Western heritage runs deep in this high plains city, and nothing typifies the local cowboy and ranching culture more than the 10-day Cheyenne Frontier Days celebration, which boasts the world's largest outdoor rodeo.
Yet, as this year's “Daddy of 'Em All” rodeo gets under way this weekend, the event is fighting off allegations of animal cruelty, which prompted the rock band Matchbox Twenty to cancel a scheduled performance.
Animal-rights activists want certain rodeo events banned. Organizers and competitors are calling it an attack on Western tradition.
“I feel like it's like gun control. If you let him take one event, they're going to try to get another. And then, I think, it's just going to snowball from there,” said Brian McNamee, a rodeo competitor from Wyoming.
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The culture clash comes amid a national debate on the treatment of sporting animals following the death of a racehorse in the Kentucky Derby.
Animal-rights groups have long fought to eliminate cockfighting, dogfighting and game-farm hunts and have advocated for better treatment of zoo and circus animals. But rodeos are starting to gain more of their attention, and in some cases protests.
One animal-rights activist has been aggressively targeting Frontier Days, in the hopes of forcing change.
“These animals are suffering and dying in the name of family entertainment, in the name of Americana,” said Steve Hindi, president of Showing Animals Respect and Kindness.
Among other things, he wants rodeos to enforce rules against shocking horses and bulls with electronic devices to make them buck, ban steer roping and change calf roping so the animals are not violently jerked backward.
There are an estimated 10,000 rodeos held across the U.S. each year.
The Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo, which started in 1897, is among the oldest, richest and most prestigious.
“We have had a longtime respect for and reverence for the customs and traditions that got us where we are as a group of people,” said Cheyenne Frontier Days spokesman Bob Budd.
The rodeo has rules to protect the animals, and violations can lead to fines and suspensions for cowboys, Budd said. The rodeo recently announced tighter restrictions to prevent the use of shock devices.
Hindi, however, likens certain rodeo events to dogfighting and bullfighting. He especially targets steer roping, in which steers are roped around the neck and flipped over. Frontier Days, which has had steer roping since 1898, is among a minority of rodeos in the U.S. that hold the event.
Hindi, who is attending this year's Cheyenne rodeo, said he appreciates the rodeo's ties to Western history.
“We don't want to beat American history down,” he said. “So what we're saying is, look, let's find a way, let's find a way to work together.”
But some believe his goal is to eliminate rodeos.
“It's important for people to understand that organizations such as (Hindi's) want to ban rodeo and use of animals,” said Cindy Schonholtz, animal welfare coordinator for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.