Video reveals rodeo abuse

Officials say only one such incident occurred at event

Sunday, October 01, 2006
By Bruce Rushton

Video footage appears to confirm that animals at last summer's National High School Finals Rodeo in Springfield were often goaded to buck, contrary to state and National High School Rodeo Association standards. 

Regulators with the state Department of Agriculture say they documented one incident of a bull being shocked with an electric prod while in a ringside chute on the first day of the weeklong event. The department says it notified rodeo organizers, and no further instances of abuse occurred.

But videos taken by an animal-rights group suggest abuse was more widespread and may have included sticking bulls with sharp objects to encourage bucking.

On the books

Here’s what state law, rodeo organizers and a ruling by a former state Department of Agriculture official say about treatment of animals.

• "No person or owner may beat, cruelly treat, torment, starve, overwork or otherwise abuse any animal.” Illinois Humane Care for Animals Act.

• "A bull’s tail cannot be pulled in closed chutes or just as gates open. The only time an animal’s tail should be pulled is when it’s being moved from one place to another.” National Association of High School Rodeo rules.

• “In the riding events, use of prods and similar devices is prohibited. The only exception is a known chute-stalling animal, only with the contestant’s and contractor’s approval, and shall be administered only by a qualified member.” Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association (PRCA) rules.

• "Just the flank strap. In bull riding, nothing except that is allowed.” Kent Sturman, executive director of the National High School Rodeo Association.

• "Tail twisting, pulling and raking over fences when an animal is in a chute or just as the chute is opened will not be permitted. The use of the electric prod on any livestock in a chute, or just as the chute is opened, will not be permitted.” Former Illinois animal welfare bureau chief David R. Bromwell in a 2002 letter to rodeo contractors.

Jabbing animals with anything sharp or shocking them is against rodeo rules unless an animal, usually a horse in bronc riding competition, refuses to come out of a chute. A top official with the National High School Rodeo Association in Denver said shocking bulls with a device commonly called a "Hot Shot" isn't allowed in ringside chutes. At least three times since 2002, state officials have issued letters warning that animals cannot be shocked unless they won't come out of chutes.

However, an official with the Illinois High School Rodeo Association said last week that bulls were shocked both at the Springfield event and at the state high school finals held in Effingham County in June. 

The official also said some bulls may have been poked with pens or a similar device, but that occurs only if an animal refuses to leave a chute.

"You take a 2,000-pound bull, he decides he ain't going to move, you've got to encourage him some way," says Kenny Littrell, national director for the Illinois High School Rodeo Association, who stood beside chutes both in Springfield and at the state championships a month earlier.

"We don't use a Hot Shot in the bucking chute unless it becomes an absolute necessity. Sometimes, if they don't move, you take just the plastic end of a ballpoint pen and touch them with that. It would be like someone coming up to you and punching you in the side with a ballpoint pen.

"Sure, there's a reaction to the pain or whatever. If a bull just flat refused to move, we've got to do something like that. "

But videos at both events show bulls appeared to be either shocked or jabbed as they were on their way into arenas through gates that hadn't yet been opened all the way. Just what is used to jab the bulls isn't clear.

Neither Littrell nor Department of Agriculture officials charged with investigating cruelty cases would watch videotapes with a reporter.

"Well, basically, I don't really have to look at a video," Littrell said. "I was looking down at all the chutes. As far as I was concerned, there was nothing out of the ordinary that would harm or hurt a bull."

Hot Shots shouldn't be used in rodeos, the manufacturer said.

"We do not condone the use of our products in a rodeo situation," said Jim Bartel, director of marketing for the Miller Manufacturing Company in Minnesota. "It's designed to be a nuisance shock to get the animal's attention. It's typically going to feel like a bee sting. Any use for entertainment purposes is not something we support or condone."

The Springfield videos also show numerous incidents in which someone reaches into a chute during the bull-riding competition and appears to jab animals with objects, either shortly before or just as gates open. It isn't clear what the objects are.

However, in at least once instance, video taken by animal-rights activists shows light reflecting off a metallic, spike-like object. After slipping the object into his hand, the person wielding it reaches down into a chute and jabs at a bull as the gate opens.

Activists videotaped this same jabbing motion more than a dozen times. The person who jabs typically looks around in a surreptitious fashion before pulling the object out of his pocket and getting in position. The jabs come just as gates open, while bulls are headed into the arena. Immediately after the animal leaves the chute, the object goes back into the person's pocket.

In several instances, rodeo judges stood next to the person doing the jabbing and appear unconcerned. State Department of Agriculture officials say they've seen some of the videos recently released to the media and posted on the Internet. However, they declined to view the footage with a reporter. They say they were aware of some kind of object aside from an electric prod being used on animals in chutes, but say they don't know what it was.

"We did see it," said Colleen O'Keefe, a veterinarian who manages the agriculture department's Food Safety and Animal Protection Division. "It wasn't particularly sharp. We could tell the end of it hadn't been sharpened to a point. It was just like a clipped piece of metal, as far as we could tell." Neither O'Keefe nor any other state official asked to inspect the object, nor did they ask what it was being used for.

State law forbids animals from being tormented or abused, and the Department of Agriculture says it believes the law was followed. Like Littrell, O'Keefe declined to watch a video of the Springfield rodeo with a reporter.

The National High School Rodeo Association's Web site says anyone who mistreats livestock at an event will be fined. However, Kent Sturman, the association's executive director, said no one was disciplined at the Springfield event. Although state officials say they saw a bull being shocked and alerted organizers, Sturman says he isn't aware of any such incident.

"To my knowledge, all of our rules were followed, and everything went very well," Sturman said.  "No animals were injured.  The laws of Illinois were followed as well."

