Activist: Ag department has slipped in enforcing cruelty laws

October 1, 2006
By Bruce Rushton
Staff Writer, The State Journal-Register

Animal-rights advocate Steve Hindi says the Illinois Department of Agriculture has become lax in enforcing laws against animal cruelty since Chuck Hartke became director of the department.

The department also seems to be backing away form previous stances on what constitutes cruelty.

Twice in 2002 and again in 2003 the Department of Agriculture sent letters to rodeo organizers, country fair boards and livestock owners, notifying them that electric prods aren't permitted unless animals refuse to come out of chutes.

"The use of the electric prod on an animal in a chute, or just as the chute is opened, will not be permitted," wrote David Bromwell, then chief of the department's bureau of animal welfare, in a 2002 letter.

The letters were sent after animal-rights group called Showing Animals Respect and Kindness videotaped bulls being shocked at the National High School Finals Rodeo in Springfield in 2000 and 2001. In the cases documented SHARK, bulls are already on the move when they're shocked as gates swing open, contrary to rules that state animals can be shocked only if they refuse to come out of chutes.

In one instance, an electric prod is clearly visible in the hands of livestock owner David Morehead of Iowa, whom the state hired to provide animals at the Springfield rodeos in 2000 and 2001. Earlier this year, Morehead pleaded guilty to 36 counts of animal cruelty in Pennsylvania, where authorities fined him $5,000 for transporting horses in double-decker trailers.

After SHARK videotaped Morehead and others reaching into chutes and apparently shocking bulls in 2000 and 2001 during Springfield events, Department of Agriculture officials met with the group and stepped up enforcement, Hindi said.

But since Hartke was appointed to his post by Gov. Rod Blagojevich in 2003, SHARK says, the department has often refused to enforce the law or investigate cases.

"I think they've demonstrated complete incompetence and no desire to do their job," Hindi said.

Besides high school rodeo last summer, Hindi cites an amateur bull-riding event at Ducky's Lagoon a bar near the Quad Cities, where SHARK last year videotaped bulls being shocked with a hand-held prod commonly called a Hot Shot. Hindi said the department issued a warning to the organizers after receiving the tape.

Shortly afterward, SHARK again documented bulls being shocked at another event at the bar. Still, the Department of Agriculture did nothing except send an investigator to yet another bull-riding event at the bar, Hindi said. The department notified organizers of the investor's presence, Hindi said, and no animals were shocked. No charges were filed.

In response to questions from the State Journal-Register, a department spokesperson promised to look into the matter and call back. He never did.

"They weren't rodeo-quality bulls," said Mike Kobliska, a SHARK volunteer who videotaped the events in a makeshift ring near the bar. "The only way they could make them perform was to shock the hell out of them."

The bar continues hosting bull-riding events twice a month. Vickie Clark, owner of Ducky's says anyone can ride so long as they're sober and of age. She confirms the Department of Agriculture visited last summer.

"They came down and talked to my husband," Clark said. "They said it's not illegal to shock them. It's just illegal to shock them if they're contained, if there's no way for them to get away from it."

Department officials say it's not their job to enforce animal-cruelty laws. If Hindi or anyone else believes cruelty statutes are broken at rodeos, they should file complaints with prosecutors, officials said.

Asking prosecutors to act without the backing of the department is fruitless, Hindi said.

"I don't really expect a state's attorney to prosecute without an investigation and recommendation from Agriculture, the agency charged with enforcing the "Humane Care for Animals Act," Hindi said. "Today's agriculture department is willing to do neither."

Although department officials admit at least one bull was shocked in Springfield last summer, they presented no case to the state's attorney's office. Similarly, the department did nothing in response to apparent shockings at the state high school finals, except give a SHARK videotape to the Effingham County state's attorney's office, which refused to file charges.

The department hasn't always taken such a hands-off approach.

After SHARK videotaped bulls being shocked at a 2003 rodeo in Grundy County, the Department of Agriculture conducted an investigation, identified the culprits and gave the evidence to prosecutors. Two men subsequently pleaded guilty to animal-cruelty charges.

It was an open-and-shut case, prosecutors say.

"They were shocking them in a penned area with a rider aboard," said Jack Schaller, Grundy County assistant state's attorney. "That's the entirety of the case. You can't just shock an animal like that in captivity. That's cruelty, plain and simple."

At the time, the Department of Agriculture agreed.

"We believe this constitutes cruel treatment," department spokesman Jeff Squibb told the Herald News of Joliet when charges were filed.

Squibb doesn't sound nearly so stern today.

Letters sent to livestock owners and rodeo promoters in 2002 and 2003 that say animals can't be shocked while in chutes are "guidelines," not the department's interpretation of state cruelty laws, Squibb said last week.

Squibb refused to say just what is illegal under state law, saying that's a job for the courts and prosecutors. Just because National High School Rodeo Association rules forbid shocking bulls in chutes doesn't mean the practice is illegal in Illinois, he said.

"If an individual organization wants to adopt an internal policy that goes above and beyond what the Humane Care for Animals Act says, that's up to the individual organization, Squibb said.

What the Illinois Department of Agriculture consider acceptable wouldn't pass muster in New Mexico, which hosts the National high School Rodeo Association finals on a rotating basis with Illinois and Wyoming.

"To Hot-Shot a roughstock animal out of a chute doesn't happen," said Robert Detweiller, chairman of the governor's rodeo council in New Mexico. "The only time a Hot Shot would be used is in loading an animal into a chute, and even then very seldom.

"They're raised to buck. They're not shocked to buck."

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