A proposed Santa Cruz County Rodeo has some saddling up, and others up in arms
At last year’s Santa Cruz County Fair, County Sheriff Sgt. Michael MacDonald conducted an informal survey of attendees. He asked them, “If a rodeo were brought to the Santa Cruz County Fairground for the purpose of raising money to support our local schools and children’s organizations, would you attend?” One hundred percent said yes.
As the vice president of the Santa Cruz County Deputy Sheriff’s Association (DSA) and the founder of its newborn fundraising branch, Stars of Justice, Inc., MacDonald spent the following months busily planning a proposal for just that: a Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association (PRCA)-sanctioned rodeo, hosted by the DSA, to be held at the county fairgrounds this October. It would raise money for after-school programs and youth services.
“The DSA and its members are frustrated with what we’ve seen happen with the youth in Santa Cruz County,” says MacDonald. “The programs that help them have been hurt by the budgets and we find ourselves arresting more and more juveniles for activities they are involved in.” A list of benefactors for the rodeo fundraiser is in the works—in addition to many local schools, some proceeds will also go toward the DSA’s annual Children’s Holiday Party and youth Halloween event.
MacDonald’s plan for a rodeo fundraiser was, in part, inspired by his own history of working as a rodeo grunt, and also draws from the popularity of the Salinas Rodeo, which reportedly drew a crowd of 10,000 on its opening night last year.
The proposal now sits in the hands of the Fairgrounds Board of Directors, which will decide whether or not to approve the rodeo contract at their May 18 meeting. But as the date of the hearing draws near, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: far from 100 percent of Santa Cruz residents are in favor of bringing a rodeo to town.
Rodeo did not register on the radar of popular sports in the 2006, 2007 or 2008 Gallup Poll surveys (the last time it did was in 2005, when 1 percent of respondents cited it as their favorite sport to follow). Whether or not one would be a hit in Santa Cruz … no one can know. (The DSA used to host one at the fairgrounds, but it dissolved several decades ago.) But when a small handful of animal rights activists recently heard about the little-known plan for a rodeo in Santa Cruz, they immediately plunged into trying to stop it from becoming a reality.
The opposition started off small (four disapprovers attended the April 20 Fairground Board of Directors meeting to share their concerns) but in the weeks since, numerous animal welfare and advocacy groups have taken a stand—even the Santa Cruz Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). The organization stated the following in an open letter to the Fairground Board of Directors: “By the feedback we have already received, it is clear that creating a new rodeo would only anger Santa Cruz County residents and would most likely result in diminished attendance to the annual Santa Cruz County Fair … We ask on behalf of our organization and our 29,000-plus local supporters that you please deny the request to hold this new rodeo at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds.”
The opposition has organized as Stop the Rodeo, a group led by Gary Travers, a Santa Cruz animal rights activist and vegan for 30 years, who has asked to go by a pseudonym in order to preserve his ability to do undercover work in the future. He says that even if the rodeo is an American tradition—which he claims it isn’t—it is one worth ditching.
“If it were an American tradition, would that make it right?” he asks. “Slavery was an American tradition. Only white landowners voting was a tradition. There are a lot of traditions we have chosen to leave behind. Something being a tradition doesn’t make it right.”
He pulls out a stack of glossy rodeo photos: one shows an emaciated calf being jerked back while running at top speed; another shows a horse bucking, its body twisted and contorted.
“I look at the way the animals are treated, and it seems quite obvious to me that it is abuse,” he says. “I’m not sure how the rodeo people can see otherwise, but people tend to be able to deceive themselves when they want to.”
The Santa Cruz County Rodeo will include six PRCA events—bareback and saddle bronco riding, bull riding, tie-down and team-roping, and steer wrestling—as well as barrel racing and a children’s calf chasing event.
Stop the Rodeo is also worried the event will set a violent example for children. With 30 years of animal protection work under her belt, JP Novic, founder of Santa Cruz-based nonprofit Center for Animal Protection and Education (CAPE), says rodeos send the wrong message to children. “Our community feels it is important to educate our children about kindness,” she says. “When families bring their children to the rodeo under the veil of entertainment, children don’t make the connection that these animals are being hurt.” CAPE is working on an online TV show to educate people “on why this is a bad idea,” according to Novic.
MacDonald says that the overall response has been “really great.” The number of volunteers is quickly growing as more supporters hear of the event, and national and local businesses are also saddling up—they’ve garnered sponsorship from Wrangler and Montana Silversmiths, a $25,000 in-kind advertising donation from Entravision, and much more. He expects the event to draw a big crowd, filling the fundraising coffer. “I’m hoping for 5,000 a day, but there is potential for more than that if we get the outpour that Salinas [rodeo] gets,” he says.
Still, he is aware that an opposition is brewing.
“There are people in Santa Cruz County that oppose it for obvious reasons—they support animal rights and believe rodeos are not favorable to animals,” says MacDonald. “I respect their opinion.” He says that SOJ will ensure that the rodeo complies with state rodeo laws and PRCA guidelines, which includes having a veterinarian on site or on call. The San Benito County Large Animal Rescue Team and Felton Large Animal Rescue Company have offered their services. He also vouches for the planned stock contractor, Diamond G Rodeo, which will be providing the “rough stock” (rodeo speak for animals).
“Neither Diamond G nor the DSA has anything to hide in regard to these animals,” he says. MacDonald extends an offer to Stop the Rodeo to pick a representative to attend the rodeo behind the scenes. “They can come with me personally and I will escort them behind the chutes and introduce them to the Diamond G owner,” he says.
Peggy Koteen has been working on rodeo issues in the Central Coast for more than 15 years. She currently runs the San Luis Obispo chapter of Animal Emancipation. Although she says “it would be an act of good will on their part to allow us behind the scenes to video document,” she claims there is no such thing as a humane rodeo—whether or not the guidelines are followed. ”They could put on a humane rodeo if they didn’t use live animals,” she says. “Let them use a mechanical bull. That’s how they could put on a humane rodeo.” Travers is also less than enthusiastic about the offer, calling it “pretty useless.” “We already have solid video documentation that time and time again the rodeo industry violates both the law and their own rules—useless as those rules are—and nothing is done,” he says. “How would it help to have more such documentation?”
Fairground Manger Michael Bethke, who helped analyze the proposal before the staff made his recommendation to the board, says that public comment is encouraged during the decision process. “We welcome comments from everybody in the public, both in writing and they are more than welcome to appear at that hearing date, as well,” he says. The DSA foresees potential for the rodeo to be “one of the biggest public events in Santa Cruz County and hopefully someday one of the best rodeos offered in the State of California” (as stated on the SOJ website). Stop the Rodeo hopes it never happens, but is prepared to continue fighting even if it does.
“Everyone who has [fought] this sort of thing before says I’m not going to succeed,” says Travers. “They say the board will vote for this—that this is what fairgrounds are all about, this is what they do—so the thing is to try, fight it, and make sure that even if it passes, it doesn’t happen again.
“I hope they’re wrong,” he adds. “But the thing is to try.”
For more information about the Santa Cruz County Rodeo, visit santacruzrodeo.com. For more about Stop the Rodeo, visit stoptherodeo.com.