Steer-tailing rodeo event unbridles controversy in Andover

Farm Forum

An Andover, Minn., family outraged that neighbors hosted a steer-tailing event is pushing to have the Mexican rodeo event banned in their city.

Steer-tailing, in which cowboys on horseback try to grab a steer’s tail and topple it, is one of nine skill events in the rodeo called charreada, which is so beloved in Mexico that it’s the official national sport.

But in the United States, steer-tailing has evoked controversy. It’s been banned in Nebraska as animal cruelty.

Greg and Mischelle Howard of Andover say they first saw the event last year when their neighbors, the Moreno family, built a rodeo rink and began hosting steer-tailing events. Greg Howard said he was shocked to see two dozen steers chased, dragged by their tails and knocked down by men on horses over several hours. By the end of the evening, the animals were struggling to get up, he said. “People say it’s cultural,” he said. “Culture is no excuse for cruelty.”

The Howards have the support of the Humane Society of the United States in Minnesota. “We oppose steer-tailing,” said ­Howard Goldman, director of the state Humane Society. “We consider it very inhumane. I have watched the steers being slammed to the ground. The animals are clearly being exploited here.”

But Carmen Moreno, who hosted the Andover event, defends charreada as steeped in culture and family.

“It’s no different from the American rodeo,” said Moreno. “My husband has 25-plus years working with horses. We take very good care of our animals. We haven’t had any animal hurt.”

Charreada advocates argue that it is less risky than many beloved American and European sports, including horse jumping and the steeple chase.

The difference, they say, is that animal rights activists see the charreada as an easy target because its practitioners are less affluent and less organized. And in northern states, steer-tailing cowboys are largely immigrants or first-generation Americans.

“They do have a problem with how we celebrate our culture and the traditional pastime,” said Moreno, a registered nurse born and raised in St. Paul.

Randy Janssen, a San Antonio attorney, past participant and avid fan of charreada, said the steer-tailing controversy is part of a broader cultural shift.

“The same people who criticize this also criticize rodeo,” Janssen said. “We are becoming an urban society, and you are getting these rural-urban conflicts especially when it comes to animal rights.”

The Andover dispute isn’t the first time steer-tailing has stirred controversy in Minnesota. In 2013, Vermillion Township in Dakota County denied a conditional-use permit to a family hosting a rodeo event that included steer-tailing.

Events draws fans and foes

In addition to concerns about animal cruelty, Greg Howard also objects to what he suspects could be a moneymaking endeavor in a residential area. He estimates more than 200 people have showed up at his neighbors’ events, sitting in bleachers and enjoying music, alcohol and food.

The Howards own 33 acres that border the Morenos’ five acres. Both properties are within city limits. The rodeo rink is on the property line and visible to the Howards.

The Morenos were granted a party permit for their most recent event on Sept. 6, attended by more than 100 people. It was a birthday party, not a commercial endeavor, Carmen Moreno said.

“We moved here because of our love of horses,” Moreno said. “We decided to buy land where we can raise our horses and host these events.”

She said the steers are tired by the end of the event, but aren’t harmed.

The recent dust-up is wearing the family down. “There are so many issues with media, animal rights people and the neighbors,” she said. “I would rather not do it and not deal with it.”

The Andover mayor and the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office say the event was legal and the only complaint they received was from the Howards.

The Howards welcomed protesters and allowed a Chicago animal rights activist with SHARK (Showing Animals Respect and Kindness) to film the event from their land.

About two dozen cowboys on horses took turns chasing one steer at a time, trying to catch it by the tail. Sometimes the steer was spun around or knocked down. About 20 steers were part of the several-hour event. The atmosphere was festive, with music playing, fans drinking beer, and children playing.

‘Harmless fun’

Missouri rancher John Bowlins hauled the longhorn steers up from his Missouri ranch for about $5,000.

Bowlins, who provides animals for Mexican and American rodeos across the country, defended the event. “Do you see anything being hurt?” he asked, sitting atop a fence. “This is the most harmless fun you can have with a good bunch of people.”

Animals don’t routinely get hurt, he said, partly because “these cows are worth so much more than they could pay.”

But animal rights activists say the pulling can break tails or bones, or rip off tail skin, an injury called degloving.

SHARK activist Mike Kobliska drove from Chicago to film the steer-tailing. “It is illegal in other places … because there are so many injuries associated with it,” he said.

An issue for the Legislature?

Before the event, the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office conferred with animal welfare experts who said the “tail-pulling that takes place is no more or no less cruel than any other activity that takes place at any other rodeo and does not rise to the level of criminal animal abuse,” Cmdr. Paul Sommer said in a written statement.

Andover Mayor Mike Gamache said, “There is no state law banning it. … what action can we take? What’s the difference between steer-tailing and calf-roping? Is that animal abuse? The [City Council] didn’t want to make a decision. We didn’t have enough to go on.”

Gamache said he believes the issue could best be resolved by the Legislature.

Toby de la Torre, CEO of the Charros Federation USA, based in California, say charreada events are similar to American rodeo events and should not be banned because a few back yard cowboys draw the ire of local animal activists.

He said the Nebraska ban caught the charreada community off-guard. “The state of Nebraska did not have any federated or authorized official competitors,” he said. “It was very, very unfortunate we didn’t send any representative to work on it or defend it. We were caught by surprise.”

‘People here don’t like it’

Texas attorney Janssen accused animal rights activists of exploiting anti-immigrant sentiments. They “join up with the hard-core racists and they get laws passed against charreada, which they can’t get passed against rodeo,” he said. “They pander to racism.”

But animal rights groups strongly dispute that. “There is no racial motive to it whatsoever,” said the Humane Society’s Goldman. “It’s the abuse itself that drew us to the issue.

“Whatever the prevailing mores and norms in the United States have to be followed,” he said. “We are not trying to show any disrespect to Mexico, but this event is being conducted here. People here don’t like it.”