELATED: Police will monitor pig wrestling protest

The Roman Catholic church's Pig Rassle has drawn the ire of people from across the country who want Sunday's event in Stephensville to be called off. On Friday, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals joined the charge and sent a letter to Bilgrien, appealing to his Christianity and urging him to call it off.

We learned from Jesus that just because something is legal doesn't necessarily make it right. While Wisconsin's anti-cruelty laws prohibit treating any animal in a cruel manner or allowing a fight between an animal and a person, my appeal to you is based not on the law but on compassion, states the letter that was signed by Sarah Withrow King, PETA's director of Christian Outreach and Engagement.

Pig wrestling is a part of the community's 44th annual Roundup Days, a fundraiser for the parish. The event includes Mass, dinner, parade, raffles and a live band. Stephensville is an unincorporated community about 15 miles northwest of Appleton.

As of Friday afternoon, an online petition at change.org had more than 48,000 signatures calling for the cancellation of the Pig Rassle. The petition, posted by Global Conservation Group of Watertown, says the pigs are punched in the face, kicked, body-slammed, jumped on, yelled at and thrown into a bucket.

RELATED: Change.org petition

RELATED: St. Patrick Parish's statement

It also calls the Pig Rassle illegal animal fighting and cites Wisconsin law on crimes against animals.

Shirley Manson, lead singer of the rock band Garbage that was formed in Madison, and Melissa Tedrowe, the state director of The Humane Society of the United States, both issued statements criticizing the event.

Bilgrien disputes the claims and a statement issued by the church says the parish doesn't condone animal abuse.

Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson came to the defense of the church Friday, saying agriculture is a major focus in the state and a number of communities use animals to help celebrate. He's been attending the roundup since he became the county executive, but has never watched the Pig Rassle. He plans to attend on Sunday.

This is closer to Little House on the Prairie than WWE wrestling, Nelson said.

All of the publicity, negative or not, may be a blessing in disguise for the fundraising event and the church may see a record turnout because of it, Nelson said.

The Outagamie County Sheriff's Department will be keeping an eye on a church's pig wrestling event. Capt. Mike Jobe doesn't anticipate it will draw a big protest, but says deputies will step in if tensions rise.

What they're doing is not illegal, Jobe told Post-Crescent Media Friday. We'll be monitoring the situation and assessing. I'm not going to have a standing army up there to protect the pig wrestlers. We'll react to whatever presents itself.

Jobe also downplayed a threat against church members. It was sent in a private message to the Global Conservation Group's Facebook account Thursday night and was reported to the authorities.

Jobe said the threat was assessed and not found to be credible. He saw it as an attempt by the group to cause fear so the event will be shut down.

The Pig Rassle is one of the Roundup Days' most popular events, Bilgrien said. In a mud pit, teams have 45 seconds to touch some part of a pig to the top of a barrel. Local farmers lend pigs to the event and a different pig is used by each team. The fire department hoses mud off the pigs once the 45 seconds is up. Water misters and shade are also used to keep the animals cool.

Due to the state's pig disease-control rules, once the animal leaves the farm it cannot return, so all the pigs used in the event will go to market on Monday, Bilgrien said.

While pig wrestling events occur in other parts of Wisconsin and across the country, Global Conservation Group started the change.org online petition after receiving a couple of complaints about it, said Jordan Turner, president of the group.

We looked at other pig wrestling matches that are just like theirs and we looked at what happens in those games and we applied it to this event, because they're all pretty much the same, Turner said. They all involve the pig being put in or on a barrel.

The group was surprised to find out the Pig Rassle was hosted by a church, an entity associated with compassion, Turner said.

That's definitely what caught our attention in this case, Turner said. The goal is to get the event canceled because it poses a pretty serious safety risk to both the animals and the people involved. The parish makes all participants sign a waiver.

Carl Pennie, who attends Mass at St. Patrick's, called the whole situation really ridiculous. He lives in Menasha, but grew up in the church and has watched the Pig Rassle many times.

What we're doing at Stephensville at the Roundup the Pig Rassle, is a fun-filled event. If it wasn't a fun-filled event, it wouldn't take place and it wouldn't have lasted for 44 years. People walk out of there and they're just laughing, they're hysterical, Pennie said. If they were criticized for it, I tell you what, they wouldn't draw the people that they did for 44 years.

Holly Meyer: 920-993-1000, ext. 426, or hmeyer@postcrescent.com; on Twitter @HollyAMeyer

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