Is a rodeo mafia covering up evidence of animal abuse in California?

Vol. 8 No. 24
February 14 - 20, 2003

The Orange County Weekly

By Matt Coker

Seven years ago, at a rodeo in the Anaheim Pond, a sorrel mare named Classic Velvet ran at full gallop at an estimated 35 mph toward a chute she must have assumed was open. The horse was wrong. The chute's heavy metal rear gate was closed, and the horse smashed her head on it, crumpling to the ground and dying as 6,000 spectators looked on in horror. Classic Velvet lay there, dead, for six or seven minutes before personnel of the Flying U Rodeo, the event's promoter, were able to remove her.

Children cried; the crowd wandered away. Horse lovers fumed. A Laguna Niguel horse owner named Judy Foster accused the Flying U of "prodding the horses and hyping them up . . . I have no problem with rodeos, but I'm upset how [the horses] were treated."

Other witnesses included a member of the Los Angeles chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), who called it the worst accident he'd ever seen in a rodeo arena and demanded immediate reforms to the sport.

That was in 1996.

Last August, at a Flying U rodeo in San Juan Capistrano, a bronco stood in a chute with a rider on its back. A rodeo clown standing opposite the rear of the horse suddenly leaned over the railing and pressed something against the horse's hindquarters. As the horse suddenly jerked, the clown tucked something about the size of an electric razor under his shirt and down the front of his jeans. The horse didn't die; it burst out of the chute with a lot of spirit, giving its rider a chance to score well.

It appeared to the person who videotaped the scene that the clown had used a prod to "hype" the horse. A second video showed the same clown doing something similar to a different horse.

The tapes of the horses and the clown secretly shot by an animal-rights activist during the second annual Rancho Mission Viejo Rodeo, which was held Aug. 24-25, 2002 played on a seemingly continual loop on the evening news throughout November. The Irvine-based Orange County People for Animals (OCPA) and the Geneva, Illinois-based Showing Animals Respect and Kindness (SHARK) allege that the device the clown used on the broncos was a Hot Shot Electric Cattle Prod. The use of prods on rodeo animals in chutes is prohibited by state law and Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) rules.

In an e-mail to members, the OCPA argues that Cotton Rosser, the promoter and stock contractor of the Rancho Mission Viejo Rodeo, should be prosecuted. But OC deputy district attorney Elizabeth Henderson informed OCPA and SHARK that there is not enough evidence to bring charges.

The animal-rights groups aren't buying it. They say the real decision maker was Henderson's boss, district attorney Tony Rackauckas, who has received campaign contributions over the years from members of a so-called "Rodeo Mafia."

"The Orange County sheriffs did their job," says SHARK founder Steve Hindi. "They took [the videotapes] to Rackauckas, who says there is not enough evidence. Someone ought to take one of those prods and stick it on his neck, and he'll find evidence real quick. The guy's disgusting. We've written him e-mails, and he won't respond. Sissy."

Hindi claims that many involved in California's $20 million rodeo industry and some members of law enforcement are part of the Rodeo Mafia. Despite being viewed as a progressive state, he says, "when it comes to California's relationship with the Rodeo Mafia, the good old boy network is as strong as in the most unenlightened backwaters."

* * *

Seventy-five-year-old Horton Alexander "Cotton" Rosser has been called "the P.T. Barnum of rodeo." He grew up in Long Beach but picked up rodeo skills wrangling cattle in the 1940s for the Wrigley Ranch on Catalina Island. He captained the rodeo team at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where he studied animal science, and turned pro on the rodeo circuit in the late 1940s, specializing in roping, bulldogging and bronc riding. Rosser befriended the late Gene Autry at rodeo arenas in the 1950s and has called the former Anaheim Angels owner "probably the best rodeo entertainer we have ever had." Rosser and "The Cowboy" are enshrined in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys' Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Rosser's pro career ended in the mid-1950s when he crushed both ankles while working on his Yuba County, California, ranch. He then bought the Flying U Rodeo Co. in nearby Marysville and became a rodeo promoter and stock contractor. His whole family is now involved in the business, which is the West Coast's leading provider of stock for rodeos.

"I've had people involved in that [animal-rights activism] out to my ranch to see how we deal with the animals," Rosser said in an October San Francisco Chronicle story. "If we injure an animal, who's the loser? We are. Our veterinary bills are awfully high, as high as a regular doctor. We need to take care of these animals, not torture them."

Indeed, some activists say Rosser is among the most sensitive stock contractors in the rodeo biz. The PRCA claims cowboys in general were "the first animal-welfare advocates."

After years of demonstrations outside rodeos at the Orange County Fair, Rosser eliminated calf roping, team roping and steer wrestling from the 1995 fair and every subsequent run. As a result, the PRCA refused to sanction the fair's rodeos, deeming them "no longer professional" without the ropin' and a-wrasslin'.

But allegations of illegal horse prodding have followed Flying U to other California towns. The Folsom Police Department investigated a claim of animal abuse against Rosser when he supplied broncos to the city's rodeo in July 2002. Donna Lynn Hertel of SHARK says she videotaped a bull rider delivering several rounds of electric shock to a bull in a chute to incite it to buck. Her tape also shows several animal handlers twisting and pulling the tails of steers and calves, and she claims to have seen a man hit a horse in the face with a beer bottle.

