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Activist claims animals at NFR are abused

December 03, 1997

The Las Vegas Sun

By Jerry Fink

Steve Hindi's been following the rodeo circuit for the past three years.

Folks who run the circuit wish he'd stop.

The 43-year-old Chicago businessman isn't a cowboy. He's an animal rights activist who believes rodeos are inherently cruel to animals, even without the electric prods and other torture devices he says are used to force animals into behaving more wild than they are.

"Rodeo promoters are trying to sell everybody on the myth -- I'd like to sell people on the truth," said Hindi, owner of a manufacturing company in the Chicago area. "These animals are abused. They are not mean."

Hindi is in town for the National Finals Rodeo at the Thomas & Mack Center, which begins Friday and runs through Dec. 14.

The NFR -- considered the "World Series" of rodeo -- has grown steadily in popularity over the years, as seen in the increased earnings at the event.

When the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association-sponsored event was first held in Dallas in 1959, the prize money totaled $50,000. The purse at this year's competition will be $3.4 million and could reach $4 million by the year 2000.

Cindy Schonholtz, the PRCA's animal welfare coordinator, said this year's rodeo is sold out.

"Here in Las Vegas you can't buy a ticket," she said. "Protests by animal rights activists, like Steve Hindi, haven't affected us at all."

But Hindi doesn't mind bucking a trend.

"I'm a former hunter," he said.

His attitude changed, he said, in 1989 when he saw a "pigeon shoot" in Pennsylvania.

"It was basically trap shooting with live animals, an ugly affair," said the activist who became a vegetarian as a result of his desire not to hurt animals.

Now his "hunting" is limited to tracking down humans who abuse animals and exposing them to the public, Hindi said.

Once upon a time Hindi was an avid fisherman, but now thinks even fishing is abusive.

"There's a reason they fight when the hook is planted," he said. "Fish feel pain."

And he can't stand to see birds injured.

Recently he frightened birds away from a private hunting sanctuary by flying over the territory in an ultralight aircraft.

Hindi said when he first became an activist -- he is with the Chicago Animal Rights Coalition -- he carried signs but quickly realized that did no good and alienated some people. So he turned to filming acts of cruelty and showing them to the media and to individuals.

"I found out if I videotape something and show it, that is more convincing," Hindi said.

In September he did a spot on the syndicated television show "Hard Copy," showing electrical shock devices being used to prod animals out of chutes.

Hindi carries around a videotape made up of a number of PRCA-sanctioned rodeos he attended this year. The tapes show men prodding animals in chutes with something.

Schonholtz, 34, denies the PRCA has allowed any breaking of its rules governing protecting animals.

The only time an electric prod may be used is to move an animal, not to get it to react for an event.

"Our rodeo administrators will discipline anyone if rules are violated," said Schonholtz, though she said she has no idea how many disciplinary procedures have been enacted since they are private matters and not open to the public.

She said one of Hindi's problems is that the information won't be released.

"That's confidential," she said.

Schonholtz began participating in rodeos as a teenager and has seen the events from every angle -- everywhere from the inside looking out and the outside looking in, and she has never seen any abuse.

"I've seen accidents," she said. "We're not saying animals don't ever get hurt. But we take all the precautions. We are known to have the most strict rules there are, but animals and people are going to get hurt.

"We don't allow cruelty to animals. If there are incidents, it's strictly an accident. I have never seen improper use of prods -- the alternatives are sticks or whips. And we can use electricity only on hips or shoulders."

Hindi said he has seen prods used on heads; he has seen and videotaped animals being beaten on the head; having their tails pulled or "raked" across a fence; he has seen cows and calves have their necks broken and horses injured in falls.

He compares rodeos to wrestling -- only in wrestling matches both participants are in on the joke while in rodeos only the cowboys are.

Schonholtz is very familiar with Hindi.

"I honestly don't believe Steve Hindi cares about the animals," she said. "We've grown up with them. We respect them."

Hindi scoffs at her assertions that bucking horses are bred to buck and not urged to do so with devices of torture.

He said he once challenged the PRCA to allow a member of his group to pick out a horse, put it in a chute and ride it out.

If the horse didn't buck, then the animal rights activists would have made their point and if it did then the PRCA would have the pleasure of seeing an activist thrown through the air.

"We got no response from the PRCA," he said.

Schonholtz said Hindi makes a lot of wild allegations without backing them up, trying to create negative publicity for rodeos.

"He's well-known to do publicity students while we use facts and figures," she said. "We bring people in to look at our animals. There's a veterinarian at every PRCA rodeo. We conduct studies to make sure we have a low rate of injuries.

"We had 730 rodeos last year and no animals were injured. We have done studies in the past and have shown the injury rate is significantly less than 1 percent."

Schonholtz said protests by animal rights activists are not hurting rodeos.

"What seems to be happening is the activists are becoming more radical and people are getting turned off ... mainstream America realizes that these people are not really concerned about the welfare of animals," she said. "They just believe you don't have a right to use animals. We believe we have a responsibility to care for them."

She believes the popularity of rodeos will continue to increase.

"People are looking for more family-oriented things to do," she said.

But Hindi believes there is a great hypocrisy in the position rodeo promoters take when they assert it is family entertainment for God-fearing patriotic Americans.

"I can't imagine how they can call themselves Christians or good Americans," he said, noting that every rodeo begins with a prayer and is accentuated with a lot of flag waving. "They say their prayers and wave their flags and then turn around and beat the hell out of the animals."

Hindi said he will continue another old American tradition -- that of protest.

"I'm astounded that this is an all-America sport," he said. "Just like in wrestling, those who are portrayed as the bad guys aren't really bad.

"These animals are not mean."

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