Will forthcoming film “glorify steer roping” & help to revive rodeo, or help to finish it?
UPDATE: The online entertainment periodical Deadline on May 18, 2021 announced that it had “learned that Disney is no longer moving forward with the [Aloha Rodeo] project.”
CHEYENNE, Wyoming––Walt Disney Inc., Cheyenne Frontier Days, and a coalition of animal advocacy groups headed by Showing Animals Respect & Kindness [SHARK] may be headed toward the highest-profile showdown at the 123-year-old Frontier Days rodeo since Hawaiian paniolos Eben Parker “Ben” Low, Ikua Purdy, and Archie Kaaua rode into town in 1908 to show some of the last authentic Old West cowpokes how steers were roped in Hawaii.
The 1908 outcome, though brutal for the steers involved, was a debacle for Old West white supremacy that rodeo cowboy culture spent the next 90 years trying to live down and forget.
Ikua Purdy, 1873-1945, was finally inducted into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Hall of Fame in 1999.
“Plan to promote American version of bullfighting”?
Outside magazine contributing editor David Wolman and Crossing the Heart of Africa author Julian Smith detailed the story of the 1908 Cheyenne Frontier Days showdown in their award-winning book Aloha Rodeo: Three Hawaiian Cowboys, the World’s Greatest Rodeo, and a Hidden History of the American West.
Now, charged Showing Animals Respect & Kindness in a March 24, 2021 media release, “The Disney+ streaming service is planning on making a movie, Aloha Rodeo,” based on the Wolman/Smith book, that SHARK and other coalition partners believe “will glorify steer roping, the cruelest and deadliest event in rodeo, and Cheyenne Frontier Days,” founded in 1897, “which has long held the dubious distinction of being among the world’s most brutal and deadly rodeos.”
Continued the media release, “SHARK has uploaded the first of a series of videos to expose Disney’s plan to promote what amounts to the American version of bullfighting,” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zATYcuYsoGU&t=51s.
“Inexcusable spectacle of animal cruelty”
Agree the coalition members, “Steer roping is an indefensible act of flagrant abuse, and the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo is an inexcusable spectacle of animal cruelty, injuries, and deaths to calves, steers, bulls, and horses,” as Showing Animals Respect & Kindness undercover videographers have repeatedly documented since 2005.
“While the sagging rodeo industry hopes this movie will give it a boost, SHARK, Last Chance for Animals, and the Humane Farming Association will use it to expose rodeo animal abuse, injuries and deaths,” pledged SHARK founder Steve Hindi, with supporting statements from Last Chance for Animals founder Chris DeRose and Humane Farming Association founder Bradley Miller.
Other coalition members protesting the making of Aloha Rodeo include Anti-Rodeo Action New Zealand, Fish Feel, The Animal Cruelty Exposure Fund, NYCLASS, United Poultry Concerns, Animals Voice magazine, the Animal Alliance of Canada, the League of Humane Voters-Florida, and In Defense of Animals, along with individual activists Peggy Larson and Stevan Harnad.
“Something Cheyenne should be ashamed of”
Larson, a now retired Vermont veterinarian who grew up on a North Dakota ranch, was herself a rodeo performer in her teens, as a barrel racer.
Even then, the Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo had long been notoriously violent. Then-nationally syndicated medical columnist William Brody, M.D., for instance, in May 1954 published a letter from a reader asserting that “The commercial cruelty to animals in Frontier Days is something Cheyenne should be ashamed of. “
Brody attributed the cruelty to the lack of a humane society in Cheyenne––but the Cheyenne Humane Society, founded about 20 years later, remains conspicuously reluctant to criticize Frontier Days, an entrenched civic institution.
Frontier Days 1989 brought death of biggest star in rodeo
Walt Disney Inc. is scarcely the first film company to center a drama on Cheyenne Frontier Days. Nor has SHARK been the only film maker to depict the Frontier Days mayhem, suffered by both animals and humans, albeit that the humans are willing participants.
Recalls former Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association publicist Gavin Ehringer, “On July 23, 1989, Lane Frost, 26,” then the biggest star in rodeo, “was killed when a bull drilled him in the back with a horn at Cheyenne’s Frontier Days rodeo, shattering a rib that punctured his aorta. Frost literally and poignantly died of a broken heart. His story of triumph and tragedy was eventually retold in the 1994 New Line Cinema film 8 Seconds, featuring Luke Perry.”
But as Ehringer observed, becoming disillusioned with rodeo, and as ANIMALS 24-7 documented in 2015, Exposing sadism of rodeo attracts more sadists to watch it.
(Ehringer went on to write Leaving the Wild: The Unnatural History of Dogs, Cats, Cows, and Horses, detailing the process and outcomes of domestication for four of the most familiar animal species, from a strongly pro-animal perspective.)
“Questions of identity, imperialism, & race”
Knowing that many people are attracted to viewing violent spectacles may be a big part of why Disney Studios has retained screenwriter/director Chris Kekaniokalani Bright to turn the book Aloha Rodeo into a feature film.
