a rodeo day, Hayward's Rowell Ranch is where urban Alameda County magically
fades into Reagan Country. It is a place where teenage girls stuff Stars-and-Stripes
hankies into the rear pockets of their jeans, where people name horses
Smokeless Sam or Sundowner Snuff after chewing tobacco. It is a community
event where the booths invite you to buy beef jerky or pink cowboy hats
for your little girl, demonstrate your prowess on the chin-up bar or the
mechanical bull, or join the National Rifle Association or the Marines.
On this particular May afternoon, the sun is high and the smell of charbroiled
burgers wafts over the crowd as the rodeo queens, ablaze in coronas of
ringleted hair and golden fringe, gallop into the arena to kick off the
show. The stentorian announcer warns the crowd: "We're about to have
a whole lot of fun. If you're not ready to do that then you're in the
It's hard to tell if Eric Mills is there to have a whole lot of fun. On
the outside he looks like the rest of the crowd, with his cowboy hat and
boots and deep tan. But inside he nurses a secret fantasy. He wishes he
had his own headset microphone, so he could hide behind a tree and call
the rodeo from the animals' point of view. "This hurts! I miss my
mama! Take me home!" he says, doing a mock voice-over.
This is not necessarily an idle threat. For more than two decades, Mills
has been a voice for creatures who cannot speak for themselves, tirelessly
lobbying local and state governments on their behalf. As the founder and
coordinator of Oakland-based Action for Animals, he is not averse to pulling
a stunt that will get his cause noticed. He has worn a horse costume to
hand out leaflets to rodeo-goers. He has transported a giant inflatable
kangaroo to the state capitol steps and climbed into its pouch in order
to protest a bill that would have allowed the import of kangaroo meat
and leather into California. He has rented airplanes to fly protest banners,
and marched in San Francisco's Gay Pride parade holding the unforgettable
sign "Queers for Steers."
Although Mills also puts a great deal of effort into helping animals with
wings or gills, it's his drive to protect the welfare of rodeo livestock
that has made him famous -- and in some circles, infamous. His direct,
forceful style has brought him both admirers and enemies, but one thing
is clear to all of them: Before Eric Mills, rodeo fell below many activists'
radar, escaping external scrutiny and therefore regulation. Now it's a
In fact, Mills' career as rodeo's toughest critic was launched from the
very set of bleachers where he is sitting today. In 1986, he attended
his first rodeo, a benefit held by the Hayward Police Officers Association,
expecting to enjoy the show. Instead, he says, that day changed his life
forever. "The first day I went, almost right away one of the bucking
horses caught his leg in the chute and broke it and was down in the middle
of the arena and could not get up," he remembers. "They sent
the handlers out there and they were kicking him and using electric prods
on him trying to get him to his feet. He finally did. It took a couple
of minutes and he was able to hobble out of the arena on his three legs.
No veterinarian present. About 45 minutes to an hour later somebody got
a cop's gun and shot the animal to death."
It got worse from there. During the calf-roping event, the first three
calves out of the chute ran headlong into the arena's metal rail fence;
Mills was worried that they'd broken their necks. "They had no signage
on the fence," he remembers. "Cattle are color-blind, and they
just see the field beyond and think they're home free."
But what really got Mills' attention was an event called steer-dressing,
in which three cowboys tried to wrestle a steer into a pair of women's
lace panties. "They're all rolling around in the dirt, the steer
is bawling, the cowboys are hollering, the crowd is cheering, and the
announcer -- I will never forget this because I wrote it down at the time,
bad grammar and all -- is saying to the audience, primarily children,
'Take him down, boys! Spread them legs! Get them panties down!'"
he recalls. "I said, 'My God, it's a gang rape.' That's the impression
it gave me. I was just horrified."
Mills was so horrified that he went straight to the Hayward city council
and police department, asking that future rodeos have a veterinarian on
site, as well as signage on the fence so animals wouldn't run into it.
He was promised that the changes would be made. But, Mills says, when
he returned the following year, "The first calf out of the chute
in the breakaway roping ran headlong into the fence. There was no signage.
He broke his nose and palate, and there was no vet on site. He finally
got there five hours later and said you could touch the calf's forehead
with his broken nose."
That got Eric Mills mad. And when Mills gets mad, laws get written.
Today's visitors to the Rowell Ranch are unlikely to see anything like
what Mills witnessed that day in 1986, largely because he has helped draft
virtually every law that currently governs the arena. The police association
rodeo was subsequently banned, and the ranch itself, which is governed
by the Hayward Area Recreation and Park District, now has what Mills believes
to be the most progressive rodeo policy in the nation. But he didn't stop
there. He went on to draft Alameda and Contra Costa counties' rodeo ordinances,
and then sponsored a steady stream of state bills. Thanks to Mills, California
is one of only two states that have rodeo regulation laws. (The other
one, go figure, is Rhode Island.)
