Probe finds rules broken at rodeo

Prosecution for cruelty to animals is up to state's attorney's office

April 12, 2007 
BRUCE RUSHTON STAFF WRITER, The State Journal-Register, Springfield IL


Rules designed to protect animals were broken at last summer's National High School Finals Rodeo in Springfield, according to a recently completed investigation by the Illinois Department of Agriculture.

Whether anyone will be prosecuted for violating animal-cruelty laws is up to the Sangamon County state's attorney's office.

In files turned over to county prosecutors last month, agriculture officials confirmed that videos taken by animal-rights activists showed bulls being poked with sharp objects during the 2006 competition, held at the Illinois State Fairgrounds.

After viewing still photographs provided by activists, agriculture officials also determined that a man had slapped a bull and that tails were pulled as bulls left chutes. The files also indicate at least one bull was electrically shocked.

National High School Rodeo Association rules forbid shocking or jabbing animals while in chutes.

The two contractors who provided animals to the rodeo told investigators that some subcontractors who furnished livestock for the event broke the rules.

"I was aware of someone making a prod out of a clothes hanger, but that was stopped as soon as it was seen," a contractor told an investigator in a written summary of a telephone interview with Mark Johnson and Joshua Jordan, who own the company that provided animals for the event. The interview summary, which is signed by Colleen O'Keefe, a veterinarian and manager of the agriculture department's Division of Food Safety and Animal Protection, does not indicate which man made that statement.

The contractors, whose statements are paraphrased in the summary, could not be reached for comment.

Investigators didn't identify any suspects, and the department, which is charged with enforcing animal-cruelty laws, did not recommend whether charges should be brought.

Steve Hindi, president of an animal-rights group called Showing Animals Respect and Kindness, called the state probe slipshod.

"The investigation has been of the same quality as the job they did at the site of the rodeo: just pitiful," said Hindi. "To not give an opinion is, I think, outrageous. They don't want to prosecute these guys."

During the rodeo, Hindi told_O'Keefe in an e-mail that animals were being shocked and jabbed. In an e-mail reply, O'Keefe told Hindi that no animal-cruelty violations had been documented. She told The State Journal-Register much the same thing in a story published Oct. 1.

Agriculture officials this week declined comment, saying that they won't say anything about the investigation until after the state's attorney's office decides whether to bring criminal charges. Steve Weinhoeft, first assistant state's attorney, said the case is under review.

Statements in the interview summary with Johnson and Jordan are sometimes contradictory. For example, when an investigator asked the contractors if they saw any violations, someone - it's not clear who - said, "I was not aware of any."

However, one or both of the contractors also admitted that rules were broken and that illegal prods aren't uncommon in rodeo arenas.

"Yes, the sub-contractors were aware that shocking was not allowed," investigators wrote in the summary of the March 8 interview with the contractors. "We had some who used prods in the chutes and were told to stop; against rodeo rules. ... There are always a few individuals who like to go against the rules of prodding, but are stopped if they are caught doing so."

In the videos, jabbing occurs either in closed chutes or just as doors open. Department investigators used the term "poking device" to describe jabbing tools that are nearly invisible in video footage. The jabbing occurred within a few feet of rodeo officials who timed bull rides.

The clearest picture of a poking device used at the rodeo appears in a photograph taken by a State Journal-Register photographer. Magnified several times, the photo, which was not reviewed by state investigators, shows a wire-like object in the hand of a man who appears to stab bulls as chute doors open.

There is no indication in the investigative file that agriculture officials tried to identify anyone who used jabbing tools, even though the face of one man is clearly visible in a SHARK video as he moves from chute to chute jabbing bulls.

Hindi asked how charges can be brought if the files don't identify any suspects.

"Who's the prosecutor supposed to prosecute?" Hindi asked.

Last fall, Kent Sturman, rodeo association executive director, insisted that no rules were broken and said he wasn't interested in seeing SHARK's videos. He also said the association does a good job of policing itself.

On Tuesday, Sturman, who previously hadn't been aware of the state probe, said he'll reserve judgment on whether any rules were broken until he sees the results of the investigation. He didn't rule out looking at videos taken by SHARK.

Sturman said he believed the association had meted out discipline "a couple times" for mistreating animals but not at the Springfield rodeo.

"We haven't seen the investigation results," he said. "If and when we get that, we'll evaluate it and make a decision. We have disciplinary action in our rulebooks that allows us to take care of the matter."

A copy of a blank agreement between subcontractors and the company owned by Johnson and Jordan states that no electrical prods or sharp metal objects were to be used in the event. However, the blank contract also shows that there was an incentive for animals to perform: If re-rides were necessary and the animal was at fault, the subcontractor would not be paid.

In their interview with agriculture officials, the contractors confirmed that pay depended on how well animals performed.

"If they had animals that did not perform to their best ... they got no pay and did not come back in," the contractors told investigators, according to the summary. "Better animals got to come back in."

The contracts encourage abuse, Hindi said.

"If they're not bucking, they're absolutely worthless," he said. "You can choose to get paid or not get paid."

Hindi said abuse at the rodeo also included animals kept in pens without shade or water and horses that were electrically shocked in chutes, even though there was no indication they were refusing to move.

Hindi called on The State Journal-Register to withdraw its sponsorship of the 2007 National High School Finals Rodeo, set for the Multipurpose Arena at the fairgrounds July 23-29.

Sue Schmitt, publisher of The State Journal-Register, said the newspaper will withdraw neither its sponsorship nor its scrutiny of the event from a news perspective.

"We would expect the rodeo to follow the national association's rules," Schmitt said. "We, certainly, as a news-gathering organization, will be watching to be sure they do so at the 2007 rodeo."

So, too, will Hindi, who last fall took a test administered by the state Department of Agriculture and became certified as a volunteer humane investigator. That, he says, gives him state sanction to investigate suspected cases of animal cruelty and, if need be, ask police to confiscate evidence, including jabbing tools, at rodeos.

However, Hindi said he has told the Department of Agriculture he would prefer to work with agency officials to ensure animals are not mistreated.

"I said, 'We can fight from here to doomsday or we can work together,'" Hindi said. "I'd rather work together."

One of SHARK's videos from last year's rodeo is at www.sj-r.com

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