Inside L.A.’s Last Rodeo: Cowboys Take on the City Council

Professional Bull Riders join forces with Charros, Compton Cowboys to push back on new Council efforts

The cowboy actor looked confused but amused standing in downtown Los Angeles. 

Forrie J. Smith, from the hit show Yellowstone, had walked over to the anti-rodeo protest outside of Arena to try and engage the handful of animal rights activists who are fighting to outlaw rodeo sports in L.A. 

One of the young protesters had been waving a sign that said “Stop Bull Riding.” But with a little Hollywood star power there, he leaned in close over the temporary fencing to confide to Smith that he was actually from Michigan, owned several guns and was only there protesting because his girlfriend asked him to be.

“I grew up in the fucking country, man,” the protester said. “I did! I did!”

Smith, who made headlines recently with controversial anti-vaccine remarks, turned around looking perplexed by the exchange as the young man went back to protesting. Smith half-smiled.

(Photo: Sam Youngman)

“Pussy,” he said. 

The episode was emblematic of the fight between rodeo and western sports enthusiasts and the L.A. City Council and animal rights activists as the council moves forward with a proposal that opponents say would drive rodeos out of L.A. for good. 

Bob Blumenfield, the councilmember leading the charge, said he is in no way looking to ban rodeos or western sports, but is instead focused on outlawing “torturous devices” they say bull-riders and hands use on the bulls. The cowboys, bull-riders and their fans say the city council and the animal rights activists just don’t understand their culture or their deep love of the animals. 

The council has already voted unanimously to have the city attorney draw up an ordinance that would outlaw several instruments the PBR uses, and Blumenfield said he anticipates it will pass this year, maybe as soon as this summer. 

“It may be the last rodeo using the practices that they currently practice with the cruelty instruments,” Blumenfield told Los Angeles. “But it doesn’t have to be the last rodeo.”

That’s not what the cowboys are hearing though, and animal rights groups have been clear they want the rodeo banned too. 

So an hour before that last rodeo started in “the House that Kobe Built,” on a February night in downtown Los Angeles with a cold wind whipping through the palm trees and the statues of L.A. sports icons like Magic and Kareem looking on, they gathered with actors from Yellowstone and Grey’s Anatomy, Compton Cowboys and Charros, proud mamas of mutton-busters, and they railed against the proposal and defended their lifestyle. 

The crowd was a sea of cowboy hats and sombreros (and one red hat). They were white, Black and Hispanic. They talked about the history of a city that produced cowboys and made movies about them and now doesn’t seem to want them. 

“Hollywood loves cowboys, but L.A. City Council doesn’t,” said Sean Gleason, CEO of the PBR. Clad in a cowboy hat and boots, Gleason said he thinks “that L.A. does love cowboys. I think there’s a lot of cowboys in L.A., and I think the city council’s gonna find out how many there are.”

He added: “We are not gonna take this laying down. Last time I checked, Los Angeles was still part of America.” 

L.A. is definitely still part of America. But it’s not hard to see why Red State PBR officials and Blue State L.A. politicians are talking past each other. The tour is sponsored by the U.S. Border Patrol and the U.S. Concealed Carry Association. It’s pretty easy to find pictures online of Gleason posing with Donald Trump Jr. You can see why an L.A. politician might be more interested in what someone like Heather Wilson thinks about rodeos than Gleason. 

Wilson seemed reluctant to talk to Los Angeles at first, and she would only say that she lives close to the arena. She was leading the protest outside the rally, wearing a sash that read “Anti-Rodeo Queen” and passionately screaming profane denunciations through a bullhorn as people in cowboy hats and boots walked past her to get to the arena. Wilson said she’s been studying and protesting rodeos for 10 years, and she is “delighted” by the city council’s move.

“Rodeos take innocent, docile farm animals, and they terrify them into acting wild, rank and cantankerous,” she said. “[They’re] nothing more than property. They are treated like property.”

Dakota Louis is a Native-American, a sixth-generation cowboy and a professional bullrider. He brought his 4-year-old son, Hayze, with him to Los Angeles. Hayze nodded when asked if he would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a cowboy. His dad doesn’t understand why people he has never met accuse him of cruelty to the animals he depends on to provide for his family.

“Right now it’s 40-below zero in my house and we still have to go out there and take care of our cattle and take care of our horses,” Louis said. “The cowboy way is always going above and beyond and taking care of everyone else before you take care of yourself, and that’s exactly how it is at our dinner table. Our animals are taken care of and fed before we eat dinner.”

Louis stood there above the chutes, on the same floor where the Lakers, Clippers and Kings play minus the 3.5 tons of dirt the PBR put down. He looked up at the championship banners and retired jerseys, and he said the history of the building inspires him and the other bullriders to give it their all.

“Some of us cowboys are basketball fans, and I have been a fan of LeBron James since he went to the Cavaliers and now he’s a Laker,” Louis said. “So if he wants to show some support, come on out. I’ll do my best to make him proud.”

Louis considers himself an athlete like James is an athlete. He and the other riders also consider the bulls to be athletes. While the riders have names like “Stetson” and “Daylon,” the bulls have names like “War Paint,” “Montana Moon” and, the most famous bull of all time — “Bushwhacker.” The more famous bulls have their own merchandise. 