Mills has been such a prodigious force for change that he has inadvertently
united his opponents against him. California also is home to another rodeo
circuit: Mexican-style rodeo, also known as the charreada. Although the
charreada is currently not classified by the state as a rodeo, and therefore
is not governed by state rodeo laws, it has not escaped Mills' influence
entirely. In 1994, Mills was the force behind California's passage of
a bill banning las manganas, or horse-tripping, one of the mainstays of
the Mexican rodeo. Charreada proponents complained that it was like taking
third base away from baseball; animal-rights activists hailed it as a
major legislative victory.
But spurred by such losses, lobbyists for the American cowboys and the
Mexican charros, historically less than brotherly, have launched a collaborative
effort within the last year to spike every Mills-led bill that's come
through Sacramento. Last year the charros sought the advice of American
rodeo lobbyists in beating back Mills' attempt to ban las colas, or steer-tailing,
another central feature of the charreada. This April, the two groups combined
forces to oppose a bill that would have required they give advance notice
of performances to local animal-control authorities.
The new partnership between the cowboys and the charros now threatens
to derail Mills' efforts to bring either style of rodeo under further
government supervision. Supporters of rodeo and charreada view Mills'
work as an incursion of big-city politics into time-honored rural traditions,
and worry that he and his ilk ultimately plan to banish rodeos and charreadas
from the state. But Mills, sitting in the stands at the Rowell Ranch rodeo,
says nothing could be further from the truth. There's a lot that he likes
about sport: the pageantry, the horsemanship, the community spirit. And
when you get down to it, he's been to so many rodeos in the last decade
and a half that he's developed a fan's appreciation for the sport, which
somehow exists alongside his concern for the animals' welfare. For example,
today's rodeo has been disappointing from the audience's point of view.
Most of the ropers have missed their targets, and many of the riders have
been thrown within feet of the chute; they're consoled with bottles of
Jack Daniel's lobbed to them from the announcer's booth. Mills shrugs,
"It's good for the animals."
But when a rider on a caramel-colored bull finally manages to make it
halfway across the arena, Mills catches his breath. "C'mon, cowboy,"
he urges quietly. "That's a good ride, if he can hang on." The
cowboy manages to cling to the bull, one arm waving in the air, until
the eight-second whistle blows signaling that his ride is over. The crowd
breaks into a roar as the pickup riders swoop in to rescue the cowboy
from the still-bucking bull. "That was a good one," Mills grins
at his neighbor, a sunburned woman with artificial flowers glued onto
her visor, who nods back appreciatively. "Seventy-eight," Mills
says, guessing the cowboy's score.
A moment later, the numbers go up on the board: 78.
"What did I tell you?" says Mills.
Although his critics write him off as a city slicker, Mills isn't really
a big-city guy. He was born in a small town in Kentucky and lived there
until moving to Louisville at age ten. His speech still retains a warm
southern accent and a host of down-home colloquialisms. Growing up around
his grandparents' farm, he felt a natural kinship with animals, became
an avid bird-watcher, and was a card-carrying member of the Audubon Society
by age ten. After graduating from the University of Kentucky, where he
studied Spanish, French, and art, Mills did a brief stint in the Peace
Corps, then moved to California to work an office job at UC Berkeley.
Mills eventually began working as a volunteer for environmental organizations
such as the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and the Earth Island Institute. But
the force that shaped his future as an animal-welfare activist was reading
Man Kind? Our Incredible War on Wildlife, written by Fund for Animals
founder Cleveland Amory, which described the hunting and trapping industries
in gruesome detail. "The more I found out, the more involved I got,"
Mills soon headed down to the fund's San Francisco office to lend a hand.
Virginia Handley, the fund's California coordinator, remembers very clearly
the day when Mills walked into her office more than two decades ago. He
was, after all, a man signing up for a cause predominantly supported by
women and, some might argue, taken less seriously as a result. "He's
been wonderful over the years, and active from that day forward,"
Handley says. "He is the most prolific activist I know, constantly
typing on his old electric typewriter."
He also turned out to be a prolific user of the fund's Xerox machine --
to know Mills is to quickly amass a huge pile of news clippings he thinks
you should read. Despite his taste for costume stunts, Mills relies heavily
on the activist's most classic tool: a near-constant stream of letters
to politicians and newspaper editors.
Mills formed an enduring friendship with Amory, but the fund was based
in San Francisco, and he and his friends thought the East Bay needed its
own advocacy group. In 1983, they founded the Animal Rights Connection,
but the group eventually split over a disagreement about whether it should
promote veganism. Mills felt that taking a more radical stance might alienate
potential allies, so he left to start his own group, which was named Action
For an organization with such a large legislative influence, Action for
Animals is surprisingly small-time. Mostly, it's Mills and whoever happens
to be along for the ride that day, although he has about 250 subscribers
to his Action for Animals newsletter. Mills' relationship with Fund for
Animals and its photocopier continues today in the form of a $500 monthly
stipend granted to him by the late Amory, while it was made clear that
Mills is not an employee and that no one should tell him what to do. That
stipend is Action for Animals' primary income source. The group's remaining
funding comes through occasional donations and newsletter subscription
fees. Mills is, as he describes himself, "a kept man," able
to devote himself to organizing full-time thanks to his partner of 25
years, postal worker Paul Meola.
