Earlier this fall, Alameda County supervisors officially banned the practice of “wild cow milking” — a timed event in which a lactating beef cow, unused to human handling, has been wrangled from the fields and brought to an arena.
There, she is separated from her calf, tossed into a rodeo ring, and attacked by three or four men who rope her, pull her tail, wrestle her to the ground and try to hold her still while one of them grabs her teats and milks her.
The move comes three years after the county banned “mutton busting” — an event in which small children are placed on the backs of scared, unsaddled sheep and try to stay on while the sheep bucks, kicks and jumps to knock the child off.
"It's animal abuse," said Eric Mills, coordinator for Oakland's Action for Animals, an animal welfare organization. "It's unconscionable to treat animals this way. Can you imagine if they did this to dogs? No one would be OK with it. So why is it OK to do this to baby calves, horses and cows?"
For those who admire a "western lifestyle," a good rodeo performance highlights the skill, bravery and strength of a talented cowboy or cowgirl — a rider deft with a lasso, in control of wild, bucking animals, and laser-focused on a chaotic, seemingly uncontrollable task at hand. It's this display of western grandeur, hard work, grit and sportsmanship that has likely made the Peacock series "Yellowstone" such a major hit.
But for others, the rodeo is a horror show in which terrified animals are chased around an arena, kicked by strangers, tossed onto the ground with potentially bone-crushing impact — all while loud music is blared and dozens, if not hundreds, of people yell, scream and clap from the nearby stands.
In California, there is a growing movement to ban — or seriously curtail — these kinds of performances. And lawmakers are stepping into the fray, exposing one more hot-button issue that is seemingly emblematic of the nation's growing cultural discord.
In Los Angeles, the City Council is poised to vote on legislation that would curtail, if not eliminate, rodeo events within the city. Instead of banning particular events, the legislation seeks to ban certain devices used on rodeo animals — spurs, flank straps and electric prods — that can cause pain or injury.
The legislation is sponsored by Bob Blumenfield, who represents the west San Fernando Valley.
He said he introduced the legislation because he "wanted to see what we could do in terms of trying to make Los Angeles a little bit more humane and live up to its name as the 'city of angels.'"
San Francisco, San Juan Capistrano and Pasadena already have restrictions on rodeos, as do Pittsburgh, Leesburg, Va., and Fort Wayne, Ind.
Other states, towns, counties and countries have bans on specific events, such as the county of Baltimore, which prohibits calf roping — a sport in which a rider mounted on a horse chases a calf around an arena in an attempt to catch it.
At first the rider throws a rope around the neck of the small animal, stopping it mid-run with a forceful yank, which often tops the animal over. Then — after dismounting — the rider will try to restrain it by tying three legs together, in as short a time as possible.
For those concerned about animal welfare and abuse, these developments are hopeful; laying the groundwork for other counties, municipalities and eventually the state to adopt similar restrictions.
"When Los Angeles sneezes, the whole state catches a cold," Blumenfield said.
For rodeo supporters, however, it's just one more example of California's radical progressivism — a state so out of touch with mainstream America that it's turning its back on a tradition as hallowed as apple pie.
And it's L.A.'s potential for contagion that has gotten Sean Gleason, chief executive and commissioner of the Professional Bull Riders, or PBR, so concerned.
"Frankly, our fans across the country have said, 'Let them have L.A. Who cares?'” Gleason said. "The sentiment from the rest of the country is that they are just out there. Why even fight this fight? And my answer to them is this is absolutely the place to fight them."
Tim Baldwin, chairman of the Livestock Welfare Committee for the California Rodeo Salinas — the largest rodeo in California — agreed.
"I understand that emotions run high on many issues currently, and I hate to use the phrase 'culture wars,' but these ordinances tend to stroke that division," he said.
During an August hearing in Alameda County, rodeo proponents suggested that the wild cow milking ban and a proposed device-restricting ordinance were the products of extremists who sought to cancel American culture and tradition, outlaw agriculture, and embrace communism and Marxism.
