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by Brenda Shoss

The Myth Of The Cowboy

Dawn's light broke across the rocky divide as horse and man moved in smooth cadence. He patrolled the land with a gunslinger's grit defending woman, child and cow from predators and gnarly no-goods. This valiant cowboy of America's Wild West...

Cut. This guy never existed. Hollywood crafted John Wayne, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry as fast-drawing heroes with hearts of gold. "Much as minstrel shows reinvented slaves as happy-go-lucky banjo-pickers, cowboy movies reinvented cowboys as guitar-twanging knights errants," writes Merritt Clifton, editor of Animal People, in his essay "The Cowboys."

Uneducated orphans, immigrants and former slaves filled the ranks of early cowboyhood, claim Clifton and historical authors Mark Twain, Jack London and Joaquin Miller. As frontiers forged West, so did adolescent drifters who were bought and sold for cheap labor and sexual exploitation. "They most definitely were not rodeo-riders, nor rodeo fans, nor people who glorified the cowboy life when and if they were able to escape it," Clifton asserts. After Hollywood concocted the celluloid cowboy, rodeo expanded beyond its lower-class Spanish cultural roots to spread across the West.

Modern rodeos masquerade as macho displays of prowess and valor. The Humane Society of the United States condemns rodeos as false portrayals of "rough and tough exercises of human skill and courage in conquering the fierce, untamed beasts of the Wild West." To perpetuate this fantasy, handlers antagonize tame animals with electric prods, straps, spurs and tail twisting.

In July, 2001 the rodeo returned to Springfield, Illinois' $9 million arena for the national High School Rodeo Association (NHSRA) finals. So did Steve Hindi, founder of Showing Animals Respect and Kindness (SHARK). Hindi recorded images of unconscious horses, lame steers, and calves who were tormented during rehearsals. "Without the noise of the crowd and the announcer you can actually hear the calves' bodies slamming on the ground, and their choking and coughing after being clotheslined," Hindi says.

Last year, Hindi's footage of shock prod overuse prompted rodeo organizers to install a limited-use rule. But according to Kent Sturman, Denver's NHSRA general manager, we civilians just don't get it. "Those of us who work in and around animals know it [electric prods] is not perceived the same from people who don't have that experience."

I don't know, call me crazy, but blasting 5,000 volts of electrified pain into an animal's flesh for entertainment purposes seems unjustifiably cruel. SHARK offers money to any competitor willing to take a jolt from the pitiless device. So far no cowboys have stepped forward.

Animals in rodeos are reluctant participants bullied into unnatural acts. In the calf-roping event, three to four month old babies are "clotheslined" around the neck as they race at breakneck speeds. They are repeatedly shocked in the holding chutes and their tails are wrenched over steel bars. To escape, they charge into the arena where the cowboy's rigorous neck-choke hoists them into the air before they hit hard ground.

As they wheeze and tremble, the contestant typically body-slams them again. Calf roping is a competitively timed ordeal that results in broken necks, backs or legs. By the time spent calves reach Dr. Robert Fetzner, Director of Slaughter Operations for FSIS (USDA), their lifeless bodies are riddled with "broken ribs, punctured lungs, hematomas, broken legs, and severed tracheas." The ligament that secures the neck to the body is often disengaged.

In bucking events players goad horses with abrasive spurs and flank straps. The horses' intestines and groins are cinched so tightly, they lurch frantically in response to the pain. When some domesticated animals still won't buck, their "chute stalling" warrants a mega-shot of misery from the electric prod. Those who are successfully harassed into reckless-bronco mode careen into the ring where they often smash into fences, posts or chutes.

In San Antonio, Texas in February 2000 a bucking horse shattered his spine. Dazed and crippled, he heaved himself across the stadium floor. Though authorities labeled this a "freak accident," the true tally of broken necks and fractured skulls is undeniably high. Even the media, who tend to whitewash incidents of rodeo cruelty, buy into the seductive cowboy myth.

Rodeos are big business. The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) hosts most of America's 5000 annual rodeos and the International Professional Rodeo Association (IPRA) sponsors the second largest number. Bleacher-seat fans usually can't see the sprains, splintered bones, muscle pulls, saddle blisters, and bloody wounds that occur at every rodeo. Onsite veterinarians are rare. Hindi states that "if the animal doesn't drop dead in front of the bleachers, the audience usually doesn't know anything is wrong."