During the early years of Action for Animals, Mills and his friends attempted
to take on issues of every stripe -- animal research, factory farming,
trapping, and hunting. "We were trying to do everything, which was
a mistake," he recalls. The weight of his subject matter nearly drove
him to despair. Mills says he was suicidal during the first two years
of running the group, partly because he spent so much time reading medical
literature depicting the fates of lab animals. "I didn't want to
be a member of a species that would do this to another group of animals,"
But Mills has since mellowed, according to Gary Templin, president of
the East Bay Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "He
has matured into somebody that realizes he has to win some battles to
eventually win the war and it's not a war every time," says Templin,
who has often worked with Mills over the years. "On the one hand
he's kind of a single practitioner and when he's on an issue he hammers
it," he says. "But I think he also has a network and has developed
respect over the years as being someone who doesn't tilt at windmills
and is not just a far-left animal activist. He picks his spots."
He's also developed a universalist philosophy -- that the abuse of animals
is deeply linked with the same domineering mindset that has subjugated
women, ethnic minorities, and gay people throughout history. One of his
prize possessions, which he has memorized word for word, is a letter sent
to him in 1990 by Cesar Chavez, in which the legendary farmworkers' union
leader wrote, "Cruelty, whether it is directed against human beings
or against animals, is not the exclusive province of any one culture or
community of people. Racism, economic deprival, dogfighting and cockfighting,
bullfighting, and rodeos are all cut from the same fabric: violence."
When Mills began to advocate for the welfare of rodeo animals, it was
hardly a high-profile cause. Nevertheless, both forms of rodeo are hugely
popular. The charreada is the national sport of Mexico and well-loved
throughout the southwestern United States. It originated in the 17th century
both as a rich man's sport and as a way for ranchers to get together to
brand and castrate their animals. The first federation was founded in
1923, and the sport quickly outgrew its patrician roots.
Meanwhile, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association says that at least
five thousand American-style rodeos are held in the country annually.
The association estimates that thirty million people attend rodeos that
it sponsors each year, and that this audience is growing. That's not even
counting the people who attend rodeo events hosted by high schools, colleges,
and amateur groups not sanctioned by the association.
Charreada proponents say that much of American-style rodeo was borrowed
from their practices. Both evolved from ranching practices developed to
control animals within the herd, or to cut them from the pack for branding
or medical treatment. Both require cowboys, or charros, to demonstrate
dexterity and speed. Both are primarily male sports. And both are considered
an exercise in national pride. "It's kind of a way to preserve the
lifestyle of the Old West," says Bob Fox, California lobbyist for
the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. Ramiro Rodriguez, the national
press secretary of the American Charro Association, concurs. "We
practice charreada as a form of identity," he says. "A charro
is like a Marine wearing his uniform."
Both sports celebrate rugged individualism. Contestants pay their own
entry fees, and the winner-takes-all system means that an unlucky cowboy
or charro may go home poorer than he arrived. Many who aren't members
of the association work without health insurance, and some pile into vans
and hit as many rodeos as they can in a weekend in order to make the job
pay off. "In the rodeo industry if you don't win, you don't get paid,"
Fox says. "And think about the travel expenses! Fourth of July weekend,
they call it 'Cowboy Christmas' -- they may compete in five or six rodeos
on that weekend."
For their fans and participants, both forms of rodeo possess a certain
macho thrill, something to do with the connection between man and beast
and the ability to dance with danger. "I myself have broken all my
fingers doing las colas, my saddle has broken, I fell under the horse,
my hip has dislocated twice," Rodriguez admits. "I can't really
tie my shoelaces any more because of that. But it's a rush. My saddle
is my executive chair, my rope is my keyboard, and my arena is my screen."
But despite their many similarities, American and Mexican rodeos exist
in very different universes. American rodeo is much wealthier than the
charreada; it's televised on ESPN and attracts high-profile sponsors such
as Marlboro, Dodge, Coors, Wrangler, Skoal, and Coca-Cola. A top contestant
can take home as much as $200,000 a year in prize money, not to mention
what they rake in from sponsorships. It's also a much more politically
savvy entity: the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association was established
in 1936 and employs professionals like Fox to lobby at the state level.
Charros, on the other hand, compete mainly for trophies and bragging rights.
In their quest for historic authenticity, modern charreadas not only require
participants to wear period costumes, but use only traditional wood and
leather saddles and woven grass ropes. Publicity comes mainly through
word of mouth and Spanish-language media, although Rodriguez does run
a popular Web site called MundoCharro.com. Many charreadas are hosted
at small family-owned lienzos, or arenas.
Charros say that while the American rodeo has the glitz, the charreada
has the grit. American-style bucking events have a time limit of eight
seconds, but in charreada there is no limit. "You ride until the
animal gives up or until the rider is thrown," Mills says. "It
can go on for several minutes at a time, so it's rougher on the animals
and probably the riders, too. The livestock used in the charreada is not
nearly as good athletically as American-style rodeo, and the cowboys are
not as professionally trained."