Folsom police officials say they did not see enough evidence on the tape to arrest anyone. But just to make sure, they forwarded the video and the results of their investigation to the Sacramento Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA). Hindi claims that when SHARK later contacted the SSPCA to find out how the probe was proceeding, they were told the videotape had been lost. He says SHARK sent a second tape, but was later told by the SSPCA that it too was lost. Since being sent a third copy of the tape, the SSPCA has not returned SHARK's calls, Hindi alleges.

The SSPCA's investigative unit did not return the Weekly's calls.

* * *

Section 596.7(e) of the California Penal Code stipulates: "The rodeo management shall ensure that no electric prod or similar device is used on any animal once the animal is in the holding chute, unless necessary to protect the participants and spectators of the rodeo." Violations of the section are punishable by fines of between $500 and $2,000 for a first offense and $1,500 to $5,000 for subsequent transgressions.

But you know how California has a law that legalizes medical marijuana but medical marijuana users keep getting busted in the Golden State? The exact opposite is true when it comes to the electric-prod law. Despite all the videotaping and eyewitness reports of horse zapping in the hands of law enforcement agencies throughout California, not one conviction has resulted.

Meanwhile, under PRCA rules, those who illegally use prods and similar devices in riding events are subject to fines of $100 per offense, and the contractor who supplied the animals can get slapped with a $250 penalty. But the organization's 20-page Animal Welfare report defends the use of prods, pointing out that they run on flashlight batteries and deliver 5,000-6,000 volts of electricity but at low amperage the measure of the actual strength of an electric current.

And when it comes to justifying their use, the PRCA uses the legendary Cotton Rosser as their pitchman.

"At a hearing regarding the use of an electric prod in Santa Cruz County, Rosser made a dramatic argument in favor of the device and he didn't say a word," states the PRCA's Animal Welfare report. "Armed with an electric prod equipped with new batteries, he gave himself a 'hot shot' in front of the county Board of Supervisors and a roomful of spectators. He made the point that if he could endure the mild trauma, so would animals that are much larger and have much thicker skin."

The PRCA goes on to say that the prods are commonly used on ranches and by veterinarians. And pro rodeo's governing body does allow their limited use only on the shoulder or hip areas, where nerve endings are not as dense and the sensation is weaker to move animals into the chutes or if a particular beast is known to stall once in the chutes. The rider must also give his permission to have the zapper used.

All kinds of things that go on at rodeos clown antics, noisemaking, stall shaking are designed to piss off the animals. The more agitated the beast gets, the better the chance that it will buck and bronc and allow its rider to score higher.

Defending the use of hot shots, Rosser has said they are more humane than other methods, which include whipping, hitting with boards, or kicking and twisting animals' tails.

"I lost seven cowboys last year; they were killed and nobody seemed to care about that," Rosser told The Orange County Register after Classic Velvet's death.

But Hindi claims the defense of hot shots changes when he confronts stock contractors at rodeos, or the few times he's persuaded an on-site member of law enforcement to respond, something that rarely happens because most cops don't seem to know that shocking horses is against the law. Hindi says that if he confronts rodeo representatives alone, they'll tell him the zappers don't hurt the horses and to get lost. But if he's got a cop, they'll say the devices don't work or that they're not electric prods but sound devices that make rattling noises to get the attention of animals.

Which begs some questions: If the zappers don't work, why do the videos show cowboys using them on the animals? Why do the animals suddenly buck? If they are noisemakers, how can the animals hear them over boisterous rodeo crowds? Why are the cowboys in the videos placing them on the animals' hindquarters and not near their ears?

Then there's the biggest question of all: If the zappers or noisemakers or whatever the hell they are are harmless, why do the tapes show the cowboys slyly hiding them?

These are questions you'd think a prosecutor might ask alleged lawbreakers before a judge or jury. But since no one's ever asked that in a California courtroom, Hindi, ever the gentleman, answers that last question on behalf of the rodeos:

"They always hide it because this violates their own rules and it violates the product manufacturer's own guidelines."

The makers of the Hot Shot Electric Cattle Prod "only recommend our product be used on hogs and cattle . . . not on horses because they are much too sensitive. . . . We do not recommend these products be used in rodeos."

The last line's the kicker:

"Check with local law agencies to determine your state's laws regarding the product."

* * *

The Weekly tried to check with the Orange County Sheriff's Department about the horse-zapping case that's been tossed back into their laps, but despite a media official there saying the investigating officer would get back to us, he never did.

We do know that, at the urging of the animal-rights groups, the Sheriff's Department investigated the incidents and forwarded its findings to the Orange County district attorney's office for possible prosecution.

"The case was reviewed by the OCDA," reads a statement the DA's media relations office recently sent to the Weekly. "OCDA declined to file any criminal charge based on a lack of sufficient evidence. It was sent back to OCSD [Orange County Sheriff's Department] sometime in December."

