After cries of animal cruelty, Alameda County Supervisors may soon ban ‘mutton busting’

An example of "mutton busting," which is similar to bull riding. PHOTO/Wiki Commons.

The Rowell Ranch Rodeo has long been an annual tradition in Castro Valley and surrounding areas. But local animal rights activists say some of the rodeo’s events, such as “mutton busting,” which allow young children to ride sheep similar to bull riding, and “wild cow milking” are inhumane, and requires a long-overdue reexamination of the county’s rodeo ordinance.

Despite opposition from several members of Alameda County’s agricultural community, and a healthy dose of sentimentality about the rodeo’s historical significance in the area, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors directed staff to draft an ordinance banning only mutton busting.

“Why do we allow this all in the name of macho, bogus, sexist entertainment?” said Eric Mills, founder of the Oakland-based Action for Animals. Mills has spearheaded several legislative efforts over the years to ban animal cruelty in the state. “If we’re half as civilized as we think we are, the rodeo would be banned,” he added.

As evidence of animal cruelty during the Rowell Ranch Rodeo, three short videos were played for county supervisors at Tuesday afternoon’s planning meeting. Among them a man being dragged across the dirt arena while grabbing the bull’s tail and young children riding bucking sheep.

“I find the videos disturbing, and to be honest with you, cruel,” said Alameda County Supervisor Richard Valle.

It was a sentiment shared by Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan, who initially supported a ban on both mutton busting and wild cow milking, before making a motion for the former. Alameda County’s rodeo ordinance has remained untouched since 1993.

Evidence of animal cruelty, however, was not as clear to Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley, who represents Castro Valley. “I couldn’t determine if it was cruel or not,” he said, and initially advocated for no changes to the current county ordinance.

“I tend to error on the side of the folks who are involved in the industry. I’m not an expert,” said Miley, whose re-election campaigns over the years have been significantly fortified by the local Ag community. “They have definitely educated me.”

But later, after learning the ASPCA determined mutton busting did not promote humane care of animals, Miley changed his vote. Lone opposition to a draft ordinance came from Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty, whose district covers part of the Ag country and Fremont.

Similar concerns over the possibility of animal cruelty at Rowell Ranch events were brought to the Hayward Area Recreation and Park District (HARD) as late as March 2018. Rowell Ranch, which can be seen by motorists traveling eastbound on the 580 Freeway toward Pleasanton, is also within HARD’s jurisdiction. The HARD board, however, took no action.