Not so, said Steve Hindi, president and founder of Geneva-based Showing Animals Respect and Kindness.

Hindi has traveled as far as Nevada to document what he believes is cruelty at rodeos. From his travels, he's compiled a horrific-looking video of rodeo events, particularly calf-roping competitions in which necks snap when ropes tauten, sending animals airborne before they land on their heads, hindquarters or spines, then lie motionless, as if paralyzed or dead.

What he saw in Springfield was new, Hindi said.

"In the case of spiking the animals, you're not supposed to do that - I've been to a lot of rodeo arenas around the country, but I've never seen that before," Hindi says.

Sturman agrees that spiking or shocking a bull in a chute isn't legal under association rules, which state that the only provocation allowed before an animal leaves the chute is cinching a flank strap that goes around the mid-section.

"It's a rope that is tightened around the abdomen of the bull, and I suppose causes some discomfort," he explained. "It's not around the genitals, which is what a lot of the animal-rights organizations say - it's the equivalent of your waist. In bull riding, nothing except for that is allowed."

Rules for horses are different. It is fairly common for a horse to refuse to leave a chute during bronc riding competition, and when that happens, the animal may be shocked.

Sturman says he hasn't seen the videos of the Springfield event, and he has no plans to see them. "We don't have any real concerns because we know that our rules were followed," he said. "We have procedures in place to ensure that, if those rules are broken, people are disciplined under the rules of our organization. We do a good job of policing ourselves and our animals."

The association and state regulators disagree over what can be done to animals at a rodeo, with state officials taking a less strict view than rodeo organizers.

For example, while Sturman says nothing but a flank strap can be used on a bull once it's in a chute, O'Keefe says it's OK to use a shocking device or other prod, even if animals already are moving into the arena.

"It's not so much whether the door is open or closed, it's a point of 'Can the animal move away from whatever they're using?'" O'Keefe said.

Hindi also has more than a dozen photographs of bulls having their tails pulled, either in closed chutes or just as gates open at the Springfield rodeo. Sturman said that isn't legal under association rules. The only time an animal's tail should be pulled is when it's being moved from one place to another, he said. But O'Keefe said pulling a bull's tail as it leaves the chute is standard practice in rodeo. It's a safety issue, she said.

"They're being pulled as they go out," O'Keefe says. "They're pulling the tails a little bit, but it's to get the bull to back off and not run the rider up onto the edge of the chute. This just kicks them up so that their rear ends go out."

In 2002, however, David Bromwell, then chief of the Department of Agriculture's bureau of animal welfare, issued letters to rodeo contractors and county fair boards stating, "Tail twisting, pulling and raking over fences when an animal is in a chute, or just as the chute is being opened, will not be permitted."

Bromwell, a veterinarian, also said electric prods could not be used unless an animal refuses to come out of a chute.

In a 2003 letter to fair boards, contractors and promoters, Carroll Imig, Bromwell's successor, repeated those rules, saying "Animals shall not be shocked when they are restrained in the chutes nor should twisting or raking of tails take place. An electrical prod may be used if an animal stalls or balks in the chute."

Bromwell is deceased. Imig, who retired in 2003, said pulling tails is acceptable, but twisting or rubbing them over fences in saw-like motions isn't allowed.

On the first day of last summer's event, Hindi sent an e-mail to O'Keefe outlining six concerns about the high school finals rodeo, including the use of electrical prods, tail pulling and jabbing. O'Keefe, who oversees the department's Bureau of Animal Health and Welfare, was the essence of brief in her reply: "Thank you for your concerns," she wrote.

O'Keefe elaborated the next day when Hindi replied, telling her that he would continue documenting abuses and that he didn't see any point in providing her with a full list of violations.

"The Bureau of Animal Health and Welfare has had field staff at each performance," O'Keefe replied. "They have had access to all areas of the ring and there have been no observed violations of the Humane Care for Animals Act."

At the end of the e-mail was a standard notation encouraging recipients to attend the rodeo, which was sponsored in part by the state Department of Agriculture.

Hindi suggests the state can't objectively police an event that it sponsors and promotes.

Chris Herbert, spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture, said it is "absolutely" possible for the state to police an event it sponsors.

"We do it all the time," she said, citing the state's sponsorship of the Illinois State Fair, where state employees check for animal and human health violations.

Hindi or anyone else who believes cruelty laws were broken should go to prosecutors, not the Department of Agriculture, O'Keefe and Herbert said. The Department of Agriculture has no power to arrest or prosecute, they said.

"We've seen the tape," Herbert said. "He needs to submit that to the state's attorney's office so they can determine if it's a violation or not."

Hindi said he has no plans to do so, although he said he has given a video to the Illinois State Police. A video is just one piece of what should be a thorough investigation, he said, and the Department of Agriculture, not a private citizen, should be compiling a case for the state's attorney.

"The Department of Agriculture is trying to push this off on the state's attorney," he said. "I didn't want to bring another chef into the kitchen when it's already so messed up."

Hindi makes no bones about his belief that rodeos should be banned. He points to state law that outlaws fights between humans and animals for entertainment purposes.

"Yet steer wrestling is allowed," he said. "I believe that rodeos are absolutely illegal - every one of those animals is fighting to escape. If they want to make rodeos legal, then they should pass an exemption saying the law doesn't apply to rodeos."

The Department of Agriculture won't say whether that would be a good idea or not.

"That's up to legislators," O'Keefe said. "We follow whatever is in the Act."

Meanwhile, rodeo organizers are looking forward to next year, when the National High School Finals Rodeo once again is scheduled for Springfield.

"We are very pleased by how things went there," Sturman said. "Springfield has been a very supportive community."


Bruce Rushton can be reached at (217) 788-1542 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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