“This is not protecting an elephant from being darted, captured, brought over here and paraded in front of humans,” Gleason said. “They’re athletes and they’re treated that way in every sense of the word.”

The council and the activists don’t see it that way.

“It’s not a sport,” Wilson said. “Sports have willing participants. These animals are not willing. They don’t have a choice.”

Wison brought up Amadeu Campos Silva, a bullrider who was killed at an event in Fresno last year. 

“That was his choice,” she said. “He knew the risk and he chose to participate. These animals are not given the choice. They would never choose to place their bodies in harm’s way and perhaps break a leg, dislocate a hip, break their spines. They would never choose to do this.”

The debate centers over the tools and devices the PBR and its allies say are necessary for the sport to occur. While the council looks to ban stun guns, Gleason argued that they are only used by the handlers who transport the bulls and only if their safety is at risk.

The real sticking point appears the use of what’s called a flank strap. It’s a rope that goes around the bull (not its testicles, as advocates on both sides noted). Gleason said the rope is “cotton-soft” and doesn’t cause pain but does teach young bulls how to buck. He compared it to a “ribbon on a kitten’s paw.” 

Blumenfield said he’s open to discussions about different kinds of equipment, but he’s not buying the argument that the PBR’s rallies are about love for the animals, pointing to the L.A. ban on fur. 

“The furriers will tell you the same thing,” he said. “They’re like ‘oh we love our animals, they make us a lot of money and they might eat before we eat but at the end of the day we may be skinning them in a very cruel way for their fur but that’s just the last 10 minutes of their life or so.’ We heard those arguments too.” 

 PBR is determined to show it has nothing to hide, and as part of that effort, the organization threw open its doors to LA to look behind the scenes and even sit on a bull. In true Los Angeles style, the bull was running late because it was stuck in traffic. Sitting on one while it’s in the chute is an exhilarating, humbling experience, and there was never a doubt for one second that the 2,000-pound bull was the one in charge in those moments.  

It is fair to say the sport itself is not for the squeamish. It makes perfect sense that someone who thinks meat is murder would also see bullriding as cruel. It also makes sense that Trump-voting Red State rodeo-enthusiasts would see Los Angeles animal cruelty activists as out-of-touch enemies who want to destroy their culture. What you think of bullriding probably fits pretty well with what you think about a lot of politics these days. 

Still, Blumenfield rejects the rally cry that he or anyone else on the city council is trying to attack Western culture. 

“I don’t think this is about culture,” he said. “The culture is not the practices. The instruments of animal cruelty, that’s not the culture. I’m more than happy to learn more about the culture, but the culture of being cruel to animals, that’s not what people celebrate.”

But Randy Savvy, a leader and co-founder of the Compton Cowboys, told L.A. the councilmembers “just obviously don’t know.” 

“You don’t get it. You’re not here. You’re not with us,” he Savvy said. “Half the time we care about them more than we care about ourself. We feed the horses before we eat you know what I mean?” 

Savvy was out there with the bullriders that night in February, where the protesters were vastly outnumbered and the cowboys and their fans seemed to get a kick out of them. But Blumenfield said that anecdotal evidence runs counter to what his office has seen and heard from Angelenos. 

“We have gotten tens of thousands of people contacting us in favor of this. The animal welfare community is not only active, it’s extremely large in Los Angeles,” Blumenfield said. “If you actually look at the letters and the calls that everyone on the council is getting, the animal welfare folks are way more numerous and they’re actually Angelenos.” 

Instead, he said, the issue has been “just blown out of proportion by the folks who have a strong financial interest in it.” 

“There’s a lot of rhetoric around this for sure,” Blumenfield said. “And the industry and PBR are certainly trying to rev this up and make it about much more than it is.”

He points to a similar law on the books in Pittsburgh — a law Gleason is sure will soon be overturned — and said he believes that in time everyone involved will forget there was even a fight. 

“My hope is that, like so many things, once you take that step then all of a sudden everyone’s going to figure out how it can be done differently and start doing it differently and then people will wonder what the controversy was five years from now,” he said. 

Gleason said that’s not going to happen. If the ordinance passes, the PBR will not be back in Los Angeles, he said. The PBR has been drawing crowds in Anaheim “for damn near 30 years,” and Glesason said he’s not worried about the future of the sport outside of L.A even though he thinks local enthusiasts like the Bill Pickett Rodeo will be hurt. 

“I feel welcomed by the fans, but the political environment is one that obviously doesn’t want us here,” Gleason said. “So it’s hard to say that you feel welcome when politicians tell you ‘Don’t come.’”

For his part, Louis is going to continue to try to win World Champion trophy belt buckles like the one he had on when he shared stories about his life with Los Angeles. And if the people who don’t want him in L.A. want to see how he treats his animals, he offered an open invitation to visit his farm outside of Browning, Montana. 

“We’re always looking for someone to come up there and help us,” he said. “So if these guys that think we’re cruel to animals want to come up and help take care of my herd from now until winter quits, I’d be more than happy to put ‘em on the payroll.”

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