But the film has yet to be scripted, let alone produced. And, as in the book by David Wolman and Julian Smith, there may be more going on here than meets the eye.
Observed Publisher’s Weekly of the book, “ In this immersive history, Wolman and Smith aim to ‘overturn simplistic notions of cowboys and Indians’ and ‘explore questions of identity, imperialism, and race’ by telling the story of Hawaiian cowboy culture.
“Drawing on oral histories and other primary sources,” Publisher’s Weekly explained, “in the 1830s, [Hawaiian] King Kamehameha I invited vaqueros [from California] to teach Hawaiians how to rope and herd cattle,” who had become problematically abundant after having been released into the rainforest by explorer George Vancouver in 1793-1794.
Schooled by the Spanish-speaking vaqueros, Publisher’s Weekly noted, “Hawai’ian cowboys called themselves paniolos, a local twist on the [Spanish] word español.”
Rounding up the Hawaiian feral cattle became the beginning of the Parker Ranch, one of the biggest cattle ranches not only in Hawaii but in the world, also hosting one of the world’s most notorious hunting ranches.
Several generations later, in 1907, Parker Ranch partial heir Eben Parker Low “visited Frontier Days and offered American cowboys a trip to Hawaii to compete against him and his riders. The competition was a success, and Low and his riders were invited in turn to compete in Cheyenne,” Publisher’s Weekly summarized.
The outcome could be compared to how black American sprinters Jesse Owens and Eddie Tolan humiliated the Nazi track team at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
Spin & Marty
So will the Disney film Aloha Rodeo be the debacle for animals that the coalition opposed to making the film anticipates?
Walt Disney Inc. has significantly boosted rodeo before, notably in the Adventures of Spin & Marty television shorts based on the 1942 novel Marty Markham by Lawrence Edward Watkin.
Beginning in 1955, Spin & Marty debuted as 11-minute segments of The Mickey Mouse Club show, produced by Disney, aired by the American Broadcasting Corporation.
The first 23 episodes built toward a climactic “Big Rodeo,” in which the boys of the Triple R summer dude ranch faced off in various rodeo events against teams from other ranches.
Two sequel series were produced, The Further Adventures of Spin & Marty in 1956 and The New Adventures of Spin & Marty in 1957.
American Humane Association
When The Adventures of Spin & Marty debuted, there were fewer than two dozen professional rodeos held in the world. Rodeo was resolutely opposed by both the American Humane Association, the only major national animal advocacy organization until just the year before, and by the breakaway Humane Society of the U.S.
By 1959, however, rodeo had risen in popularity so rapidly that the American Humane Association readily accepted an invitation from the Rodeo Cowboys Association, which evolved into the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association of today, to draft a set of humane rules for rodeo, and to enforce the rules by assigning inspectors to RCA-sanctioned rodeos.
With the American Humane Association “riding shotgun,” providing cover for rodeo for the next 20-odd years, and Spin & Marty continuing to air as reruns on the Disney Channel until mid- 2002, the rodeo industry emerged as it now exists.
“The most egregious event in all of rodeo”
The original American Humane Association rules are still in effect as the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association rules. Those rules, however, as Showing Animals Respect & Kindness has repeatedly demonstrated, are so routinely flouted that they might as well not exist.
And no PRCA rule is violated more often, or more blatantly, than the rule against “jerk-downs” in calf roping, which frequently result in calves being severely injured or killed
Steer-roping, colloquially called “steer busting,” is more violent still, in that the steers are roped by the head and horns, then dragged.
“Though steer roping is one of the PRCA’s sanctioned events, it is never part of the annual National Finals Rodeo held in Las Vegas, and for good reason: the public wouldn’t stand for it,” observed Action for Animals founder Eric Mills in 2015.
(See The most egregious event in all of rodeo, by Eric Mills, founder, Action for Animals.)
Impressions from the Bands of Mercy
But what to expect from a Walt Disney Inc. production pertaining to animals is a bit harder to predict than the probable response of most of the non-rodeo-going public to “jerk-downs” and “steer-busting.”
Walt Disney (1901-1966) has now been deceased for far longer than the 43 years that he presided over the company that bears his name.
Yet the Disney company still reflects many of the impressions that Walt Disney appears to have absorbed as an adolescent member of one of the dozens of Bands of Mercy sponsored by the American Humane Education Society in Kansas City, his boyhood home.
Walt Disney and his sister Ruth were in 1913 almost certainly among the 15,000 Kansas City children who marched from their schools to a cavernous wooden hall, built to house the 1900 Democratic Convention, where they joined 10,000 parents and teachers at a national Bands of Mercy conference which to this day remains the biggest animal advocacy event in U.S. history.
Selling the message “Be kind to animals”
The very first Walt Disney film, Steamboat Willie (1927) featured an early incarnation of Mickey Mouse cranking a cow’s tail to make music and throwing a bucket over a parrot’s head.
