State attorney general may put an end to state fair's tradition of betting on gerbils

Posted: Tuesday, August 19, 2003

ANCHORAGE - For decades, people attending the Alaska State Fair have gambled on "rat" races, a game of chance in which bettors try to guess which hole a gerbil will run down as he slowly spins on a wheel.

But a new legal opinion under review in the attorney general's office could put an end to gambling on animals.

The opinion by Dan Branch, a state assistant attorney general, came out in November. It was prompted by a periodic review of the regulations that cover the state's limited legal gambling.

Branch's opinion said all forms of gambling are illegal in Alaska, unless the Legislature makes an exception.

"The list of allowable charitable gaming activities includes bingo, pull-tab games, raffles. ... It does not include hamster games or rat races," according to the opinion.

The opinion has left the Palmer Elks Lodge, which operates the popular rat race game at the fair, scrambling to prove it has been rat racing since before statehood. If it can dig up some documentation of pre-1959 rat racing, it might get to continue.

Rat racers are not the only animal gamblers who have run up against the state. The Soldotna Veterans of Foreign Wars, after 13 years, has had to shut down its chicken scat game, the object of which was to bet on the spot a chicken will use in heeding the call of nature.

The term rat race is misleading. "It originally started out with rats, but then the rats would bite," said Rollie Vasanoja, lodge secretary for the Palmer Elks. "So they went to gerbils."

The game is more a roulette wheel than a race. The gerbil is placed on a wheel that somebody "turns real slow," Vasanoja said. The wheel is full of colored holes, and people place bets on what color hole the animal will choose to duck into to exit the wheel.

According to revenue reports the Elks filed with the state, the 2002 net proceeds from the rat race at the fair were $10,088.

Larry Meyers, deputy tax director in the state Revenue Department, said he does not know if the state is going to take a look at whether chicken-poop betting is legal.

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