Rodeo is a sport that rarely comes galloping into American living rooms on prime-time television.
But earlier this month, network executives were stunned when 4 million households tuned in to watch Terry Don West, a slightly bow-legged bull rider from Henryetta, Okla., transform himself into something of a national celebrity.
Mr. West, who had a riding mishap two nights earlier that left him with serious head injuries, climbed on the back of a bucking bull and was awarded $312,000 for staying in the saddle eight seconds. It was the largest payout ever offered for a single bull ride.
Such harrowing drama may explain why rodeo is making a cultural comeback - it is now one of the fastest-growing spectator sports in the country.
But while the sport's popularity is soaring, so too are concerns about the welfare of the bulls, calves, and horses, which, unlike Terry Don West, do not consciously choose to step into the ring.
In 1996, some 23 million fans watched rodeo athletes compete live for more than $30 million in prize money. Both the attendance figures and dollar amounts are expected to rise higher this year. The irony is that while rodeo, a symbol of the old West, continues to thrive, the cowboy lifestyle of cattle drives and branding parties that created the sport is fading from view on the Western landscape.
"The public has always been in love with the American cowboy," says Terri Greer of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association in Colorado Springs, Colo. "Cowboys are one of the last representations of a truly free spirit. They take the people who watch rodeo back to a less-complicated time when life was straightforward. They are our original homegrown heroes."
Montana saddle-bronc rider Dan Mortensen, a three-time world champion, believes sports fans are also fed up with the whining of platinum-paid football, baseball, and basketball players. With rodeo, he notes, there is no talk of strikes, million-dollar contracts, and seven- or eight-figure endorsement deals.
Observers also say the attraction of the marquee "rough-stock events," which include bucking bronc and bull riding, is the raw unpredictability of what happens when cowboys test the temper of agitated beasts.
"In rodeo the question is not if you are going to get hurt, but when," says Don Andrews, executive director of Justin Healer, a sports-medicine program for rodeo athletes sponsored by the Justin Boot Company. "These guys compete hurt more than any other professional athlete and the people in the stands appreciate their courage. They have to take risks because there are no [financial] guarantees."
For all its romance, the same chaps-tough nature that makes the sport unique is the reason rodeo has come under sharp attack from groups in the animal-welfare movement. Marc Paulhus, director of equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States, says if his organization had its way, rodeo would be banned.
"We're very saddened by the mania for rodeo in our society," he says. "We believe it is an institutionalized form of animal abuse presented as entertainment and an opiate for the masses."
Mr. Paulhus is especially critical of cattle prods and bucking straps used to make animals buck harder, the requirement that riders spur the necks of broncos to record higher scores, and the events of steer wrestling and calf roping in general.
"If I were to race my horse down a street, rope your dog, jerk it to the ground, then lift it up waste high, drop it to the turf, and hogtie its legs, I would be arrested for animal cruelty and surely convicted," he says. "But if I do it to a calf, I can win a prize all to the cheer of hundreds, perhaps thousands of folks in the arena."
During the next few weeks, the Humane Society plans to send out a mass mailing and blanket the radio airwaves with claims that rodeo is excessively brutal to its stock animals. The group also hopes to launch a controversial campaign of recruiting country-western singers, whose music is synonymous with the rodeo lifestyle, to speak out against alleged abuses. So far, no singing stars have signed up.
Paulhus says it is the Humane Society's contention that if the state animal-welfare laws were applied to rodeo livestock as they are to cats and dogs, the sport would be illegal in much of the country.
IN response, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association says the Humane Society is fabricating facts and using attacks on rodeo as a ruse for fund-raising.
"The way we respond to those charges is with the truth," says Ms. Greer, who is PRCA's animal-welfare coordinator. "We take all claims of animal cruelty seriously. It is in our best interest to make sure none of the stock animals are abused."
She cites a 1995 independent study in which 34,000 bulls, horses, and calves entered in all rodeo events were examined and just 16 had documented injuries. Another analysis completed in California examined the impact of calf roping at 916 rodeos and uncovered one leg injury.
Boosters point out that if rodeo were so brutal, it wouldn't be the popular form of family entertainment that it is. Take Connie Hupka of Bozeman, Mont.
She attended her first rodeo when she was two months old. Now she anxiously awaits the start of the summer season. One of Ms. Hupka's cousins is a professional bull rider who was seriously injured during competition but returned to the circuit.
"To me what's exciting about rodeo is the pure excitement, the luck of the draw. You never know what is going to happen," she says. "I'm glad to see that riders are getting better compensated. I think part of it is a recognition that rodeo is an athletic event, not just entertainment."
Hupka dismisses the assertions of animal-rights activists. "There will always be an exception to focus on, but mistreatment is so rare [the activists] really don't have much to fuss about," she says. "In fact, rodeo stock animals are cared for much better than livestock on ranches."
Those involved in the sport are far more concerned about the danger to the riders than to the animals. In fact, the perceived risk to human life and limb is one reason rodeo has become more lucrative for cowboys.
Corporate sponsorships of rodeos across North America and television time have pushed earnings for top competitors well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, eight times more than top athletes in the sport pocketed 25 years ago.
Terry Don West says the higher wages are needed because the career of most bronc and bull riders is over by the time they reach their mid-30s, often as a result of injuries. Recently, cowboys did band together to form a rodeo union that will develop a pension plan.
West says he would have retired last year but the chance of making good money is too hard to pass up. In 1996, after he claimed the world bull-riding title at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas - the Super Bowl of the sport - his earnings surpassed $500,000.
"Some of the people who read about rodeo might think it's not worth it, but bull ridin's been good to me," he says. "Still, I have a son who's five months old. I was thinking the other day 'Gosh, do I want him to ride bulls just like his dad?' Here I am doing it but I prefer that he not."
THE BIGGEST PURSES IN SPORTS
(Money paid to participants
in each event, 1996)
1. Indianapolis 500 $8.1 million
2. Brickyard 400 4.8 million
3. Breeder's Cup Classic 4.0 million
4. National Finals Rodeo 3.2 million
5. U.S. Open (golf) 2.6 million
6. The Masters (golf) 2.4 million
7. Kentucky Derby 1.0 million
Source: Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association