Animals in Missouri High School Rodeo Finals are athletes, too

Saturday, June 16, 2012 | 9:16 p.m. CDT; updated 4:04 p.m. CDT, Sunday, June 17, 2012
Students participated in the Missouri High School Rodeo Finals on Saturday at the Boone County Fairgrounds.

COLUMBIA— Keith Wooten is literally a bullpen manager.

Wooten runs the Wooten Rodeo Company, the company that provides the Missouri High School Rodeo Finals this weekend, and 55 to 60 other rodeos throughout the year, with the most important pieces: the bucking broncos, calves, steers and bulls. Wooten has been in the Cape Girardeau-based business since 1996.

Wooten's job doesn't have anything to do with baseball, but his job shares many similarities with it. Providing animals for rodeos isn't as simple as loading up cows in a semi and then driving to the event. Choosing which animals to send to each rodeo is a complicated process.

"When we go home after a rodeo, we unload them (the animals), and then for the next weekend, we'll pick a different set of animals," Wooten said. "It's the same aspect as baseball and football, you have to keep them in tip-top shape."

Observation is key for the rodeo stocker. Wooten has to decide which animals are best for a good rodeo. For one, he has to breed and pick a bull that will actually buck. Not all bulls have a knack for throwing adventurous cowboys.

"There's nothing to make them buck, if they don't buck," Wooten said. "Believe me, we've tried."

Wooten does use a somewhat controversial piece of equipment known as a buck strap to make bulls buck, but he promises that it is used in the most humane possible way. The strap Wooten uses is a cotton strap put over a ticklish spot on the bull's flank.

Wooten also has to make sure he provides fresh bulls for every rodeo. An average bull works only about eight minutes a year. Bulls will never buck more than twice under Wooten. Like a baseball manager trying to groom a rookie, he also puts bulls with less experience into the mix to try to develop them further.

Like a strength manager, he also tries to ensure all his bulls get the exercise they need. He doesn't put them on a treadmill, but he does change pastures so the bulls get to move around. Pastures also have to be rotated properly because if they aren't, the grass will be eaten up too quickly. He also has to feed the animals a proper amount, often 17 to 20 pounds for the bulls, and at the right times.

"They enjoy their jobs. They work eight minutes a year, and they get fed before we do," Wooten said. "They eat breakfast before we do; they eat supper before we do."

But there's one aspect of Wooten's job that vastly differs from other sports. He has to make sure his stock is consistent because he doesn't want the rodeo competitors to feel as if each animal will be a completely different experience.

For some, the rodeo seems rough and cruel to the animal, but Wooten tries his best to ensure the animal is treated in the most humane and comfortable way.

Calves and steers used in roping competitions trot into the arena wearing wraps around their head to prevent rope burns. The wraps resemble a leather football helmet from the 1920s.

Animals waiting behind the arena for their event have the option of standing and drinking water under a black tarp cover to avoid the hot Missouri summers.

One reason for this is because many of the animals are expensive investments. A single bull can run up to $10,000, and if it gets hurt, its value would be significantly lowered.

Wooten doesn't agree with people who believe rodeo animals are mistreated.

"These animals are my livelihood. Why would I mistreat them?" Wooten said. "When you buy a piece of (paper) stock, you wouldn't put it somewhere where it would get wet."

Wooten doesn't just see his animals as investments though. He constantly tries to build trust and a relationship with his broncos, bulls, steers and calves.

"If you don't have an animal's trust, you don't have anything," Wooten said.

Lori Hillary, one of Wooten's crew members and his fiancee, takes the notion a step further.

"They're like your kids," Hillary said. "You get to watch them develop and grow."

Wooten doesn't see his a job as a chore because he enjoys it so much. Like many coaches in other sports his favorite part of his job is watching his "players" excel.

"I love to watch them perform, being the athletes they are," Wooten said.

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Eric Mills June 17, 2012 | 2:29 p.m.

All the horse pucky is obviously not in the rodeo arena.

It's absurd to refer to rodeo animals as "athletes." Race horses and racing greyhounds, perhaps--they DO undergo extensive training. The same cannot be said for the animals used and abused in rodeos. And certainly not for the calves and steers. For the majority, rodeo is merely a detour en route to the slaughterhouse.

And a correction: the roping steers do generally receive the protection of horn-wraps. Not so the roping calves. Imagine the public outcry if the cowboys mistreated pet dogs the way they do these pathetic and terrified calves. And mere babies, yet, often unweaned. Some "sport"!

Rodeo is condemned by EVERY major animal welfare organization in the country: ASPCA, American Humane, Humane Society of the U.S., et al. Where is the religious community on this moral and ethical issue, pray? I can't imagine that God would approve.

Most of rodeo is bogus from the get-go. Real cowboys never routinely rode bulls, or wrestled steers, or rode bareback, or practiced calf roping as a timed event--they'd have been fired on the spot. Nor did they put flank straps or ropes on the animals, without which most would not buck.

Injuries and death are the order of the day. Many rodeos don't even have vets on site to treat injured animals. Rodeo is a macho, 19th-century anachronism which belongs in the dustbin of history. The animals (and we) deserve better.

Eric Mills, coordinator
Oakland, CA

(Report Comment)
Claire Vinet June 17, 2012 | 3:07 p.m.

"There's nothing to make them buck, if they don't buck..." Wooten does use a somewhat controversial piece of equipment known as a buck strap to make bulls buck.."

There seems to be some doublespeak here. Which is it: The bulls buck because they're bred to buck or they use the buck strap to "make" them buck? I already know the answer: Rodeo couldn't happen without the buck strap, the tightened cinch that drives the animals wild.

Additionally, rodeo animals aren't athletes. Athletes are willing participants...

(Report Comment)

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