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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In fact, organizing a ballot initiative is exactly what Mills' opponents are afraid he will do. "I know many people who would like to ban all of rodeo," he admits. "I've never taken that approach, but the cowboys better meet me halfway or they'll end up with a really serious ballot initiative to do precisely that and they'll have brought it upon themselves by being bullheaded."

But right now, Mills is trying a totally different tack: the court system. Last October, Action for Animals filed suit against school districts in Alameda, Contra Costa, and San Francisco counties for taking children to see the rodeo at the Cow Palace. Technically, the suit has two other plaintiffs: advocacy group In Defense of Animals, which is footing the lawyers' bills, and Peggy Hilden, a San Francisco resident suing on behalf of her son, a student who attended the rodeo.

The suit hinges on the unique argument that California's education code requires teachers to promote the humane treatment of animals, but that by bringing students to the rodeo, teachers are "promoting the idea that it is acceptable to frighten and physically harm and abuse animals." The suit goes on to argue that the school district violated its duty to Hilden's son by bringing him into an environment where animals could be harmed or killed.

Attorney David Blatte, who is arguing Action for Animals' side, says the case breaks new legal ground. "The education code has never been used to protect animals, and from an animal-rights point of view it will send the message out that rodeos are inhumane and we should not be exposing our children to them," he says.

But the school districts have argued that nobody is forced to attend rodeo field trips. "The decision is the parent's; it's a voluntary activity," attorney Nancy Huneke, of Walnut Creek law firm Stubbs & Leone, argued at a court hearing. "It's a political decision, it's not one for the courts to make."

This month, a San Francisco judge dismissed the charges against every school district except San Francisco, because that is where the Hilden family pays taxes. But the case is going forward; Blatte anticipates that if the suit is successful, it will provoke a spate of copycat cases elsewhere. "If we win, any taxpayer in any city can sue and stop the district from going to the rodeo," Blatte says. "We could even do that now, but we want to see what the law says before we financially burden any other school districts."

Mills says he tried to protest rodeo field trips through conventional channels first, writing to former Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, only to be told that she had no jurisdiction over the matter. "Well, as Grandma used to say, 'Sue the bastards,'" he says. "That's what gets their attention. I've tried everything else. If the courts work, do it."

For the first time in years, Mills has no rodeo legislation in the works. In addition to the school districts case, he's turned his attention to two other issues close to his heart -- the regulation of live-animal food markets and of wild and exotic animals at county fairs. But his opponents are sure he'll be back soon with a new rodeo bill. "It does get tiresome -- every year we have to see what Mills and his advocates are going to propose as far as legislation," Franco says. "It's always something. Next year it's going to be something else and the year after that it's going to be something else."


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