On a rodeo day, Hayward's Rowell Ranch is where urban Alameda County magically fades into Reagan Country. It is a place where teenage girls stuff Stars-and-Stripes hankies into the rear pockets of their jeans, where people name horses Smokeless Sam or Sundowner Snuff after chewing tobacco. It is a community event where the booths invite you to buy beef jerky or pink cowboy hats for your little girl, demonstrate your prowess on the chin-up bar or the mechanical bull, or join the National Rifle Association or the Marines.
On this particular May afternoon, the sun is high and the smell of charbroiled burgers wafts over the crowd as the rodeo queens, ablaze in coronas of ringleted hair and golden fringe, gallop into the arena to kick off the show. The stentorian announcer warns the crowd: "We're about to have a whole lot of fun. If you're not ready to do that then you're in the wrong spot!"
It's hard to tell if Eric Mills is there to have a whole lot of fun. On the outside he looks like the rest of the crowd, with his cowboy hat and boots and deep tan. But inside he nurses a secret fantasy. He wishes he had his own headset microphone, so he could hide behind a tree and call the rodeo from the animals' point of view. "This hurts! I miss my mama! Take me home!" he says, doing a mock voice-over.
This is not necessarily an idle threat. For more than two decades, Mills has been a voice for creatures who cannot speak for themselves, tirelessly lobbying local and state governments on their behalf. As the founder and coordinator of Oakland-based Action for Animals, he is not averse to pulling a stunt that will get his cause noticed. He has worn a horse costume to hand out leaflets to rodeo-goers. He has transported a giant inflatable kangaroo to the state capitol steps and climbed into its pouch in order to protest a bill that would have allowed the import of kangaroo meat and leather into California. He has rented airplanes to fly protest banners, and marched in San Francisco's Gay Pride parade holding the unforgettable sign "Queers for Steers."
Although Mills also puts a great deal of effort into helping animals with wings or gills, it's his drive to protect the welfare of rodeo livestock that has made him famous -- and in some circles, infamous. His direct, forceful style has brought him both admirers and enemies, but one thing is clear to all of them: Before Eric Mills, rodeo fell below many activists' radar, escaping external scrutiny and therefore regulation. Now it's a different story.
In fact, Mills' career as rodeo's toughest critic was launched from the very set of bleachers where he is sitting today. In 1986, he attended his first rodeo, a benefit held by the Hayward Police Officers Association, expecting to enjoy the show. Instead, he says, that day changed his life forever. "The first day I went, almost right away one of the bucking horses caught his leg in the chute and broke it and was down in the middle of the arena and could not get up," he remembers. "They sent the handlers out there and they were kicking him and using electric prods on him trying to get him to his feet. He finally did. It took a couple of minutes and he was able to hobble out of the arena on his three legs. No veterinarian present. About 45 minutes to an hour later somebody got a cop's gun and shot the animal to death."
It got worse from there. During the calf-roping event, the first three calves out of the chute ran headlong into the arena's metal rail fence; Mills was worried that they'd broken their necks. "They had no signage on the fence," he remembers. "Cattle are color-blind, and they just see the field beyond and think they're home free."
But what really got Mills' attention was an event called steer-dressing, in which three cowboys tried to wrestle a steer into a pair of women's lace panties. "They're all rolling around in the dirt, the steer is bawling, the cowboys are hollering, the crowd is cheering, and the announcer -- I will never forget this because I wrote it down at the time, bad grammar and all -- is saying to the audience, primarily children, 'Take him down, boys! Spread them legs! Get them panties down!'" he recalls. "I said, 'My God, it's a gang rape.' That's the impression it gave me. I was just horrified."
Mills was so horrified that he went straight to the Hayward city council and police department, asking that future rodeos have a veterinarian on site, as well as signage on the fence so animals wouldn't run into it. He was promised that the changes would be made. But, Mills says, when he returned the following year, "The first calf out of the chute in the breakaway roping ran headlong into the fence. There was no signage. He broke his nose and palate, and there was no vet on site. He finally got there five hours later and said you could touch the calf's forehead with his broken nose."
That got Eric Mills mad. And when Mills gets mad, laws get written.
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