"The fact that these bleeding hearts get on here and try, once again, to destroy the American way of life is pathetic," said Jackie Cota, president of the Tri-Valley Republicans and a Livermore resident. "These are the same people who’ve made you wear those muzzles on your mouth right now. They want to control you for no reason and tell you there is a deadly virus without providing you with any proof for the last two years. They are Marxists."
Animal activists, on the other hand, described the treatment of rodeo animals as inhumane and violent — suggesting such events are celebrations of domination and cruelty.
"Why are we allowing children to witness men and women forcefully dominate and abuse animals?" asked Kristina Verdile, a tenured history teacher who lives in Pleasanton and runs a rescue home for abused farm animals.
While supervisors for Alameda County — home of the liberal-leaning cities of Oakland and Berkeley — voted to prohibit wild cow milking in the county's unincorporated areas, they unanimously voted to amend the ordinance and remove the device ban.
There are roughly 40 Professional Rodeo Cowboys Assn. events annually throughout the state. That number doesn't include Professional Bull Riders events or the scores of more informal community rodeos and charrerias, which take place almost daily throughout the summer.
Wild cow milking and mutton busting are not sanctioned at Professional Rodeo Cowboys Assn. events and are not part of the PBR format, but they are found at smaller, local rodeos, including at Rowell Ranch, which is in unincorporated Alameda County.
"Folks sometimes underestimate the popularity of rodeo," said Baldwin, citing statistics showing that roughly 6.3 million people attend professional rodeos nationally each year, and that 43 million Americans identify as rodeo fans.
Gleason said professional bull riding is one of the fastest growing sports in the nation and that it claims more than 82 million fans "that watch us on television, come to our events, or engage with us otherwise."
Esteban Escobedo, an L.A.-based charro, can attest to the popularity. And he's worried about how the ordinance could affect his community. He said although the L.A. ordinance would have minimal immediate effect — only about a handful of charro events take place within city limits every year — the harm would come later.
"And then what? This is our tradition. It's our way of life," he said, adding that a ban would be devastating for young children and teens who are dedicated to the sport and charro community.
Charros are Mexican horse riders, or cowboys. Events often include dancing and rodeo performances, which can be done as a team sport, known as a charreada, or by a solo rider.
California already regulates rodeos. Penal code Sec. 596.7 requires, among other things, the presence of a veterinarian, or one nearby and "on-call." Injury reports must then be sent to the state's veterinary medical board. Rhode Island also requires that a vet be present or on call, but only California demands reporting.
Requests for those reports were not immediately forthcoming. A spokesman for the state's Department of Consumer Affairs said that although his agency collects this information, it has not been organized or quantified in a way that can be summarized or released to the public.
Baldwin and Gleason say these sports pose relatively little risk to the animals. They say they are concerned about the safety and well-being of their animals, and point to regulations established by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Assn. and PBR designed to ensure animals aren't injured.
"What I’m saying is, if animal rights activists were successful in shutting down bull riding — through this argument that there’s some kind of torture that doesn’t exist — I assure you these animals have zero purpose and they’d be turned into hamburger within a week," Gleason said. "Because nobody is going to keep them around to stand around on the farm and live a natural life."
He said while maybe a dozen bulls have had to be euthanized in the three decades since PBR was established, hundreds of thousands of cows and steer die at the hands of wolves, foxes and domesticated dogs every year. And if they don't get felled by natural predators, they will "end up in the food chain."
Animal activists say such arguments are nonsense. Not only are rodeo animals at risk of injury when they perform, but they say they are terrorized for human entertainment.
At a Virginia bull riding event in September, a bull with a rider on its back fell to the ground after charging out of the chute, crushing its leg beneath its body. Video shows the animal struggling to rid itself of the rider, bucking and kicking while its injured leg dangles at an angle below.
And Mills, the animal rights activist from Oakland, said the reason California legislators drafted the state's rodeo law was because of the large number of injuries, including a 1995 Salinas rodeo performance in which five animals died or had to be euthanized: three horses, a steer and a calf.
"Call it what you want," said Matt Rossell, campaigns manager for the Animal Legal Defense Fund. "But rodeos are nothing other than legalized animal cruelty."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.