But from Mills' point of view, the most crucial difference between the
two is that they share only three events in common: bull-riding, team-roping,
and bareback bronc-riding. Because California law currently defines a
rodeo as having four of six listed rodeo events, charreadas are not bound
by state rodeo laws, and have evaded much of Mills' regulatory reach.
While California law currently
regulates American-style rodeo more tightly than it does charreadas, Mills
believes that both kinds of rodeo are equally dangerous to animals. His
critique generally focuses on individual events such as calf-roping (a
centerpiece of American-style rodeo) or las colas (a charreada tradition)
that he believes pose a very high risk of animal injury. But these events
are generally huge crowd-pleasers because of the derring-do involved in
performing them, and they are considered cornerstones of their respective
As a result, Mills says, both cowboys and charros turn a blind eye to
the risks posed to animals by their particular traditional events. "It's
very subjective," he says. "The cowboys think that the charreadas
are very cruel especially because of steer-tailing and horse-tripping.
The charros think American rodeo is far more cruel because of the calf-roping
and steer-wrestling, which they do not do. From the animal's point of
view, it's all cruel. This is just a day's amusement for the cowboys of
every stripe, but this is the animal's life."
It's hard to argue that when you have large animals moving at a high speeds,
gory accidents can happen. But because such a huge number of rodeos and
charreadas happen each year, many of them small and independent, it's
difficult to get a clear picture of how often they occur. One barometer
is the PRCA's annual injury survey, which only covers a sampling of PRCA-sanctioned
events, but there is disagreement over how to interpret these statistics.
The association's 2001 survey, the most recent available, tabulated 25
injuries at the 67 rodeos surveyed. Its 2000 survey found 38 injuries
at 57 rodeos. Animal advocates consider numbers like these and conclude
disapprovingly that between one third and two-thirds of rodeos end with
The way the PRCA looks at it, what's important is the ratio of injuries
to "exposures," or times an animal performs in the arena. Fox
says that when calculated this way, the injury rate at PRCA rodeos is
less than five hundredths of 1 percent. But Amy Rhodes, the Animals in
Entertainment specialist for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals,
says that estimate is highly suspect. "They always say they have
very few injuries, but there's no one fact-checking it. They don't show
specific instances," she says. And since rodeos are generally not
required to report injuries to animal control or other authorities, she
says, "because the participants and spectators are not likely to
be the ones to call PETA about it, unless it ends up in the media we typically
don't know about it."
Instead, the debate centers largely around anecdotal evidence compiled
by witnesses like Mills, listed on Web sites like PETA's Bucktherodeo.com,
or filmed in documentaries put out by groups like the Humane Society,
which showcase rodeos' worst moments. These are little more than bovine
snuff films, filled with images of animals breaking their legs, necks,
and backs, or gashing themselves running into fences. Sometimes network
television runs similar exposés. In 1993, when Los Angeles journalist
Christine Lund went undercover to film charreadas, she stunned the world
with slow-motion shots of horses crashing headfirst into the dirt or trying
desperately to vault over fences.
Even when animals aren't visibly injured, Rhodes says they may still be
hurt. "A lot of times the animals suffer internal bruising or hemorrhaging
and it may not be outwardly obvious," she says. Other hard-to-spot
injuries include bone fractures, muscle pulls, and ripped tendons or ligaments.
Animal-welfare advocates also find many routine rodeo practices to be
inhumane. "They use electric prods, bucking straps, spurs -- anything
to provoke these normally docile animals into aggressive behavior,"
Advocates are troubled, for example, by the use of five-thousand-volt
electric prods, or "hot shots," to make animals move. They say
cowboys sometimes resort to twisting the animals' ears or tails to get
them out of the chute. Horses are outfitted with a fleece-lined "flank
strap" around their midsection to encourage them to buck; while Fox
says it's a mild irritant like "tightening your belt too tight,"
Mills says animals sometimes get so frantic to get the strap off that
they don't look where they're going and "buck blind" into fences.
Some also object to the age and relative powerlessness of the animals
involved. For the calf-roping event in American-style rodeo, the animals
are only four or five months old. In calf-roping, a cowboy on horseback
lassos a running calf, bringing the animal to a standing halt. The cowboy
must then jump off his horse, run to the calf, pick it up and throw it
to the ground, tie three of its legs together, then jump back on his horse.
The event is timed, and the calf's legs must stay bound for at least six
seconds. Rodeo advocates say that when the event is done properly, the
calf is not injured by being thrown into the arena's soft dirt.
But things don't always go well. A "jerk-down" happens when
the calf goes flying and lands on its back; cowboys are disqualified when
this happens, and fined if it is determined they did it intentionally.
Nevertheless, jerk-downs are not uncommon. "Calf-roping is particularly
cruel," Rhodes says. "Oftentimes the calves will suffer broken
necks or legs when they're thrown to the ground. I've seen so many photos
of these baby animals' faces -- it's indescribable, they're in such pain
and so fearful. It's just unbelievable that anybody could find it entertaining."
But Cindy Schonholtz, animal welfare coordinator for the PRCA, says the
organization has sixty strict rules to prevent animal abuse, including
prohibiting sharpened spurs, requiring on-site vets at all rodeos, and
ensuring that cattle used in team-roping events wear wraps to protect
their horns. They allow the use of electric prods on chute-stalling horses
only on the hip and shoulder, where the animals have fewer nerve endings.
