ATLANTIC CITY - Animal-rights activists, who say this weekend's Atlantic City Boardwalk Rodeo is inhumane, plan to protest Friday at Boardwalk Hall.
"We fight it because it's absolutely animal cruelty," Stuart Chaifetz, the state's coordinator for Showing Animals Respect and Kindness, or SHARK, said Tuesday.
SHARK is an Illinois-based animal rights group with members throughout the country.
The protest, which is scheduled to include members from four area animal-activist groups, will occur on the Boardwalk in front of the Hall between 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., protest organizers said.
Chaifetz, who is also a SHARK investigator from Cherry Hill, said he does not know how many people will attend Friday's protest, but said his voice will be loud and clear when he speaks out on behalf of the bulls, horses and calves used in the rodeo.
The event, he said, shows disregard for animal welfare, even if the standards upheld by the rodeo's overseeing organization are considered "normal."
Specifically, Chaifetz was referring to video posted on SHARKS' website and the group's YouTube page of John Barnes, the stock contractor for the Atlantic City show and executive council member of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, or PRCA, using an electric prod on a bull penned in a chute during a previous show.
In the video, Barnes is seen shocking two bulls multiple times, but it does not appear as if the shocks are the result of the animal refusing to move.
"You can try to put makeup on it and say it's nice and pretty," he said. "But torture is torture."
Barnes, who reviewed the video Tuesday, said he cannot defend his actions, but said the videos were taken about 15 years ago when rodeo rules were still evolving and the mentality for how to prepare animals for the show was different.
"Practices that may have been done before may not be done today," he said.
Barnes said his thinking at the time was to act like a football coach before the big game.
"When they're in the chute standing there they'll think they're getting fired up," he said. "They're ready to go."
Now, 15 years later, Barnes said rodeo bulls are much more athletic and do not need any additional excitement because they are bred - some with rodeo royalty blood lines - to buck and perform.
In response to the critics, Cindy Schonholtz, PRCA's director of industry outreach, said the association adheres to a list of 60 rules that are meant to protect animals and ensure livestock used in any of the association's sanctioned events are properly handled.
"We have rules that allow for the use of cattle prods," Schonholtz said Monday.
Those rules dictate that animal handlers are allowed to use the prods - which produce as much as 5,000 volts of electricity - when an animal will not move from one holding area to another. And even then, the prod should contact only the animal's hip or shoulder area.
Since a bull's hide is about seven to 10 times thicker than human skin, Schonholtz said the shock they feel is akin to a human touching an electric fence. The shock does not result in burning or other long-term, permanent damage, she said.
Sharon Vaillancourt, veterinarian with Atlantic Equine Clinic in Egg Harbor City, said prods do not cause permanent damage and are necessary when it comes to controlling larger livestock.
"It's only used in a moment of resistance," Vaillancourt said. "A moment they need to move."
Vaillancourt, who said she is in favor of the rodeo, said people who do not deal with livestock on a daily basis do not understand how difficult it is to handle 2,000 pound animals.
"A lot of the people come in from the outside and they're not aware of the dangers," she said, adding PRCA is a "well-recognized and well-oiled machine" in the rodeo world.
Barnes said he is used to facing protesters and said most of the time people are protesting a subject or a sport they do not know much about.
"If they talk about the animals being abused, why are they performing so well?" Barnes said Tuesday as he was preparing for the show.
Barnes said the animals, transported 1,200 miles to Atlantic City from Iowa, have to be taken care of because without a healthy animal, they will not be prepared to perform.
"You cannot make an animal perform," he said, adding handlers and animals work together as a family. Barnes said he cares deeply for the animals he deals with and can tell you the specifics about each one: their birth date and genealogy.
No. 1 priority
The ProRodeo livestock guide says "horses and cattles are the No. 1 priority for rodeo stock contractors." Animals used in the rodeos come from "born to buck breeding programs that take the genes of champion bucking horses and bulls and utilize them to breed the next generation of rodeo livestock," states the 20-page booklet.
The Atlantic City Rodeo, which will be governed by PRCA rules and regulations, is an example of "Western entertainment." Barnes said rodeos are successful because the event is "not man against animal, it's man with animal."
Chaifetz, on the other hand, said video shows Barnes and other stock contractors across the country disobeying those rules.
There is a $1,000 fine issued if rodeo personnel break the prodding rule, Schonholtz said. Reports of violations are made by PRCA trained and certified judges, who are trained to not only score riders and rodeo participants, but to spot animal mistreatment.
Barnes said he has never been fined or disciplined for animal mistreatment by the PRCA and "never will be." The PRCA said it does not disclose member violations.
"I've never had a history of animal abuse in my live, nor will I ever," he said, adding animal abuse is akin to child abuse and verbal abuse to him.
Schonholtz said the scheduled protest is not the first time activists have spoken out against the rodeo or the use of animals for entertainment.
"We're not saying we're perfect," she said. "We know there are groups out there that don't agree with rodeos."
In addition to trained judges, Schonholtz said veterinarians are required to be on-site every day of an event to ensure animal safety and treatment.
Barnes said the strict PRCA rules are why representatives of the Vineland-based South Jersey Equine Associates will be represented at the rodeo every day.
"We don't have doctors on site for the contestants," Barnes said. "But we do have doctors on site for the animals."
Chaifetz said Barnes and PRCA are the center of the storm because they put themselves there by hosting events that involve riding bulls, steering cattle and roping 6-month-old calves.
Even if it is common to prod and rope animals, there's no excuse for causing animals pain, even if it is temporary or short-term, he said.
"It's the normal that's bad," he said. "It's just the normal activity that's the worst."
Contact Caitlin Dineen: