Eric Mills and the Horse He Rode in On 

Eric Mills was the most effective critic of rodeo in California -- at least until he lassoed the charreada.

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Today's visitors to the Rowell Ranch are unlikely to see anything like what Mills witnessed that day in 1986, largely because he has helped draft virtually every law that currently governs the arena. The police association rodeo was subsequently banned, and the ranch itself, which is governed by the Hayward Area Recreation and Park District, now has what Mills believes to be the most progressive rodeo policy in the nation. But he didn't stop there. He went on to draft Alameda and Contra Costa counties' rodeo ordinances, and then sponsored a steady stream of state bills. Thanks to Mills, California is one of only two states that have rodeo regulation laws. (The other one, go figure, is Rhode Island.)

Mills has been such a prodigious force for change that he has inadvertently united his opponents against him. California also is home to another rodeo circuit: Mexican-style rodeo, also known as the charreada. Although the charreada is currently not classified by the state as a rodeo, and therefore is not governed by state rodeo laws, it has not escaped Mills' influence entirely. In 1994, Mills was the force behind California's passage of a bill banning las manganas, or horse-tripping, one of the mainstays of the Mexican rodeo. Charreada proponents complained that it was like taking third base away from baseball; animal-rights activists hailed it as a major legislative victory.

But spurred by such losses, lobbyists for the American cowboys and the Mexican charros, historically less than brotherly, have launched a collaborative effort within the last year to spike every Mills-led bill that's come through Sacramento. Last year the charros sought the advice of American rodeo lobbyists in beating back Mills' attempt to ban las colas, or steer-tailing, another central feature of the charreada. This April, the two groups combined forces to oppose a bill that would have required they give advance notice of performances to local animal-control authorities.

The new partnership between the cowboys and the charros now threatens to derail Mills' efforts to bring either style of rodeo under further government supervision. Supporters of rodeo and charreada view Mills' work as an incursion of big-city politics into time-honored rural traditions, and worry that he and his ilk ultimately plan to banish rodeos and charreadas from the state. But Mills, sitting in the stands at the Rowell Ranch rodeo, says nothing could be further from the truth. There's a lot that he likes about sport: the pageantry, the horsemanship, the community spirit. And when you get down to it, he's been to so many rodeos in the last decade and a half that he's developed a fan's appreciation for the sport, which somehow exists alongside his concern for the animals' welfare. For example, today's rodeo has been disappointing from the audience's point of view. Most of the ropers have missed their targets, and many of the riders have been thrown within feet of the chute; they're consoled with bottles of Jack Daniel's lobbed to them from the announcer's booth. Mills shrugs, "It's good for the animals."

But when a rider on a caramel-colored bull finally manages to make it halfway across the arena, Mills catches his breath. "C'mon, cowboy," he urges quietly. "That's a good ride, if he can hang on." The cowboy manages to cling to the bull, one arm waving in the air, until the eight-second whistle blows signaling that his ride is over. The crowd breaks into a roar as the pickup riders swoop in to rescue the cowboy from the still-bucking bull. "That was a good one," Mills grins at his neighbor, a sunburned woman with artificial flowers glued onto her visor, who nods back appreciatively. "Seventy-eight," Mills says, guessing the cowboy's score.

A moment later, the numbers go up on the board: 78.

"What did I tell you?" Mills says with a laugh.

Although his critics write him off as a city slicker, Mills isn't really a big-city guy. He was born in a small town in Kentucky and lived there until moving to Louisville at age ten. His speech still retains a warm southern accent and a host of down-home colloquialisms. Growing up around his grandparents' farm, he felt a natural kinship with animals, became an avid bird-watcher, and was a card-carrying member of the Audubon Society by age ten. After graduating from the University of Kentucky, where he studied Spanish, French, and art, Mills did a brief stint in the Peace Corps, then moved to California to work an office job at UC Berkeley.

Mills eventually began working as a volunteer for environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and the Earth Island Institute. But the force that shaped his future as an animal-welfare activist was reading Man Kind? Our Incredible War on Wildlife, written by Fund for Animals founder Cleveland Amory, which described the hunting and trapping industries in gruesome detail. "The more I found out, the more involved I got," he says.


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