And they say that the animals they use are bred to buck, not forced into
it. "You can't make a horse or bull buck if they don't want to,"
she says. "If they were in pain or didn't want to do it, they wouldn't
She also points out that rodeo staff have a financial incentive for keeping
their animals in good condition; stock contractors who rent animals to
rodeos depend on having healthy animals, and cowboys' own horses are dear
to their hearts. "To think an individual is going to pay $50,000
for a rope horse and then abuse it is mind-numbing," Fox says. "Some
of them take better care of their horses than some people take care of
their kids. If their horses get hurt, they're out of business."
Mark Franco, national director of the Federación de Charros, says
that no animal cruelty suits have ever been filed against a lienzo charro
in California. "Contrary to what Mills and a lot of activists think,
we charros do care about the animals. We have very strict rules not to
hurt them," he says. Franco is also one of the pillars of the East
Bay's charreada circuit; his family has run the Camperos del Valle lienzo
in Sunol since 1974. He chalks much of the criticism up to city folk misunderstanding
how things work on a ranch. "From what I know of Mills, he's trying
to do a noble thing," he says. "What happens is we're having
a cultural break between farm and ranch and city dwellers."
Many charros and cowboys say that animal advocates get upset because they
assume that animals feel pain and discomfort the same way humans do. But
Fox and Franco say that livestock's tougher hide, which allows them to
survive outdoors, also enables them to endure a hot shot or a fall much
better than a human could. And Fox points out that cattle mature much
faster than people do. "We hear constantly that ... we've taken this
little baby away from its mother and roped it," he says. "Those
animals weigh 240, 260 pounds. They're not little babies, they're livestock."
However, it's clear that at least some criticism is sinking in. Within
the last several months PRCA officials have taken to calling calf-roping
by the less inflammatory name "tie-down roping." This rankles
Mills. "Why don't you call it 'Grandma's Cinnamon Buns?'" he
demands. "Change the damn event, don't change the name."
Nevertheless, the PRCA is unlikely to get rid of what is literally a cash
cow. "Some of the biggest stars we have in the sport of rodeo are
calf ropers," Schonholtz says. "When done under the right conditions
with healthy animals and rules in place, it's one of the more exciting
events we have. When you look at the skill of the horse and the contestant,
it's a real exciting event. It's very popular for us."
Mills would like to ban calf-roping,
no question about it. But so far the only event he's managed to ban throughout
California is a charreada practice called horse-tripping, or las manganas.
In horse-tripping, a charro standing on the ground or seated on his horse
tries to lasso the front legs of a passing horse, who is being chased
around the arena by three other cowboys at speeds up to 25 miles per hour.
The lassoed horse is usually a two- or three-year-old Arabian filly, chosen
for her light weight. The charro's intent is to pull her legs out from
under her so she will roll over her right shoulder, then flip back up
onto her hooves.
But it's tough to get this stunt exactly right, animal-welfare advocates
say, and horses occasionally break bones and teeth, get burns and gashes
from the rope, or suffer neurological damage from landing on their heads
or necks. Mills says contractors rent these horses out until they're too
injured to run, then send them to the slaughterhouse. Although California's
Proposition 6, passed in 1998, made slaughtering horses illegal here,
other states allow it, and horsemeat is still considered a delicacy in
In 1993, Mills approached Democratic Assemblyman Joe Baca of San Bernadino
about a horse-tripping ban, figuring that Baca's Mexican-American ancestry
would allay some of the protest the bill was sure to draw. But the bill
still failed, so Mills took his proposal to the county level. That year,
Alameda County became the first such jurisdiction to pass an ordinance
requiring on-site veterinarians and banning the charreada events of horse-tripping
and steer-tailing. Contra Costa County followed suit in 1994.
The following year, Mills' horse-tripping bill got another shot in Sacramento.
He was aware that he was becoming a political lightning rod, so he kept
a lower profile and the California Equine Council sponsored the bill.
State Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, then an assemblyman, carried
the ban as an emergency bill, and this time, it passed by a stunning 117-to-3
floor vote. "I damn near fell out of the balcony at the hearing,"
Mills recalls. "I couldn't believe it."
Six other states quickly copied the new law. Today some Californian charros
practice a modified form of las manganas, in which they lasso the horse's
legs but then let the rope go slack so the animal remains standing. Animal-rights
advocates consider the practice to be on the decline. "It's not something
that's very popular anymore," PETA's Rhodes says. "I think people
have come to realize how cruel it is."
Mills had the element of surprise with the horse-tripping bill -- the
charros hadn't expected anyone to successfully challenge their practices.
But his success struck a nerve; the ban was seen as an assault on Latino
culture. Rodriguez, who ran the Los Alazanes charreada in El Monte, blames
the passage of the horse-tripping bill and the resulting media coverage
for the demise of his business. "They almost made it seem like going
to a charreada was illegal, like going to a cockfight or a dogfight,"
he says, adding that attendance at his charreada dropped from 1,800 people
a week to 200 or 300, and Los Alazanes eventually went out of business.
