Animal group presses State Fair
Cal Expo officials call request to ban rodeo events unnecessary
By Todd Milbourn -- Bee Staff Writer
July 24, 2006
The crowd of rodeo fans watched in dismay as the bull writhed in the
dirt. The half-ton animal had broken his back chasing see-sawing cowboys during an event called "Cowboy Teeter-Totter."
"He was spitting stuff out of his mouth, rolling around, trying to
get his legs to move," recalled Miles Young of Pleasant Hill, a retired state fish and game warden who attended the California State Fair that day in 2004. "The crowd saw the whole thing and went dead silent."
The announcer, Young recalled, continued as if everything was okay,
saying over the loudspeaker that sometimes bulls pull a muscle.
But the bull wasn't OK. His back was broken. The bull was hauled off
in a rodeo company ambulance. He was shot dead the next day at a ranch near Marysville.
Animal rights leaders say the case highlights the danger animals
face at rodeos.
As the 153rd California State Fair gets ready to open next month at
CalExpo, animal groups are pushing for an official ban of events such as elephant rides and the "Cowboy Teeter-Totter," which they say put animals at an unreasonable risk.
"Some of these practices are simply abusive," said Eric Mills of
Action for Animals, an Oakland-based animal rights group that has spearheaded rodeo reform legislation in recent years. "This is not the CalExpo state fair this is the California State Fair -- you're supposed to be representing the citizens here. Citizens don't want to see animals harmed."
Fair organizers say such criticism is misplaced -- the fair didn't
have elephant rides or the teeter-totter event in 2005 and there are no plans to have them this year. They say critics are focusing on an isolated incident to fuel a larger agenda: A ban on rodeos.
"Let's just say they're out of touch," said Norb Bartosik, president
of the State Fair board of directors.
Bartosik said the fair takes great care to ensure animals are
treated humanely. For instance, he said animals are kept in clean, well-maintained environments. A vet is present 24 hours.
"The fair is all about the promotion and education of agriculture
and showcasing livestock," Bartosik said. "That's what we do and we think we do it very well."
In an era of strip malls, corporate jobs and interstates, rodeos are
a link to California's cowboy past. California has 43 rodeos sanctioned by the sport's largest body, plus countless high school and college rodeos and charreadas, or Mexican rodeos. Rodeo events like bull-riding are often featured at county fairs.
Animal rights groups like Mills' say they aren't out to ban rodeos --
they simply want organizers to make sure animals are treated with care.
They've had some success.
Action for Animals was instrumental in getting a state law in 1994
that banned las manganas, a charreada tradition in which charros trip a horse by roping its front legs. A 2000 state law requires a veterinarian to be on site at all rodeos and to report any injuries to the state.
Mills' group is working with the Humane Society of the United States
and Animal Switchboard, a San Francisco animal rights group, to put pressure on the fair. The coalition has received letters of support from two ex-officio members of the fair board: Senator Deborah Ortiz and Assemblyman Dave Jones.
It's hard to tell how dangerous rodeos are for animals because there
hasn't been a major independent study.
Cindy Schonholtz, animal welfare coordinator for the Colorado
Springs-based rodeo association, said the chance of a rodeo animal getting hurt during a particular performance is "less than five-hundreths of 1 percent." She bases that figure on a 2004 survey of rodeo companies.
The state has received 10 rodeo injury reports since 2002. But Gina
Bayless, enforcement manager at the state veterinary medical board, said she suspects many injuries go unreported. She said the law is vague and many rodeo producers are unfamiliar with it.
"This is a problem," said Bayless. "I mean, ultimately this law was
passed so we could compile statistics."
One of the most publicized cases was the death of a bull at the 2000
Grand National Rodeo at San Francisco's Cow Palace.
The bull hurtled into the metal base of a teeter-totter, snapped its
neck, lost consciousness and had to be put down. The teeter-totter was the same one used at the fair in 2004.
Called the "Cowboy Teeter-Totter" or the "Bucking Bull Teeter-
Totter," the contraption is featured by Marysville's Flying U Rodeo Company at rodeo productions throughout the state. It's basically a large, spinning metal apparatus that allows four cowboys to bounce up and down as a bull, taunted by a rodeo clown, gives charge.
Cotton Rosser, Flying U's longtime owner and a legend in rodeo
circles, said he added padding to the teeter-totter after the Cow Palace incident, and that now it's as safe as any other rodeo event.
Rosser said most rodeo companies take extra precautions to make sure
their bulls aren't harmed.
After all, it's in their best interest. Bulls are increasingly
expensive, often worth $10,000 or more.
"You injure 'em, you pay for 'em," said Rosser, who has dealt with
animal rights activists for decades and invited some of them to tour his Marysville ranch.
Mills said he believes Rosser has the animals' best interest at
heart. Still, he maintains rodeo events like the teeter-totter are simply too dangerous and unfair for the animals.
"It's not a sport, it's an exercise in machismo and man's supremacy
over beast," said Mills. "In a real sport, competitors choose to be there and are equally matched. That's not what this is."
Bartosik said he's miffed by Mills' demands, since the fair no
longer uses Rosser's teeter-totter and hasn't had elephant rides for four years.
"Why would I recommend to the board of directors a ban of something
that doesn't happen at the fair?" Bartosik asked. "There's no reason for it.
Mills, who is also seeking a resurrection of an animal welfare
committee, among other things, sees it differently.
"The board could keel over and bring these events back," Mills
said. "You need to have things in print for continuity".
Whatever the policy, Bartosik said, the fair is never going to be
able to eliminate injuries entirely.
"It's unfortunate, but livestock have injuries that happen to them,"
"You could have a champion steer, it could step funny and bang up
its heel. It may have to be put down for that. There's not really much you can do."
Young recalled that day at the fair in 2004.
He said the crowd of 300 or so was on hand, eating popcorn, drinking
lemonade and enjoying the afternoon show when they heard a big thump.
Young said he was horrified to watch as the bull rolled around and
the announcer tried to make light of the situation.
He became frustrated when he read the official report. The report,
written by a veterinarian who was there, said the bull was injured from "normal animal behavior."
Young wondered how chasing cowboys around a teeter-totter
was "normal animal behavior" so he sent a letter to Mills about what he saw.
Young said he's not especially interested in the fair's official
policy. He just wants the fair to make sure that something like what he witnessed doesn't happen
After all, the fair is a great way to showcase animals
"Why should we patronize these guys if they're allowing this to go
on?" asked Young, who hasn't been back to the fair since the incident.
"They've got to be able to do better."