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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But Mills feels that the bill has been gutted -- the only part left is the two-week notification clause. "That's asking for nothing," he sighs. Worse, there are five other animal-rights bills being heard at the same time that morning, meaning that politicians serving on more than one committee are going to be dashing from room to room, and are likely to miss crucial testimony. The activists themselves will be spread thin, trying to maintain a visible presence at each hearing.

The AB 885 hearing gets off to a bumpy start. Right away, Leno announces that he's "somewhat reluctant but pleased" to offer an amendment striking all reference to the charreada. Lobbyists who had come to support or criticize charreada practices quickly find their arguments moot.

Instead, AB 885's opponents end up attacking the advance-notice clause, which they claim will merely burden rodeo management with preparing reports to announce their arrival, and do nothing to protect animals. "There is no way that local animal-control officials are going to do anything with that report except to file it away," Fox protests. He also argues that rodeos do so much advertising that animal control would be hard-pressed not to know about a rodeo's arrival. "Rodeos do not come into town in the dead of night," he says dryly.

Leno responds with equal dryness: "All of the bureaucratic burden we're hearing about could be taken care of in fifteen minutes, less time than it's taken them to lobby us."

Mills tries to steer the focus back onto animal welfare, pointing out that advance notice will allow animal-control agencies to be better prepared if an animal gets hurt. "Every rodeo in California requires paramedics and ambulances to take care of injured cowboys," he says. "Don't the animals matter at all?"

Finally, the vote is called. And while Firebaugh votes in favor, the rest of the Latino Caucus votes no or abstains, much to Mills' horror. Several of the other committee members criticize the bill for its emptiness. When GOP Assemblyman Tim Leslie of Tahoe City announces that he's voting against AB 885 because he finds it to be "a great example of government creep that doesn't perform any useful purpose," Mills says he has to fight back the urge to stand up and say, "I oppose this bill now, too. It doesn't do anything!"

AB 885 gets six votes of support, but because so many committee members are attending other hearings, not enough of them have voted to tell if the bill has passed or failed. Instead, it's placed "on call," meaning that the committee will continue the vote until later that morning. The animal-welfare advocates need to round up four more aye votes; after conferring, they decide to pay personal visits to the offices of the missing committee members. But just as the last group of volunteers departs for a legislator's office, Mills learns that Martinez Democrat Joe Canciamilla has arrived and cast a "no" vote. This tips the vote in favor of the nays.

The hall is suddenly quiet and empty. Mills slumps on a bench outside the hearing room, wearily watching a closed-circuit broadcast of another hearing, in which hunting enthusiasts are arguing for the right to use hounds in order to hunt bears. He looks drained, sickened. "I've been rode hard and put up wet," he says wearily.

As he sits on the bench, he contemplates how much has changed since he first took on the Mexican rodeo. "Nine years ago we had a 117-3 floor vote to completely abolish a major charreada event, and this time we couldn't even get a bill passed to require an on-call veterinarian at rodeos, which costs nothing," Mills says. "I thought this would be a slam dunk. Ain't no such thing as a slam dunk in Sacramento."

"If I had the money," he adds, "I would do nothing but ballot initiatives."

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