And many other people lost money, from feed suppliers to saddlemakers.
"The arenas in Escondido, Coachella, Bakersfield, they went away,"
he says. "People went from training horses to working as truck drivers.
A lot of people that were living well went from being on top to being
on the bottom. ... Mr. Mills shoots that gun up in the air and doesn't
see where the bullet falls, how many lives it destroys."
Truth be told, there are other factors influencing the closure of charreadas
that have little to do with animal welfare, and more to do with human
behavior. As urbanization encroaches upon ranchlands, it has put one lienzo
after another out of business. The remaining ones contend with urban problems
such as traffic congestion or parking, which has bedeviled the Franco
family's lienzo in Sunol. Due to neighbors' complaints, the facility is
currently only used for small, private events. Other venues have had problems
with alcohol and rowdy patrons. There hasn't been a charreada allowed
at Hayward's Rowell Ranch since 1995, when the Alameda County sheriff's
department was summoned to deal with a melee that broke out in the stands.
Patrons threw rocks and bottles at security guards, injuring six of them.
Nevertheless, charros believe they're being picked on because they don't
have the deep pockets or political sophistication of organizations such
as the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, racehorse associations,
or the cattle industry. "We're like the 99-cent store for the animal
activists," Franco says. "Eric Mills and these animal activists,
that's all they do, they're at the state capitol eight hours a day, but
I lost time at work and money going back and forth to the state capitol
In 1994, when the charros went to Sacramento to protest the horse-tripping
bill, the president of their association spoke no English and needed a
translator, and the membership showed up in the costumes of charros or
their female counterparts. "The presence was kind of carnivalish,"
Rodriguez recalls. "The senators thought the guys were mariachis."
They were no match for the animal-welfare activists, who were more familiar
with lobbying. "They really decimated us, and at that time we weren't
prepared," he says. "We didn't know why everything was happening."
It looked like history might repeat itself last year when charreada organizers
found out about Mills' proposed bill to organize a ban on steer-tailing,
or las colas. Steer-tailing is an event in which a charro rides alongside
a bull, grabs its tail, wraps it around his boot and stirrup, and rides
his horse off at an angle. The bull gets knocked to the ground. Although
the event is not sanctioned by charreada's American counterparts, and
animal-rights advocates claim that it has never been an accepted ranching
practice, Rodriguez says steer-tailing was originally used to subdue ornery
bulls; after being knocked down a few times, they'd hide in the middle
of the herd and stop causing trouble. But animal-rights activists condemn
the act as violent and inhumane. State Senator Liz Figueroa of Fremont,
who carried the bill, described the practice on her Web site, saying,
"Sometimes both the steer's and the horse's legs are broken. The
tails of the steers are sometimes broken also, even torn from the animal's
But what a difference a few years had made to the charros. Although they
had only found out about the proposed steer-tailing ban two days before
it was supposed to go to the floor, they managed to get the vote pushed
back two weeks. They then arranged meetings with the senators and organized
a massive letter-writing campaign to Figueroa. They argued that the bill
was an attack on a venerable Mexican tradition, perpetrated by outsiders
who didn't understand their culture. "What's next," Rodriguez
asked in a Mundocharro.com editorial, "banning Mexican saddles because
they are too uncomfortable for the horses or loud Mexican concerts or
the right to speak our language and practice our customs?" Rodriguez
later recalled that losing once to Mills had taught the charros a valuable
lesson about Sacramento-style lobbying. "This time around we did
it right," he says. "Mark Franco and I were in our dark suits
and red ties with five lawyers behind us."
Figueroa, who did not respond to repeated interview requests, ultimately
withdrew her bill, saying she didn't have enough votes for it to pass.
And this time it was Mills who was caught by surprise. In fact, he wasn't
even in town for Figueroa's decision. "The day before it was going
to go to the floor I, like a fool, had taken off on a vacation I'd been
planning for a long time, thinking this was a slam dunk," he says.
It turned out that the charros had some help the second time around. Even
though American-style rodeos do not have a steer-tailing event, the Professional
Rodeo Cowboys Association had a reason to be interested in the charros'
concerns. "They have this in common," Handley says. "They're
scared to death of Eric Mills." While Fox makes it clear that he
did not lobby against SB 1306, nor did the association take a position
on it, he agrees that he did serve as a paid consultant to the charros.
At a meeting in Las Vegas, association officials dispensed advice on animal-welfare
issues. "We said, 'If you're going to professionalize, you need to
have implemented certain rules and regulations that protect the livestock,'"
Fox says. He also apparently suggested that the charros lobby the Latino
Caucus to get the bill moved to the Assembly Agriculture Committee, which
was more likely to be sympathetic to their cause.
An alliance had been forged, and it was going to be tough to beat when
Mills returned to the legislature this April to bring Mexican-style rodeo
under the supervision of California law.
Eric Mills is sitting in the
state capitol lunchroom, stacking and restacking papers on a small Formica
table. He's nervous and tired after several long days of driving back
and forth between Oakland and Sacramento. Today is the day his latest
rodeo bill goes before the assembly's Art, Entertainment, Sports, Tourism,
and Internet Media Committee, and it won't be an easy fight.