It was mighty white of the DA's office to respond, considering all the shit Rackauckas has been through in the past few years. Since being elected DA in 1998, he has been blasted for intervening in the legal process on behalf of wealthy contributors; raiding the public treasury to pay outrageous booze bills for his top staff; doing nothing when investigators turned up evidence that his No. 2 man double-billed taxpayers for questionable expenses; brokering a pro-polluter settlement with ARCO; launching personal, unsavory espionage missions against perceived foes; turning his public office into de facto campaign headquarters for friends seeking office; overseeing a legal team that was eventually proved responsible for several wrongful convictions; benefiting politically from the convenient six-month disappearance of his wife and another DA employee whom the county grand jury sought for questioning; and having unusually close ties to a figure his own office was investigating for alleged ties to organized crime until Rackauckas put the kibosh on the probe and eventually fired or watched just about every one of his staffers involved in the matter leave.

As a result, he has been blasted in the local media (including this very rag); spanked by a 100-page county grand jury report; and vilified by state Attorney General Bill Lockyer for heading what Lockyer told the Weekly is "the most mismanaged" DA's office in the state.

For months, the DA blamed the bad news on foes in his office. Only recently, upon taking the oath of office for a second term, did he issue a limp mea culpa for the mistakes he made in his first term. But the OCPA and SHARK believe their case proves our embattled DA is once again failing to nail someone at the behest of campaign donors.

The critter cradlers point to the DA's own campaign disclosure forms. Gloria Brandes, owner of the Oaks Blenheim Exhibitions where the Rancho Mission Viejo Rodeo is held, has given Rackauckas nearly $1,000, while the executive assistant of Brandes' husband has tossed in more than $600. Among rodeo sponsors who contributed to Rackauckas campaigns are Whispering Hills Development Co. ($1,000), Briggs Electric owner Steven Briggs ($1,000), Allen Packing Co. ($1,000), Capistrano Ford owner Brian Beeman ($500), Shur-Lok owner Robert W. Rohe ($500) and Hunsaker & Associates ($250).

A Folsom police official who requested anonymity suggested that because SHARK has produced tapes secretly shot at Flying U rodeos in his town, Orange County and elsewhere and because none of those jurisdictions pressed charges, the activists are hounding poor ol' Cotton Rosser.

The cop went on to say that the Folsom Rodeo is sponsored by those upstanding citizens known collectively as the Folsom Chamber of Commerce. He said no one's ever had a problem with Rosser. He said it wouldn't make sense for a stock contractor to harm his own animals because they are so valuable.

Hindi responds that his group monitors rodeos all over the country and that Rosser just happens to be one of the leading promoters of the events in California. "We're not picking on him, but he does have a long history of doing this kind of thing," he says.

He calls the clown caught on tape in Orange County "a serial shocker."

However, in the interest of full disclosure, and to show cops everywhere we don't totally suck off their critics, it should be pointed out that Hindi has been incarcerated for his animal activism. A decade ago, he interfered with hunters and got tossed in the pokey.

Ironically, Hindi had been a hunter most of his life. But something changed when he reached middle age and witnessed a live pigeon shoot in Pennsylvania. The blood and gore got to him. Besides being a hunter, he was a fisherman too. But after watching all those defenseless pigeons die, he went home, took a mounted fish off his wall and gave it a proper burial, in dirt, not the sea. (He lives in Illinois; give him a break.)

Hindi went on to found SHARK in 1993 and has built a mailing list with 8,000 addresses. Contributions to the group allow him to receive part-time pay for what's turned into a full-time job. He's scored several victories: forcing Pepsi to stop sponsoring bullfights in Mexico; winning a statewide ban on horse tripping and pigeon shooting in his home state; exposing the use of captive bolt guns, the kind used in slaughterhouses, to euthanize dogs, cats and deer, also in Illinois; getting the Pennsylvania pigeon shoot dragged into court, where videos SHARK has shot have been entered as evidence; using ultralight planes to separate herds from hunters in several states; and persuading schools across the country to stop staging donkey basketball games.

The Folsom cop says many on his force share that kind of passion for protecting defenseless creatures.

"Law enforcement is extremely sensitive to animal cruelty," he says. "There is always sworn law enforcement at rodeos. Why don't these people find an officer and tell him the abuse is going on? Instead, they always go to the media."

Hindi responds, "Oftentimes, law enforcement has been hired for crowd control and paid by the people putting on the rodeo. It's a conflict of interest, which, unfortunately, often results in a conflict going the wrong way."

Guess where he says that's happened before?

"In Folsom, the [SHARK] investigator had to almost twist the arm of the officer to get him to confront the rodeo clown," Hindi says. "And then [the officer] did not confiscate the prod. You're at a disadvantage when you don't take evidence out of their hands."

Mix disingenuous rodeo promoters with "weak-willed law enforcement" and well-heeled sponsors who give big bucks to elected DAs, and you get a Rodeo Mafia.

"They are shameless and they corrupt others," Hindi says. "We've gone to police, not just in Folsom, and most of the time they don't know there is a state law against shocking horses, and a lot of times they don't care."

See the videos SHARK shot at last summer's Rancho Mission Viejo Rodeo by logging on to www.sharkonline.org/

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