Since Disney produced the anti-hunting classic Bambi (1940), however, closely followed by the exposé of mistreatment of circus elephants included in Dumbo (1941), Disney films, especially animated features, have time and again anticipated the crossover of humane concerns into public awareness.
Lady & The Tramp (1955), for instance, included the first prominent screen depiction of dog pounds as they existed at that time. The first edition of 101 Dalmatians (1961), with successful re-releases in 1969, 1979, 1985, and 1991, more-or-less created the anti-fur movement.
The financial success of pro-animal films reinforced Walt Disney’s confidence in the “Be kind to animals” message, despite boycott threats from the circus, hunting, and fur industries.
Altogether, Disney films have easily done more humane education than the entire animal advocacy sector––and have persuaded the public to pay for it, then return time and again for more.
The Disney message, to be sure, has often been inconsistent, and has sometimes spectacularly backfired.
Each new release and sequel to 101 Dalmatians, for instance, brought a surge in Dalmatian breeding and subsequent surrenders of unruly Dalmatians to animal shelters––even after Walt Disney Productions in 1996 funded an American SPCA campaign to dissuade impulsive acquisition of Dalmatians.
Further, while Disney heroines have almost always been conspicuously gentle, kind, and helpful to animals, including Cinderella, Snow White, Ariel of The Little Mermaid, Belle of Beauty & The Beast, and Pocahontas, some Disney productions have positively portrayed hunters, trappers, and even a mink farmer.
The Disney film Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier (1955) touched off a vogue for raccoon skin caps that may have caused more raccoon deaths than even the mid-Atlantic raccoon rabies pandemic of 1976-1991.
The pandemic was touched off by trappers and houndsmen who tried to rebuild the depleted raccoon population in Great Smokies National Park by translocating raccoons from Florida, disregarding some of the central lessons of the 1957 Disney film Old Yeller.
Walt Disney’s nephew, Roy Edward Disney (1930-2009) joined the family business in 1953, after a year as assistant film editor for the Dragnet television series. Roy Edward Disney in 1956 was notoriously duped, and helped to dupe Walt Disney, into purchasing footage from independent film maker Tom McHugh purporting to show lemmings rushing into the sea.
In truth, McHugh faked the scene by throwing Arctic voles into a Canadian waterfall. Unaware it was fake, the Disneys incorporated the footage into their documentary White Wilderness. Disney Inc. withdrew White Wilderness from distribution after McHugh admitted the fakery, shortly before his death, but it reappeared in 1994, in video format, and was reissued in 1998 with blurbs highlighting the lemming segment.
Coyotes & foxes
After those fiascos, though, at the very height of federally funded efforts to eradicate coyotes, the Disneys produced the The Coyote’s Lament (1961) , an animated feature, followed by the docu-drama A Country Coyote Goes Hollywood (1967). Each was originally broadcast on the Walt Disney Presents television program, with Walt Disney himself providing a personal pro-coyote preface.
Mary Poppins (1964) included the earliest known film depiction of fox hunt sabotage. The Fox & The Hound (1981), The Rescuers Down Under (1990), and the animated edition of Beauty And The Beast (1993) offered some of the strongest anti-hunting messages put on film since Bambi. Both Pocahontas (1995) and Pocahontas II (1999) denounced animal exploitation in a variety of contexts.
101 Dalmatians vs. the fur trade
Most relevant to what Aloha Rodeo may do, however, may be the Disney Inc. response after the first home video release of the 1961 animated version of 101 Dalmatians shattered sales records in 1992, coinciding with the deepest slump in fur garment sales in forty years.
Irate furriers descended on Hollywood to demand that Disney rectify the economic harm to their industry. They flew back to New York City mollified, as Fur Age Weekly headlined, with the promise that a new Disney film starring Glenn Close in furs was already in production.
That film was the live action version of 101 Dalmatians, featuring Glenn Close as the arch-fur fiend Cruella DeVil.
The 102 Dalmatians sequel (2000) was then even more emphatically anti-fur than any of the previous versions.
What to expect of Aloha Rodeo?
Aloha Rodeo may yet be to steer roping as the Spin & Marty serials were to rodeo in general, sanitizing events which should never have become widely accepted as entertainment.
On the other hand, in light of Disney film history, Aloha Rodeo may emphasize the anti-racism message of the Wolman and Smith book.
Aloha Rodeo may perhaps use the violence of rodeo against animals to accentuate the violence of racism and lynching, which circa 1908 was more frequent than at most times before and any time since.
It is possible to tell the stories of Eben Parker “Ben” Low, Ikua Purdy, and Archie Kaaua without condoning mayhem to animals, beyond what were in 1908 the routine practices of the Parker Ranch and other working cattle ranches, in an era when “jerk downs” would have been seen as ruining the merchandise, long before flipping steers end-over-end with broken legs and necks was promoted as part of the show.