As originally drafted, AB 885 had two parts: It would require rodeos to
give two weeks' notice to local animal-control authorities before coming
to town, which Mills believes will allow them to deploy their staffs accordingly.
More significantly, it would reduce from four to three the number of events
required to meet the state's official definition of a rodeo. Since charreadas
have exactly three events in common with American-style rodeos, if AB
885 passes, it will subject them to state laws requiring an on-call or
on-site veterinarian, as well as any other laws or regulations Mills manages
to get adopted in the future.
Rodeo advocates believe the bill has a hidden subtext: They think it is
designed to give animal-rights activists a two-week notice about upcoming
rodeos so that they can show up with picket signs. The Professional Rodeo
Cowboys Association and the charros are united in opposition to the bill.
Their lobbyists are out in full force, easy to spot in the hallways with
their cowboy hats and waxed handlebar mustaches.
Today will be Mills' third shot at passing such legislation. His first
attempt, which was carried by Democrat Jackie Speier in 1988, was defeated
on the floor of the Agricultural Committee, which Mills refers to as a
"graveyard for animals." The second time was a weakened regulatory
bill authored by Senator Don Perata in 1999, which required American-style
rodeos to have a vet on-site or on-call. It passed, but left Mills dissatisfied
because it does not cover charreadas and allows on-call veterinarians
up to an hour before responding to a serious injury. "That's a lifetime,"
he gripes. "Would you let a cowboy lie there for an hour with a broken
back waiting for an ambulance?"
This time the bill is being carried by Assemblyman Mark Leno of San Francisco,
a freshman at the capitol, but a friendly face to Mills. The two collaborated
on local rodeo issues when Leno was a San Francisco supervisor.
As he waits in the lunchroom, Mills is anxiously counting votes. The committee
has nineteen members, four of whom are from the Latino Caucus, including
caucus chair Marco Firebaugh, a Cudahy Democrat. The bill needs ten votes
to pass, so Mills will need the caucus to take his side.
But as the failure of Figueroa's steer-tailing bill made clear, legislators
are now leery of seeming to attack the charreada. The night before, Mills
had been in Leno's office when a deal was cut. Firebaugh had announced
he would support AB 885 if all language pertaining to the charreada was
dropped, and it was assumed that the rest of the Latino Caucus would vote
along with him. Leno and Mills reluctantly agreed.
But Mills feels that the bill has been gutted -- the only part left is
the two-week notification clause. "That's asking for nothing,"
he sighs. Worse, there are five other animal-rights bills being heard
at the same time that morning, meaning that politicians serving on more
than one committee are going to be dashing from room to room, and are
likely to miss crucial testimony. The activists themselves will be spread
thin, trying to maintain a visible presence at each hearing.
The AB 885 hearing gets off to a bumpy start. Right away, Leno announces
that he's "somewhat reluctant but pleased" to offer an amendment
striking all reference to the charreada. Lobbyists who had come to support
or criticize charreada practices quickly find their arguments moot.
Instead, AB 885's opponents end up attacking the advance-notice clause,
which they claim will merely burden rodeo management with preparing reports
to announce their arrival, and do nothing to protect animals. "There
is no way that local animal-control officials are going to do anything
with that report except to file it away," Fox protests. He also argues
that rodeos do so much advertising that animal control would be hard-pressed
not to know about a rodeo's arrival. "Rodeos do not come into town
in the dead of night," he says dryly.
Leno responds with equal dryness: "All of the bureaucratic burden
we're hearing about could be taken care of in fifteen minutes, less time
than it's taken them to lobby us."
Mills tries to steer the focus back onto animal welfare, pointing out
that advance notice will allow animal-control agencies to be better prepared
if an animal gets hurt. "Every rodeo in California requires paramedics
and ambulances to take care of injured cowboys," he says. "Don't
the animals matter at all?"
Finally, the vote is called. And while Firebaugh votes in favor, the rest
of the Latino Caucus votes no or abstains, much to Mills' horror. Several
of the other committee members criticize the bill for its emptiness. When
GOP Assemblyman Tim Leslie of Tahoe City announces that he's voting against
AB 885 because he finds it to be "a great example of government creep
that doesn't perform any useful purpose," Mills says he has to fight
back the urge to stand up and say, "I oppose this bill now, too.
It doesn't do anything!"
AB 885 gets six votes of support, but because so many committee members
are attending other hearings, not enough of them have voted to tell if
the bill has passed or failed. Instead, it's placed "on call,"
meaning that the committee will continue the vote until later that morning.
The animal-welfare advocates need to round up four more aye votes; after
conferring, they decide to pay personal visits to the offices of the missing
committee members. But just as the last group of volunteers departs for
a legislator's office, Mills learns that Martinez Democrat Joe Canciamilla
has arrived and cast a "no" vote. This tips the vote in favor
of the nays.
The hall is suddenly quiet and empty. Mills slumps on a bench outside
the hearing room, wearily watching a closed-circuit broadcast of another
hearing, in which hunting enthusiasts are arguing for the right to use
hounds in order to hunt bears. He looks drained, sickened. "I've
been rode hard and put up wet," he says wearily.
