FERNDALE, Wash., Feb. 11 (UPI) -- Animal advocates in Washington state are calling on a school district to cancel an annual event stretching back four decades: a game of "donkey basketball."
The Ferndale School District, which has held the annual basketball games featuring students, teachers and others riding on the backs of donkeys for 42 years, announced it will continue the tradition Saturday night, despite objections from animal groups.
The Whatcom Humane Society posted an "action alert" on Facebook calling on supporters to contact district officials about canceling the event, which raises funds for the Future Farmers of America.
"The donkeys involved, can be subjected to a variety of abuses including being pushed, pulled, kicked or punched by riders (most of whom are very inexperienced when it comes to animal handling/riding)," the post said.
The group said the events "encourage our communities to exploit animals for profit and teach our children that animal abuse is acceptable."
Whatcom Humane Society Director Laura Clark said it was "disappointing" to hear the district planned to continue the tradition.
"I know the donkeys wear special shoes so they don't slip or harm the gym floor," Clark told KOMO-TV. "But that doesn't mean they won't get scared, they won't try and run, they won't knock into one another, they won't hurt a person, hurt themselves, hurt another animal. There are just so many dangers."
Laura Henderson, executive director of the animal advocacy group Pasado's Safe Haven, said videos of the district's previous donkey basketball events show the animals displaying signs of fear.
"It's clear that these animals are frightened. They're struggling," she told KING-TV. "I've heard the word 'tradition' used. I think tradition, in this case, is just an excuse for bad behavior that's gone on for far too long."
Superintendent Linda Quinn said she first heard of the Humane Society's objections less than a week ago. She said her research indicates the company running the donkey basketball games treats its animals well.
"Donkey basketball is important to our students and our community," she said.
Quinn has invited the Humane Society to an event in March to debate the issues surrounding donkey basketball.
"We're just going to support the kids in the community and then we're going to turn it into a learning experience for kids," she said.
Quinn said protesters will not be barred from Saturday's game.
"What we've asked the protesters is to please respect and model for kids how to protest something in a civil way. And what we're demanding of our kids is they're respectful of the protestors," she said.