CASTRO VALLEY – Separated from her offspring, a terrified mother cow darts into an arena, chased by a rodeo cowboy on horseback – a chase that continues until the heifer is lassoed and a second cowboy tackles the animal and tosses it into the sand.
As the crowd roars, the cowboy ties the struggling cow with a rope and forcibly milks her into a bottle. That’s what signals victory at the wild cow milking, a popular event at rodeos, stretching back to the history of the American West and the cattle industry that defined early California settlements.
But that game could end in Alameda County for good. Next month, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors will consider banning the handling or milking of cattle — such as steers, calves, bulls, steers, heifers or cows — for entertainment or sport. The policy has been sought for years by animal rights activists, who find the stunt cruel and inhumane.
And the proposed regulation doesn’t stop at cow’s milking competitions. It also seeks to ban the spurs and leashes that rodeo cowboys use to lure bulls or horses, along with the stiff ropes they use to pull or tie cattle around.
If approved, rodeo enthusiasts say, the far-reaching ban could threaten the future of rodeos at the Alameda County fairgrounds, as well as the Rowell Ranch Rodeo in Castro Valley, which just celebrated its 100th annual event in May.
“Our lifestyles are important, cultures are important,” Brian Morrison, a longtime rancher in Alameda County, said at the supervisors’ meeting Tuesday. “It is shameful to try to piggyback on this ordinance to harm a particular culture and institution like the Rowell Ranch Rodeo.”
It would be rare for a California jurisdiction to impose such a restrictive ban, and even local animal rights activists are surprised that the ordinance extends to devices central to rodeos themselves, not just the milking of wild cows. Earlier this year, however, the Los Angeles City Council supported the idea of rodeo rules similar to those being considered in Alameda County, though those proposed policies are still pending final council approval.
Alameda County has already put some restrictions on rodeos. In 2019, provincial regulators banned the slaughter of mutton, with children throwing themselves on sheep’s backs and riding on them, often injuring the small animals.
Rodeo critics say that many other rodeo sports, especially the milking of wild cows, amount to humiliation, abuse and torture of livestock.
“Rodeos have had their brutal days and now, like those Confederate statues, they belong in the dustbins of history,” said Eric Mills, who has been organizing against rodeos for decades.
dr. Rene Gandolfi, a local vet who advocated the ban on breaking mutton, said the mental trauma animals suffer during rodeos is just as acute as the physical stress.
“Animals experience stress, and the kind of stress they experience is unfavorable stress, just like it is for humans,” Gandolfi said. “If we simply say that the only injury to an animal is (one) that we can document with an X-ray, then we’re going to miss a lot of injuries — stress and anxiety are injuries in themselves.”
The new regulation, introduced Tuesday by Supervisors Dave Brown and Richard Valle, will be discussed by the board of directors on September 20. Supervisor Nate Miley said the matter was adjourned after other supervisors pointed out that the county’s agriculture department had not had an opportunity to review the language.
As with the debate over destroying mutton in 2019, next month’s hearing will take animal rights groups against their lifelong farmers in Alameda County, who feel their way of life is deeply misunderstood by the outside world.
“We’re not going into this business because there’s a lot of money in it, and we’re definitely not going into this business to hurt animals,” Livermore rancher John Bettencourt said at the meeting, after just witnessing the birth of a baby boy. new calf that morning on the ranch he owns.
“To look at that calf and think that we would use equipment to hurt, damage or injure animals is frankly as big a misunderstanding of our lifestyle as some other people have (experienced) in their many different lifestyles. here in California,” he said.