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Boone County Board votes to postpone decision on the fate of Mexican-style rodeos

Maria Gardner Lara

The Boone County board took a pause on its drive to ban a rodeo event hosted by Hispanic families in the county. It’s just the latest development in an ongoing contentious issue in the county.

The board voted nine to three to table, or postpone, a vote on whether to ban steer tailing.

Rodeo owner Gracie Robles was hesitant to call it a victory. For two years, she’s led the defense in fending off the board’s attempt to ban steer tailing.

“I don't know how long that can be tabled for,” Robles said. “I mean, they were saying that it could come back next month, in two months. So, I think we still have to be watching and making sure that doesn't happen.”

The board also put a pause on consideration of a ban on all rodeo events. Instead, they approved moving language that banned horse tailing and tripping, including similar animals like mules, from the zoning code to the county code. They also adopted the Illinois Humane Cares For Animals Act.

Boone County Board Chairman Rodney Riley said these actions help to get to “medium ground” on what’s been a polarizing issue for the board.

Also, he alluded to legal troubles the board may face in consideration of their vote.

“We certainly don’t want to put ourselves through unnecessary litigation,” Riley said. “We already have litigation going already. I’m sure we’ll have more. “

The county’s pending lawsuits include one from the animal rights groups claiming the county has not enforced animal protection law, and from a Hispanic property owner whose special use permit request was denied.

It was just earlier this month the board openly spoke about a letter sent last year from the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, which warned the board from taking action that targets Mexican-style rodeos as it may violate anti-discrimination laws.

County Board member Dave Wiltse made the motion to table the options, which was significant because he’s been an adamant supporter of the ban on steer tailing.

“It's off the immediate list, it's not going to be on next time," Wiltse said. "And so that we have time to look at it.”

Wiltse says over the last 48 hours the board received new information but wouldn't say what it entailed.

Some of it came from the Winnebago-Boone County Farm Bureau.

During public comments, Cody Book, the organization's vice president, asked the board to adopt motions in which the board eventually approved.

One exception though was a proposal to increase the minimum number of people at a certain event that requires a special use permit from 10 to 100. The board voted to make no changes to the existing policy.

For 25 years, Hispanic families have held coleaderos, or the Mexican style rodeos in the county, in which the sole event is steer tailing.

Steer tailing entails a horse rider attempting to knock down a castrated bull by the tail.

Reports say the drive for a ban on steer tailing stemmed from a noise complaint. Nevertheless, animal rights activists have led the charge who say steer tailing is an egregious form of animal cruelty, while rodeo fans and community leaders argue that the opposition toward Mexican-style rodeos is racially motivated.

Bob Babcock, a well-known advocate for social justice matters in Winnebago and Boone counties, sides with the latter sentiment. He attended the meeting and spoke during public comment in favor of rodeo operators and after the meeting told WNIJ, “I don't think it's as much about animal abuse as racism,” he said.

“First, it was a noise thing, and I think the person that that may have brought this just simply didn't like people that have maybe a darker skin, a different culture living next to them.”

The prominent animal rights organization has strongly disagreed with any claim that supporters of a ban are motivated by racism. They say their sole concern is for the welfare of the animals.

And though the board may have thrown water on the divisive issue, there were folks still feeling heated.

Among them was Rick Borrett Jr., the Boone County Director of Animal Services, who spoke as a private citizen during the meeting. He asked the board members to consider the animal’s standpoint.

“I think if you could ask the animals that are forced to participate, ‘Hey, do you want people to do this to you or do you want to just be left alone?’" Borrett Jr. asked. “They would choose to be left alone, stay home at the pasture and mind their own business.”

And Borrett doesn’t limit his ire to steer tailing held at Mexican-style rodeos, but all animal events, including those at the American-style rodeo hosted annually at the Boone County Fairgrounds.

“Yes, any event anywhere," he said, "where an animal is required, or forced to perform any act that they would not normally choose to do on their own free will should not be allowed."

Others who favored a ban on steer tailing said it was an appropriate measure since, they argue, the sheriff’s department and animal services couldn’t enforce the law on animal safety.

Borrett, though, said since last summer, he’s now been able to field an animal services officer from 8am to 7pm, 365 days a year.

“So, we are in a better position now than we were in the previous couple of years,” Borrett said. “And hopefully that will make a difference moving forward if these events are going to be allowed to be continued.”

Rodeo owner Gracie Robles said with the board’s latest decision, they plan on kicking off the rodeo season in April.

“I think we will definitely do our part to keep the rodeos going,” Robles said. “So, if it means being stricter with our spectators, with our participants, we’re all willing to do it.”

In the meantime, the head of an animal rights activist group told WNIJ they’ll continue to seek a ban on steer tailing in the county, and beyond that, at the state level.

A Chicago native, Maria earned a Master's Degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield . Maria is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America. RFA is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. It is an initiative of The GroundTruth Project, a nonprofit journalism organization. Un residente nativo de Chicago, Maria se graduó de University of Illinois Springfield con una licenciatura superior en periodismo de gobierno.