As he sits on the bench, he contemplates how much has changed since he
first took on the Mexican rodeo. "Nine years ago we had a 117-3 floor
vote to completely abolish a major charreada event, and this time we couldn't
even get a bill passed to require an on-call veterinarian at rodeos, which
costs nothing," Mills says. "I thought this would be a slam
dunk. Ain't no such thing as a slam dunk in Sacramento."
"If I had the money," he adds, "I would do nothing but
In fact, organizing a ballot
initiative is exactly what Mills' opponents are afraid he will do.
"I know many people who would like to ban all of rodeo," he
admits. "I've never taken that approach, but the cowboys better meet
me halfway or they'll end up with a really serious ballot initiative to
do precisely that and they'll have brought it upon themselves by being
But right now, Mills is trying a totally different tack: the court system.
Last October, Action for Animals filed suit against school districts in
Alameda, Contra Costa, and San Francisco counties for taking children
to see the rodeo at the Cow Palace. Technically, the suit has two other
plaintiffs: advocacy group In Defense of Animals, which is footing the
lawyers' bills, and Peggy Hilden, a San Francisco resident suing on behalf
of her son, a student who attended the rodeo.
The suit hinges on the unique argument that California's education code
requires teachers to promote the humane treatment of animals, but that
by bringing students to the rodeo, teachers are "promoting the idea
that it is acceptable to frighten and physically harm and abuse animals."
The suit goes on to argue that the school district violated its duty to
Hilden's son by bringing him into an environment where animals could be
harmed or killed.
Attorney David Blatte, who is arguing Action for Animals' side, says the
case breaks new legal ground. "The education code has never been
used to protect animals, and from an animal-rights point of view it will
send the message out that rodeos are inhumane and we should not be exposing
our children to them," he says.
But the school districts have argued that nobody is forced to attend rodeo
field trips. "The decision is the parent's; it's a voluntary activity,"
attorney Nancy Huneke, of Walnut Creek law firm Stubbs & Leone, argued
at a court hearing. "It's a political decision, it's not one for
the courts to make."
This month, a San Francisco judge dismissed the charges against every
school district except San Francisco, because that is where the Hilden
family pays taxes. But the case is going forward; Blatte anticipates that
if the suit is successful, it will provoke a spate of copycat cases elsewhere.
"If we win, any taxpayer in any city can sue and stop the district
from going to the rodeo," Blatte says. "We could even do that
now, but we want to see what the law says before we financially burden
any other school districts."
Mills says he tried to protest rodeo field trips through conventional
channels first, writing to former Superintendent of Public Instruction
Delaine Eastin, only to be told that she had no jurisdiction over the
matter. "Well, as Grandma used to say, 'Sue the bastards,'"
he says. "That's what gets their attention. I've tried everything
else. If the courts work, do it."
For the first time in years, Mills has no rodeo legislation in the works.
In addition to the school districts case, he's turned his attention to
two other issues close to his heart -- the regulation of live-animal food
markets and of wild and exotic animals at county fairs. But his opponents
are sure he'll be back soon with a new rodeo bill. "It does get tiresome
-- every year we have to see what Mills and his advocates are going to
propose as far as legislation," Franco says. "It's always something.
Next year it's going to be something else and the year after that it's
going to be something else."
Rodeo advocates insist that no matter how hard they work to take good
care of their animals, Mills will never be satisfied. "The bottom
line is there's a difference in philosophies," Schonholtz says. "People
involved in rodeo believe we have a right to use these animals as long
as we provide proper care and handling for the animals. Animal-rights
activists want to end all use of animals, including rodeos, circuses,
horseracing, and the cattle industry."
Although Mills has never advocated anything that radical, it's certain
that there is more legislation to come. When updating subscribers about
the defeat of AB 885, he signed off his Action for Animals newsletter
with his trademark promise: "We'll be back."
What is less certain is whether the opposition he accidentally organized
against himself will continue to successfully block his legislation. Mills
has beaten the rodeo and the charreada separately, but never together.
Is this new alliance between the American and Mexican rodeos forged in
brotherhood, or pragmatism? The cowboys gave the charros a leg up in negotiating
capitol culture; the charros gave the cowboys claim to a cultural tradition
legislators are twitchy about challenging. "If you have the Hispanic
caucus up there against you, even silently, you're dead," Handley
No doubt Mills and this new alliance will square off again, with each
side accusing the other of political correctness. Cowboys say Mills plays
the animal-rights card; he says the charros and their allies play the
race card. It's hard to tell which side has the higher horse. "This
is such a politically correct state, everybody's worried about stepping
on everybody else's toes," Mills sighs. "There's a lot of crime
done against animals in the name of diversity."
It's been a tough legislative season for Mills and his allies, but if
rodeo legend teaches us anything, it's that when you get thrown, you have
to get back up and ride again. In more than twenty years of advocating
on behalf of rodeo livestock and other animals, Mills has never been thrown
so hard he couldn't get back in the saddle.