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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Mills soon headed down to the fund's San Francisco office to lend a hand. Virginia Handley, the fund's California coordinator, remembers very clearly the day when Mills walked into her office more than two decades ago. He was, after all, a man signing up for a cause predominantly supported by women and, some might argue, taken less seriously as a result. "He's been wonderful over the years, and active from that day forward," Handley says. "He is the most prolific activist I know, constantly typing on his old electric typewriter." He also turned out to be a prolific user of the fund's Xerox machine -- to know Mills is to quickly amass a huge pile of news clippings he thinks you should read. Despite his taste for costume stunts, Mills relies heavily on the activist's most classic tool: a near-constant stream of letters to politicians and newspaper editors.

Mills formed an enduring friendship with Amory, but the fund was based in San Francisco, and he and his friends thought the East Bay needed its own advocacy group. In 1983, they founded the Animal Rights Connection, but the group eventually split over a disagreement about whether it should promote veganism. Mills felt that taking a more radical stance might alienate potential allies, so he left to start his own group, which was named Action for Animals.

For an organization with such a large legislative influence, Action for Animals is surprisingly small-time. Mostly, it's Mills and whoever happens to be along for the ride that day, although he has about 250 subscribers to his Action for Animals newsletter. Mills' relationship with Fund for Animals and its photocopier continues today in the form of a $500 monthly stipend granted to him by the late Amory, while it was made clear that Mills is not an employee and that no one should tell him what to do. That stipend is Action for Animals' primary income source. The group's remaining funding comes through occasional donations and newsletter subscription fees. Mills is, as he describes himself, "a kept man," able to devote himself to organizing full-time thanks to his partner of 25 years, postal worker Paul Meola.

During the early years of Action for Animals, Mills and his friends attempted to take on issues of every stripe -- animal research, factory farming, trapping, and hunting. "We were trying to do everything, which was a mistake," he recalls. The weight of his subject matter nearly drove him to despair. Mills says he was suicidal during the first two years of running the group, partly because he spent so much time reading medical literature depicting the fates of lab animals. "I didn't want to be a member of a species that would do this to another group of animals," he says.

But Mills has since mellowed, according to Gary Templin, president of the East Bay Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "He has matured into somebody that realizes he has to win some battles to eventually win the war and it's not a war every time," says Templin, who has often worked with Mills over the years. "On the one hand he's kind of a single practitioner and when he's on an issue he hammers it," he says. "But I think he also has a network and has developed respect over the years as being someone who doesn't tilt at windmills and is not just a far-left animal activist. He picks his spots."

He's also developed a universalist philosophy -- that the abuse of animals is deeply linked with the same domineering mindset that has subjugated women, ethnic minorities, and gay people throughout history. One of his prize possessions, which he has memorized word for word, is a letter sent to him in 1990 by Cesar Chavez, in which the legendary farmworkers' union leader wrote, "Cruelty, whether it is directed against human beings or against animals, is not the exclusive province of any one culture or community of people. Racism, economic deprival, dogfighting and cockfighting, bullfighting, and rodeos are all cut from the same fabric: violence."

When Mills began to advocate for the welfare of rodeo animals, it was hardly a high-profile cause. Nevertheless, both forms of rodeo are hugely popular. The charreada is the national sport of Mexico and well-loved throughout the southwestern United States. It originated in the 17th century both as a rich man's sport and as a way for ranchers to get together to brand and castrate their animals. The first federation was founded in 1923, and the sport quickly outgrew its patrician roots.

Meanwhile, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association says that at least five thousand American-style rodeos are held in the country annually. The association estimates that thirty million people attend rodeos that it sponsors each year, and that this audience is growing. That's not even counting the people who attend rodeo events hosted by high schools, colleges, and amateur groups not sanctioned by the association.

Charreada proponents say that much of American-style rodeo was borrowed from their practices. Both evolved from ranching practices developed to control animals within the herd, or to cut them from the pack for branding or medical treatment. Both require cowboys, or charros, to demonstrate dexterity and speed. Both are primarily male sports. And both are considered an exercise in national pride. "It's kind of a way to preserve the lifestyle of the Old West," says Bob Fox, California lobbyist for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. Ramiro Rodriguez, the national press secretary of the American Charro Association, concurs. "We practice charreada as a form of identity," he says. "A charro is like a Marine wearing his uniform."


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