Rodeos go to great lengths to conceal violence. In a "dash for cash" contest at the Guilford Rodeo in Connecticut, organizers sent in clowns to divert a horrified audience. To wrestle a steer, the contestant had vaulted from his horse, grabbed the racing animal's horns and contorted his neck. When the steer failed to collapse the rider twisted his head again, fatally breaking his neck. After a similar incident at the 2000 Grand National Rodeo in San Francisco an announcer wisecracked that the dead bull "was gonna have a big headache when he wakes up."

Clowns and quips can't disguise the brutality inherent in rodeo contests. In steer tripping a rider lassos a 700-pound steer and jerks the running animal's head and neck in a 180 degree loop that pitches him to the dirt. The steer is tripped, tossed and lugged for 30 feet or more so the roper can render him numb and swiftly bind his legs for a score.

"Without torture, there can be no rodeo," claims Peggy W. Larson, DVM, MS, JD, a former bareback bronc rider turned media consultant on animal abuse in the rodeo. "In my opinion, and based on my extensive training and experience, it is impossible to create a humane rodeo."

Mitt Romney, president of the Salt Lake Olympic Committee (SLOC), doesn't agree. SLOC plans to include rodeo events in the 2002 Cultural Olympiad during the Winter Games. The committee promises to enforce animal welfare rules. But those rules only exist on paper. PRCA-certified competitions flaunt a long history of animal injury and death. Moreover, "cowboys" on the professional rodeo circuit are not exactly reminiscent of Olympian integrity and brotherly compassion. Many people have already contacted SLOC to express their outrage.

There is a huge gulch between fact and fiction when it comes to animals in rodeos. For television's "Hard Copy," Hindi investigated a Big Bear, California rodeo in which handlers shocked animals excessively and raked their tails over bars. Hindi's graphic footage was later televised on a split screen with a stock contractor who denied any tail twisting or electric shock use. After the caught-in-the-act evidence aired, the contractor claimed he didn't know the animal abuser. It was his son.

If rodeo's victims were dogs or cats the perpetrator would be charged with animal cruelty and in some states prosecuted as a felon. In the rodeo, animal abuse is dubbed "family entertainment."


1.) Let the Olympic Committees know how disappointed you were to see rodeo in the Games, and to never again schedule these cruel spectacles as part of the Olympics.
Write to:
Mr. Mitt Romney, Salt Lake Olympic Committee
299 South Main St. STE. 1300
Salt Lake City, UT 84111

Ms. Sandra Baldwin, President, United States Olympic Committee
One Olympic Plaza
Colorado Springs, CO 80909

Mr. Michael Chambers, President, Canadian Olympic Association
Olympic House
AU. Pierre Tupuy 2380
Montreal Quebec H3c3r4

Jacques Rogge, President, International Olympic Committee
Chateau de Vidy
Case Postale 356
1007 Lausanne

2.) Ask DaimlerChrysler to end their rodeo sponsorship. Do not purchase Mercedes-Benz, Chrysler, Dodge or Jeep products until DaimlerChrysler stops supplying nearly $10 million a year to fund animal cruelty. DaimlerChryser also sponsors the National High School Rodeo Association, which introduces adolescents to authorized animal abuse.
Write to:
Jürgen E. Schrempp, DaimlerChrysler
70546 Stuttgart

z.Hd. Dr. Dieter Zetsche, DaimlerChrysler AG
70546 Stuttgart

Dr. Dieter Zetsche, DaimlerChrysler Corporation
Auburn Hills, MI 48326-2766, USA
ph: 248-576-5741; fax: 248-512-9368

3.) Contact SHARK (Showing Animals Respect and Kindness) for more facts and photos about animals in rodeos. Learn how you can help shut down the rodeo.
ph: 630-557-0176

To reprint this article in your publication, web site or list, please request author permission:

Kinship Circle’s column runs bimonthly in The Healthy Planet. Ms. Shoss is also a contributing writer for The Animals Voice, Satya Magazine, VegNews, and other publications. If you would like to reprint this column, please request author permission at




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