Park officials' recent decision to allow the use of electric prods on bucking broncos at Castro Valley's Rowell Ranch Rodeo are a step backward in the fight for humane treatment of animals and is almost certain to lead to abuse because of the cavalier attitude of rodeo operators.
For 20 years, the Hayward Area Recreation and Park District, which owns the rodeo park on Dublin Canyon Road, had a strict ban on shocking horses to coax them out of holding chutes during competition. It was an excellent rule that made the district a national leader. Electric prods are painful to the animals and unnecessarily cruel.
A one-year suspension of Flying U was recommended, but park district directors instead fined the rodeo association $2,500 because it was the first offense. Rodeo officials, rather than promising to abide by the rules in the future, convinced the park district board to loosen its policy to parallel state law. State law prohibits the use of prods "unless necessary to protect the participants and spectators of the rodeo."
Unfortunately, that wording is open to broad interpretation. If we felt that rodeo organizers were likely to respect the spirit of the law, we probably wouldn't worry about this issue. But Russ Fields, chairman of the Rowell Ranch Rodeo, told the park board last week that prods are "just a tool in the livestock industry. It's like a hammer to a carpenter."
We find that characterization disturbing and fear that it accurately reflects rodeo officials attitude that prods are to be commonly used. Indeed, rodeo officials said that of 121 broncos participating in the May event, five were shocked by prods. The officials apparently think those numbers demonstrate restraint. To us, they indicate a willingness to shock that goes well beyond the intent of the state law -- that prods should be an instrument of last resort.
Park officials should be concerned by those numbers. And law enforcement officials should step in to ensure state law is being followed. Meanwhile, the park board should reconsider its decision to ease its restrictions.
Eric Mills, a coordinator for Oakland-based Action for Animals, presented the board with a reasonable policy to consider, one he says is currently in use in Cheyenne, Wyo. There, when an animal "stalls" in the chute, the cowboy dismounts and the horse is moved to the next chute. If necessary, the process is repeated a second and third time. If the horse still refuses to leave the chute, it is taken out of rotation that day.
Yes, it takes a little time and might be a bit inconvenient, but it's the right thing to do for the safety of the participants and the humane treatment of the animals.