CHEYENNE, Wyo. – Cowboy and ranching culture runs deep in this high plains city, and nothing typifies it 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 Old West 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 past rodeo competitor from Wyoming.
The culture clash comes amid a national U.S. debate on the treatment of sporting animals following the death of a race horse 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 SHARK, or 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 United States 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.
"The harming of an animal is just something that no one that I know finds in any way something that they would want to do," Budd said.
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 asserts that more animals are killed during many steer-roping competitions than at bullfights in Mexico, assuming injured steers are killed rather than treated to save money.
The former hunter and fisherman has posted video on the Internet showing calves wrenching backward after being roped around the neck and horses dragging roped steers in the mud.
Hindi has targeted rodeos around the country but has concentrated recently on Frontier Days because of its high profile.
"It's very important to us that CFD 'get it' as far as the animal abuse because what CFD does will have a major impact on the rest of the rodeo world," Hindi said.
Hindi, who is attending this year's Cheyenne rodeo, said he appreciates the rodeo's ties to Wild West 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 in the sport believe his goal is to eliminate rodeos altogether.
"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, an organization that promotes and sanctions some 650 rodeos in the United States and Canada, including the annual National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.
The PRCA said it has rules for the treatment of rodeo animals and requires veterinarians at sanctioned events. In 2006, a PRCA survey of 159 rodeos showed 38 animals were injured out of the 61,992 times they were used in rodeo events.
Hindi dismissed the PRCA survey, saying the organization can choose to include only those rodeos with the least number of injuries. Schonholtz said the survey selects rodeos at random.
Hindi has been trying to persuade entertainers to stay away from rodeos and corporate sponsors to withdraw financial support. The booking company for Frontier Days has sued Hindi for interfering in its business, saying he caused Matchbox Twenty to cancel its performance this year and Carrie Underwood to withdraw in 2006.
While Matchbox Twenty cited the allegations of animal mistreatment in announcing its decision not to perform at Frontier Days, Underwood has not said why she canceled her performance.
The lawsuit, which did not name Matchbox Twenty or Underwood, is pending in federal court.
Those who love the rodeo say the events represent what occurs on ranches across the American West every day, and that the animals are treated well.
Budd, the Frontier Days spokesman, said the video released by the animal rights activists show just a few minutes of 40 to 50 hours of rodeo action a year at Cheyenne.
"We're not denying that there aren't injuries," Budd said. "I mean, there are going to be injuries just like a high school football game or anything else."