Opinion: The rodeo industry cannot be trusted to practice compassion

When I was a kid, every year my family attended the Rowell Ranch rodeo in Alameda County and the big national rodeo in San Francisco. I even campaigned for Grand National Rodeo Queen when I was 19 years old. I had a lot of fun looking at the animals and imagining what it would be like to be a barrel racer or bull rider. I can last a full 8 secondsThought.

But last month I spoke in support of Alameda County’s ordinance that would ban wild cow milking, tie-down ropes, spurs and hip straps.

At these meetings, proponents often try to portray rodeo opponents as uninformed urbanites. Rather, I was a horse girl who grew up in Clayton among neighbors who raised cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats. I was vice president of my 4-H club and graduated from UC Davis with a BS in animal science and a doctorate in veterinary medicine. But I realized that it is wrong to cause discomfort and stress to animals for our own pleasure.

After several hours of heated public comment, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted to ban wild cow milking, a particularly violent event in which men wrestle a frightened mother cow and try to fill a bottle with her milk. Rodeo supporters say these events mimic real animal husbandry practices, but the tactics used in milking wild cows in particular reward aggression and rough handling, which is just bad animal husbandry.

A good cowboy is patient, compassionate and makes sure he has the help and equipment needed to do a job that needs to be done. Cows, like us, only produce milk after pregnancy to feed their calf. If a cow is to be milked to feed an orphaned or rejected calf, she should be placed in a suitable pen or chute and rewarded with food.

Chasing and fighting a cow for entertainment, in front of a crowd, in a large outdoor arena is disrespectful to the cow, a betrayal of the human-animal bond, and sets a bad example of how our children should treat others.

The fact that rodeo industry leaders did not deign to remove this event from rodeo long ago shows how we cannot rely on them to advance more compassionate practices through self-regulation. They are moving further and further away from society, which increasingly demands that animals be treated with kindness and respect.

Industry publications misled their followers by saying that this ordinance would effectively end ranching and ban rodeo altogether. This is a common tactic used by the industry to fight any social reform. They misrepresent the problem as “extremists trying to take away our meat and dogs.”

This was true in 2019 when legislation was introduced in California to ban the cruel practice of fur farming and the sale of furs, which thankfully passed. We saw this in 2018 when 63% of voters passed Proposition 12, requiring all meat and eggs sold in California to come from animals housed to minimum standards. The industry tried to tell the public that “extremists” were behind the measure. In fact, the extremist view is one that believes 1 square foot of space for chickens and 24 square feet of space for pigs is ideal.

It’s only a matter of time before straps, spurs and tie-down ropes are banned. The leaders of the rodeo industry need to face reality, look where the wind is blowing and make some serious changes. If they truly love their animals, they should show compassion and strive to create a fairer and less exploitative relationship between humans and animals.

Dr. Crystal Heath is a Berkeley veterinarian and executive director of Our Honor, a nonprofit organization that supports animal professionals in advancing ethical policies.

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