Eric Mills and the Horse He Rode in On Eric Mills was the most effective critic of rodeo in California -- at least until he lassoed the charreada.

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On 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 wrong spot!"

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 different story.

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," he says.

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 Animals.

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," he says.

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 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 rodeo styles.

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 injured animals.

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, 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," Rhodes says.

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 move."

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 many countries.

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 to lobby."

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 body."

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 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 ballot initiatives."

• • • •

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 bullheaded."

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 says.

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.


Originally Published: June 4, 2003, East Bay Express

All content copyright Kara Platoni. Please contact for permission before reproducing.