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ANIMAL MAGNETISM

The youth exhibiting livestock at this year's Florida State Fair obviously love their charges. But they also are clear about one thing: Most of these animals are just a link in the food chain.

Before deep-fried Mars Bars and Twinkies, even before corn dogs and funnel cakes, there were pigs, cows and chickens. The livestock exhibitions are the real food chain, linking past Florida State Fairs, which began in 1904, to the 2008 edition that opens today and continues through Feb. 18. - This year more than 1,200 Floridians ranging in age from 8 years to high school seniors are participating in the Youth Livestock Program. Many of them have learned life lessons along with life skills in the process of raising the animals, which can be admired throughout the fair's run. - "It's an education they get nowhere else," says Vina Jean Banks, director of agribusiness for the Florida State Fair Authority. "It teaches responsibility, responsibility for caring for another living creature." - It's Charlotte's Web, rewritten thousands of times with new voices, new characters. And, in most real-life cases, no Charlotte to save the day. - "We teach the students that the animals are not pets," Banks says. - The popularity of specific animals varies from year to year - sometimes it's rabbits, sometimes it's goats, Banks says. And there are categories that aren't "livestock" in the traditional sense, dogs, for example. - She also said that many of the livestock are "production" rather than "market" animals, meaning the first type gets to go forth and multiply, returning home to procreate future generations. The market animals, well, they eventually go forth in Styrofoam and plastic. - "It's part of life," said Banks, "producing food. So many youngsters don't understand that." - But for now, the animals are all stars, on display at the fair's exhibition barns. - The State Fair is a place to fill yourself up. And find something fulfilling, too. Here are four young presenters with their animal charges and some thoughts on their experiences.

Kristen Venable

Age: 10

Animal: Isabella, a Great Dane

School AND CLUB: Northside Christian School, Crazy 4 Canines 4-H Club, St. Petersburg

Tell us about your animal.

She focuses her attention on my mom, so sometimes (Mom) has to hide in order for Isabella to focus on me.

How long have you been raising animals?

About four years.

What keeps you going?

I like competing against older people.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

I want to be a veterinarian so I can work with animals.

Parting words: Sometimes I get nervous when I'm competing with Bella.

On the cover

Hailey Huffman

Age: 8

Animal: Thing One, a goat, photographed with Dot, a baby goat.

School AND CLUB: Chocachatti Elementary School, Klassic Kritters 4-H Club, Brooksville

Tell us about your animal.

Thing One is very curious and can do some amazing things. Once, when he was young, he did a backflip over his brother (named Thing Two).

How long have you been raising animals?

About one year.

What keeps you going?

What they do and how they act is always surprising me. It is really fun and it helps me get to know the animals better.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

I want to be a vet because I love animals and I know how to take care of them when they get sick.

Parting words: (The livestock competition) is not about winning. It's about having fun. And I have lots of fun.

Jenna Ferreira

Age: 17

Animal: Ramona Cash, a Himalayan Doe rabbit, left, photographed with a baby rabbit

School AND CLUB: Pasco High School, Future Farmers of America, Dade City

Tell us about your animal.

I picked her out because last year no one else had her breed at the state fair and I thought she was really pretty.

How long have you been raising animals?

Four years.

What keeps you going?

This is pretty much the only thing I like in school.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

I plan to go to the University of Florida, major in agriculture education and minor in animal science. I'd like to be an ag teacher and own my own livestock. My ag teachers really have changed my life and the way I think about a lot of things.

Parting words: At some of these shows, there's these hard-core people with their rabbits stacked on big fancy wagons with vacuums and blowers and brushes and spray bottles and grooming tables. I'm not like those crazy people. I have simple rabbits.

Cameron Alsup

Age: 14

Animal: Archie, a steer

School AND CLUB: Martinez Middle School, Future Farmers of America, Lutz

Tell us about your animal.

I didn't know that they could be so nice to you. I thought they would always buck and stuff but I can even pet his head and he won't flip out.

How long have you been raising animals?

This is my first year.

What keeps you going?

You can earn money with the points you get and I plan to buy a really nice four-wheeler.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

I'd like to own a fish farm in Georgia and raise catfish to sell to markets.

Parting words: I'm in it for the money and adventure!

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