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California rodeo animals face violent and deadly victims

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As the Los Angeles City Council prepares to weigh in on a measure to effectively ban rodeos, a review of 21 years of rodeo animal injury reports shows a hidden, violent and deadly side to a sport advertised as an icon of American tradition.

A review of reports by The Times shows that since 2001 – when a law took effect in one state requiring all rodeos to have a veterinarian present or on duty – more than 125 animal injuries have been reported. Reports were written by on-call or on-call veterinarians and submitted to the California Veterinary Medical Board. The reports were acquired through a public records request.

No reports were published in 2001, 2002, 2006, 2009 or 2020. Only twenty reports were published before 2010.

Reports document injuries ranging from minor illnesses such as superficial abrasions sustained when panicking animals rushed off their chutes, to crushed skulls, broken legs, gored flanks and broken spines.

In 35 of the injury reports reviewed by The Times, the animal died immediately or within minutes of the accident, or had to be euthanized – or in one case, put down – within hours or days. In 14 cases, reports leave the fate of the severely injured animal uncertain. In these cases, either the attending veterinarian was denied access to the animal or the report did not provide information on the fate of the animal.

For example, in 2016, Wayne Merhoff, a Red Bluff-based veterinarian, reported that a calf at the Red Bluff Round-Up broke his leg during a calf stringing event. The calf’s owner refused to let Merhoff treat the animal, leaving its fate unknown.

“Personal property rights conflict with my efforts to care for these animals,” Merhoff wrote in his report, noting that several animals were reported injured in the roundup, but their owners refused to let them go. see.

Merhoff could not be reached for comment.

Zack Brown tries to hang on to Lil’ Devil during the bareback bronc riding event at the Springville Sierra Rodeo in Springville, CA in 2018.

(Chieko Hara / Porterville Recorder)

In another case, a horse in the 2018 Folsom Rodeo fell during a bucking bronco and lost the ability to move its hind legs. As Lisa Gamsjaeger, the attending veterinarian, rushed to get medicine for the horse, a team of cowboys rushed in and tied the horse’s feet together. By the time Gamsjaeger returned with the medicine, they had the horse tied to the back of a trailer.

“I could not assess the rear as it was pushed into the corner of the trailer,” Gamsjaeger wrote that day. She noted that the mare’s legs were still tied together. The owner insisted on taking the horse to Marysville, an hour away.

Gamsjaeger could not be reached for comment.

Douglas Corey, chairman of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Assn. livestock welfare committee, said he could not comment on the reports or numbers cited by The Times. But he said rodeos are very safe for animals and less than 0.05% of animals used in rodeos are injured.

He was unable to provide The Times with the data, reports, or figures used to derive this figure; however, he said his organization keeps records and has vets at every event.

“I don’t know of any deaths that I could tell you about that actually happened in the arena,” he said. “I know I may have heard of the death of a high-entry horse that may have had an aneurysm. Perhaps a pickup horse not involved in an event may have had a heart attack. … But that doesn’t necessarily mean that an animal died from an actual event in an arena.

A starter horse is one that is ridden or paraded at the start of a rodeo, when the national anthem is usually sung and flags are waved. Pickup horses are usually ridden in the arena to help a rodeo competitor get off a struggling animal.

Temple Grandin, author and professor of cattle medicine at Colorado State University, said the biggest threat to animals in the arena is poor training — not necessarily the devices Los Angeles decides whether or not to ban them in the arena. city ​​limits.

The order aims to ban items that can cause physical harm such as electric prods, flank straps, metal ties, lassos, lassos and sharpened or fixed spurs.

“A good breeder will have an animal so well trained” that injuries are negligible, Grandin said in an interview. She said deadly events happen when animals aren’t trained or used to arenas and crowds. Partly for this reason, she dislikes calf roping or feral cow milking events, at which wild and wayward animals are hunted.

“This is where things go wrong,” she says.

But Crystal Heath, a Bay Area veterinarian and former Grand National Rodeo Queen competitor, said even trained animals are at risk of injury.

“I think we have to ask ourselves if scaring, provoking and potentially harming animals – purely for entertainment purposes – is something we support as a society. I don’t think that’s what the public wants,” she said.

In 28 of the 35 deaths reviewed by The Times, the animal died while playing. Twelve horses have died during bronco riding events – rodeo performances in which a flank strap is tied around a horse’s waist to make it rear up. Riders try to stay on top of the bucking horse for several seconds. One of these horses ran headfirst into a post and died almost immediately; another sped through a metal door and broke his neck. Others had their legs broken under them as they struggled.

A man clings to the head of a running bull.

Trever Mark Knighton competes in the steer wrestling event at the annual Poway Rodeo in September 2015.

(Charlie Neuman/San Diego Union-Tribune)

Other animals such as bulls, steers, cows and calves have died in events such as bull riding, steer wrestling, wild cow milking, bareback competition, bullfighting, stampede, wild horse racing and calf roping.

In one particularly grisly event at the 2013 California Rodeo Salinas, a steer spun past a competitor’s horse, tripping them both. The horse then stepped on the ox’s neck, fracturing it. The ox was dead by the time he was taken out of the arena.

In many cases, it was fear and panic that caused the injury.

A horse competing in a bucking bronco competition in 2011 “ran headfirst into a fence post and collapsed,” wrote Erin Contino, an on-call veterinarian at the Oakdale Rodeo. The mare collapsed, did not react and died within minutes.

In another case, a cow at the Rowell Ranch Rodeo in Alameda County attempted to run away from the arena, jumped a fence, landed on her face and, with a broken neck and an eye protruding from her orbit, had to be euthanized.

It’s unclear whether the reports compiled by the state reflect the true number of injuries in events over the past two decades, or a vast undercount.

According to information provided by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Assn., approximately 40 events are held each year throughout the state. This number does not include Professional Bull Riders events or more informal and community rodeo scores. charrerias which take place almost daily during the summer months.

Reports were published by only 29 rodeos – most not providing annual reports.

For example, Fortuna, Glenville, Stanislaus, and Springville rodeos have each released only one report out of the 21 years for which the state has data. The Clovis Rodeo veterinarian has issued 32 reports since 2010.

“The fact that no injuries were reported in some years is statistically impossible,” said Eric Mills, an Oakland-based animal advocate.

Los Angeles City Councilman Bob Blumenfield agreed.

These reports are “just what was sent. This stuff is hardly reported,” he said. “I would have to believe that’s a vast undercount, and, even if it wasn’t, I don’t think that’s a very good statistic.”

Referring to Corey’s number, he said “they’re all counting sheep, dogs and cats – animals that aren’t involved in the most dangerous activities or driven by these instruments of torture.”

The city council’s three-member staff, audits and animal welfare committee is due to vote on the rodeo measure on Wednesday. If passed, the ordinance will go to the full council in January.

Blumenfield, who co-sponsored the bill and represents the San Fernando Valley, said the ordinance would not affect equestrian activities other than rodeo, which generally do not require the items mentioned in the measure.

“It’s about inhumane devices that are used in rodeos and whether or not we should continue this practice in 2022 and beyond,” he said.

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