High School Rodeo under investigation for animal abuse
August 23, 2009
FARMINGTON — The New Mexico Livestock Board said this week it will investigate alleged animal cruelty at the National High School Finals Rodeo following the release of an Internet video depicting horses and bulls being electrically shocked with handheld cattle prods.
However, at least one official on the investigating board said he has seen nothing out of line with what is shown on the posted video.
The four-minute clip posted on YouTube and filmed by an animal rights group, Showing Animals Respect and Kindness, shows more than 10 bucking horses and nine bulls being prodded with the pronged devices as the rodeo chutes open at an arena that appears to be McGee Park.
Many of the film clips detail the use of prods beyond what the National High School Rodeo Association animal welfare rules allow. The association's rulebook states horses can be shocked below the neck if the animal stalls in the chute. Bulls are never to be prodded when inside the chute, the rulebook states.
Video clips document as many as six rodeo workers prodding horses in the upper neck as gates open, and one rodeo worker prodding bulls in the hind legs and tail within the chute. Just one animal appeared to stall in the chute prior to being prodded.
A majority of the clips show rodeo workers placing the unidentified devices within their hands or pants pockets immediately after use.
"They're trying to make an animal that isn't acting aggressive act aggressive," said Steve Hindi, president of the Illinois-based Showing Animals Respect and Kindness activist group. "There's a lot of voltage behind (the prod) and it hurts, it hurts more than an electric fence."
Hindi noted the manufacturer of the Hot-Shot, the handheld prod he believes was used during the Farmington rodeo, warns the device is not designed to be used on horses or in rodeos.
Considered legal action
New Mexico animal cruelty laws exempt "commonly accepted rodeo practices" from being enforced as animal abuse, said Heather Ferguson, coordinator of the New Mexico Attorney General's Animal Cruelty Task Force.
"It sounds like this particular rodeo made and created regulations as to what they deemed appropriate rodeo practices, and the individuals that utilized the hot prod on the neck of the horses violated those practices," she said.
Determination of whether the action constitutes accepted rodeo practices by state law is made exclusively by the state Livestock Board, she said.
Livestock Board Deputy Director Bobby Pierce said this week the agency will review all film taken during the 2009 National High School Finals Rodeo at McGee Park to determine whether the use of prods reached beyond what state law allows.
But at first look, Pierce said, use of the prods were not inappropriate or abusive during the Farmington rodeo.
"The reason they do it into the high neck is to (have the horse) look away from the shock and turn to look into the arena," Pierce said. "A little quick shot to get an animal out of the chute, that's really for the animal's safety and the rider's safety both."
If if the roughstock animals were prodded around the eyes or ears, or the shock was given repeatedly, cruelty charges could apply, he said.
"The short clips that I've seen, I didn't see anything out of line," Pierce said.
The National High School Rodeo Association hosts the rodeo finals each July, rotating the event between Farmington; Springfield, Ill.; and Gillette, Wyo.
Responding to allegations that the use of prods went beyond the organization's own regulations during the 2009 rodeo, National High School Rodeo Association Executive Director Kent Sturman said the organization is reviewing the publicly posted video clips and contacting everyone thought to be involved.
"We're looking into that. You cannot tell what any of those people have in their hand. They may have absolutely nothing," Sturman said, noting poor video quality prevented better analysis. "We'll just continue to enforce our rules and monitor the situation."
According to association policy, anyone found violating the animal welfare rules could be fined up to $500. The association has taken no formal action since the July rodeo against individuals depicted in the video clips, some of whom are identified by the Denver-based rodeo association, Sturman said.
History of prodding
Similar roughstock prodding was reported at the finals rodeo in Springfield, Ill., in 2006, which led to a court order mandating the practice not occur during the 2007 rodeo finals in that state.
But excessive use of electric prods is particularly common in high school rodeo, Hindi claimed, because the best bucking horses and bulls typically are reserved for professional rodeos, while high school events often use tamer animals.
"It's definitely not your Grade A bucking stock, so they're doing even more things than we usually find to get those animals to perform," Hindi said.
Following the witnessed prodding during the 2006 high school finals in Illinois, the chairman of Gov. Bill Richardson's New Mexico Rodeo Council told The (Springfield) State Journal-Register that such abuse wouldn't be tolerated in New Mexico.
"To Hot-Shot a roughstock animal out of a chute doesn't happen," state Rodeo Council Chairman Robert Detweiler told the Illinois newspaper as the finals rodeo prepared to return to Farmington.
In New Mexico, he said, "They're raised to buck. They're not shocked to buck."
Detweiler could not be reached for comment.
Debbie Romero, a spokeswoman for the New Mexico Rodeo Council, said the group was not involved in hosting the Farmington event and had no opportunity to take action to ensure animals weren't abused.
The animal activist group did not attend the 2008 National High School Rodeo Finals in Farmington to watch for excess prodding, and none was reported.
A local response
The Tres Rios High School Rodeo Association, a San Juan County group funded and directed by local community governments, was unaware of the alleged excess use of prods on rodeo animals until after the 2009 rodeo concluded, said Tres Rios Director Beth Utley.
The association executive committee is expected to meet in the coming weeks to discuss the economic impacts of hosting the event and determine whether the area should make a bid for the national rodeo to return in 2014, Utley said, but after seeing the video on Thursday, the matter was added to the committee's next agenda.
And a meeting may be called sooner than planned.
"We have to poll (association committee members) and see how far they want to take it," Utley said, "Or see if we want any additional stipulations put into the contract to make sure this sort of thing doesn't happen again if the rodeo is brought to San Juan County."
The association will review the online video, which Utley described as "high quality," to confirm it was filmed at McGee Park in 2009 prior to taking any formal action.
"We're just as concerned about this video as the general public is," Utley said. "We'll do our best to see what we can do about it."