As the sun was setting on Friday, August 5, about a dozen people stood along Calle Real near the Earl Warren Showgrounds parking lot. The Fiesta Stock Horse Show and Rodeo was about to start. Each held one or two signs reading statements such as “Have a Heart, Boycott Cruelty” and “No Excuse for Animal Abuse.” Cars lined the street, waiting for the line to ease so that they could get into the venue. I hopped out as my ride zoomed away, leaving me on the bike path.
One of the protesters quickly told me to get out of the bike path and stand on the dirt. The police had been there earlier, telling them that they needed to be out of the way of cars and bikes. When I was safely standing on the dirt, I immediately felt a sense of awkwardness stemming from the odd mesh of rodeo-goers and protesters in such close proximity. For years, animal rights activists picketing the event have endured obscene gestures, insults, yelling, and the occasional throwing of a beer or horseshoe at them.
The Santa Barbara Fiesta Rodeo Web site reads: “For each of us, the rodeo holds a different, yet very special meaning.” But for an entirely different set of people — the protesters — it’s “barbaric.” The first person I spoke with held a sign stating “12 cities have banned rodeo, Santa Barbara is next.” Sheryl, the group’s leader who didn’t want to give her last name because she would “get a lot of nasty phone calls,” said her group has taken a stand against the rodeo for eight years now.
They are part of PETA, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Sheryl said that a rodeo is an “unnecessary sport for entertainment.” She compared the purported maltreatment of bulls, horses, and calves to “traditions” — like slavery — that were once carried out despite knowledge of their negative impact. Santa Barbara’s rodeo Web site describes the event as “exciting and affordable family entertainment!” Rodeo sponsors included MarBorg Industries, Bud Light, and Resistol. But with so much support for the sport, said Sheryl, there is little questioning of its ethics. She said that people often think someone else will speak out and take action, which may explain the lack of widespread boycotting.
A few of the PETA members disclosed that they had attended a rodeo before, but they didn’t know what they were seeing. One woman, Kay, recounted that when she was a teen, she and her friend went to their first rodeo. She said that the second horse out of the gate went berserk and hit its head against the side of the arena, and died. Kay left shortly after, unable to compose herself after witnessing the event.
When she and her friend reached her car, she remembered, “We were both crying.” Sheryl and the others repeatedly stressed that animals are badly hurt during rodeos. A pamphlet the group handed out described the damage: “Horses, calves, and bulls who are used in rodeos are treated like expendable commodities,” reads the first line. Many animals meet their untimely death and become seriously injured during the sport, it goes on. Injuries include bruising, spinal cord injuries, and paralysis.
Sheryl spoke about how going to the rodeo is “tradition” and “generational” in many families. She said that if somebody grew up in such a family, it is “hard [for them] to change their mind.” Sheryl had also been to a rodeo before, but soon heard of the alleged mistreatment the animals involved in the sport. After the visit and some education on the subject, she decided that she “felt horrible” and has volunteered her time and energy for the cause since.
As I jumped back into the car, she turned to me and asked, “Did you hear that?” “Yes,” I said. A man had just yelled to the protesters: “You don’t know what you’re talking about!”