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Conscience Driven

For this anti-rodeo activist and his video van, a picture is worth a thousand discouraging words.

March 25, 2001
The Chicago Tribune
By Bill Page

The first things you notice are the videotapes. Hundreds of them are stacked in a floor-to-ceiling cabinet in the living room of the rural Kane County home and have titles such as "Rodeo Cruelty," "Making Foie Gras" and "Pennsylvania Pigeon Shoot." Around the corner and past the shelves holding the miniature cameras, stun guns and walkie-talkies, hundreds more tapes--of bullfights, circuses and roadside zoos --spill out of cabinets and are piled on desks and chairs. On the computer screen a video loop is showing a rodeo event--a calf runs out of a chute, then is yanked off its feet by a rope thrown around its neck and is dragged backward through the dirt--over and over. Welcome to the home of Steve Hindi: once an avid hunter and fisherman, now a self-described "animal protectionist."

Hindi, 46 and the owner of a plant that manufactures industrial fasteners in Geneva, would appear to be an unlikely candidate for such a role. Born in St. Paul, he grew up in a culture that encouraged hunting and fishing. "My mother brought me up to be kind to animals and to care for them, but I didn't make the connection between abuse and hunting until years later." He gave up hunting first, then fishing when he realized "the fight the fish was giving me on the other end of the line was actually its death throes." Then came a chance 1989 visit to a small town in Pennsylvania--and his life changed.

"I'd heard about something called a 'pigeon shoot' that was going to be held in Hegins, Pa. I had no idea what it was, but I thought I'd check it out. And when I did, it was so awful I knew I had to do something."

What Hindi saw was an event that had been going on for years in Hegins and other towns across the country, including many in Illinois. As Hindi describes it, "Pigeons are placed in small boxes by helpers, usually teenage boys. Then men with shotguns shout 'Pull!' and the boys release the birds into the air, where they're cut down in a hail of lead."

Hindi's outrage led him to his first of many confrontations with those he views as animal abusers, and eventually to his first success. "It took years of showing up at the annual shoot to try to disrupt it, spending a few days in jail, and lots of hours pleading our case to the public, but they don't have pigeon shoots in Hegins anymore."

Or in Illinois or most other states, for that matter, thanks to Hindi and other like-minded activists.

Out of disgust with other organizations that shied away from his confrontational style, and with a desire to join battles on different fronts, Hindi created SHARK (Showing Animals Respect and Kindness) 12 years ago. Set up as a charitable organization, SHARK operates on donations and a slender budget of $70,000 to $80,000 a year. Hindi provides a fair portion of the funding from his own pocket ("My salary," he's quick to add, "not money from the business") and dedicates most of his free time to the cause.

Despite a membership that consists mainly of himself, girlfriend Donna Hertel and "about a dozen others," SHARK has scored some impressive victories. The most notable came when Pepsi, in response to SHARK's relentless campaign, ceased its sponsorship of bullfights in Mexico. The impetus for the soft-drink company's decision appears to be photos taken by SHARK members at a Mexican bullfight that show a bull, impaled with pics and spewing gore and blood--all against the backdrop of a Pepsi banner.

"That was a terrific win," says Hindi. "For us, but more importantly for the bulls."

While Hindi describes matadors in the most disparaging terms--"They're nothing but animal torturers"--he saves most of his venom for rodeo performers. "They abuse animals," he growls. "They take tame and domesticated animals and use pain and fear to make them act wild." Warming to the subject, he goes on: "They try to pass that off as family entertainment and as tradition. Rodeos are not based on ranch skills. When did they ever ride bulls--except in some drunken state?"

Hindi has spent many hours at rodeos with a hidden camera, videotaping what he sees as instances of animal abuse. They include, according to Hindi, the use of flank, or bucking, straps on horses and bulls, and electric prods to make them aggressive. He also says there is a general lack of interest in the well-being of all the animals.

Obviously, such sentiments are not shared by rodeo performers and fans. "Steve means well, I'm sure, but he's misinformed," says Norm Skala, a resident of St. Charles and a retired champion calf roper. Still active as a rodeo announcer, the 77-year-old Skala takes issue with many of Hindi's claims. "Rodeo animals like horses and bulls are expensive," he says. "No one is going to mistreat them." Injuries to animals are rare, he adds. "In 30 years of competition I never saw an animal seriously hurt."

His friend Jim Anderson agrees. Anderson spends his days as a deputy at the Kane County courthouse and his weekends during rodeo season in makeup and baggy pants, running from angry bulls. A professional rodeo clown for nearly three decades, Anderson says he can't remember seeing any animal get hurt. "And that business with the prods," he adds, "well, it's what they use on the farm every day."

"That business with the prods" is Hindi's latest foray in his battle against rodeos. "Most bulls and horses aren't going to buck wildly on their own," he explains, "so rodeos use a prod or a stun gun to make them buck. It causes the animal a lot of pain and we want them to stop."

Not one to let mere words prove his point, Hindi appeared at a recent meeting of the Kane County Board and repeatedly shocked himself with the same kind of stun gun he says is used on rodeo animals to make them aggressive.

"These cowboys had been telling the board that the guns don't hurt the animals," relates Hindi. "So I asked if I could shock them and they could tell us all if it hurt. Nobody came forward, so I did it to myself." And? "It hurt like hell."

The stunt was part of Hindi's efforts to modify, if not eliminate, the annual rodeo at the Kane County Fair, but such dramatic showmanship may be on the way out for Hindi. It's not that he has lessened his passion; he feels it is simply time for a new strategy.

"I've tried to tell people about the abuses animals suffer at rodeos," explains Hindi, "but they confuse the messenger with the message. They can't do that with the tapes, so I've decided to let the video footage do the talking." And what better way to get people's attention than to let a tiger loose?

The Tiger is Hindi's dream made real. What started as an Isuzu delivery truck has been converted into a rolling billboard of his beliefs. On the sides and back of the van, 100-inch rear-projection screens are surmounted by 6-foot electronic moving message signs. Over the cab are a smaller screen and sign. The interior of the van is empty except for racks holding the projectors and tapes. Built at a cost of more than $150,000, the Tiger has become SHARK's primary tool to reach the hearts and minds of the public.

On a typical foray, Hindi will wait until afternoon before he rolls the Tiger out of his driveway and heads toward an area he knows will be drawing a crowd that evening. He finds a spot to park and waits for dusk. One afternoon last month, his spot of choice was a parking lot outside the Chicago Auto Show, along a walkway thick with showgoers. As darkness fell, Hindi flipped a few switches and the Tiger sprang to life. The four electronic boards flashed a message in foot-high letters of brilliant red: STOP ANIMAL ABUSE. The video screens popped on, and on all four sides appeared the image that had been on his home computer hours earlier: the calf running from its rodeo chute, then being pulled off its feet and dragged. The effect was stunning.

Families, couples and groups of teens that had been hurrying toward the Auto Show gates stopped in their tracks and gazed open-mouthed at the truck and its message. People parking their cars 100 yards away could see the images and walked toward them to get a better look. While most said nothing, several stopped to ask questions of Hindi, who stood nearby.

"It's that way most of the time," explains Hindi. "I'm not trying to convert people on the spot, but I know that every person who walked by tonight will carry an image with them. It's a little step, but that's how we'll win this thing--little step by little step."