Santa Cruz County Fair cancels planned rodeo

When a plan for a rodeo at the Santa Cruz County fairgrounds was tentatively approved last month, fans of ropin’ and ridin’ were elated.

But officials Tuesday said a threatened lawsuit from animal welfare activists forced them to scuttle the local Sheriff’s Department event, which was aimed at raising money for children’s activities and organizations.

The Santa Cruz County Fair Board of Directors “made a business decision that the benefits didn’t outweigh the risks,” said Steve Stagnaro, a board spokesman.

The board was also concerned over plans by a group called Stop the Rodeo to picket the fair in September. “The idea that this would get in the way of us having a simple, wholesome, healthy, happy event — well, it wasn’t time to fight this battle,” Stagnaro said.

Some residents groused about the tradition-steeped county fair buckling under to granola-fueled progressives.

In an online comment posted with the Santa Cruz Sentinel, a reader pointed out that the fair’s manager, Mike Bethke, is from Santa Cruz — not the less populous, more conservative areas around the county.

“Guess that explains it,” the reader observed. “Maybe he’ll add bonzai pot plants to the horticulture displays and replace the garlic fries with tofu nuggets.”

The event would have been the first rodeo at the fairgrounds in more than two decades.

Although satisfied with the cancellation, even Stop the Rodeo wasn’t entirely pleased. The fair board rejected its animal-cruelty objections but responded when the group threatened to sue over alleged environmental abuses, including manure polluting a creek near the fairgrounds.

“We applaud the deputy sheriffs for wanting to raise money for the kids in our county,” said animal welfare activist JP Novic. “But to do that using something so inherently violent is absolutely the wrong approach.”

Sheriff’s Sgt. Mike MacDonald, the rodeo’s chief advocate, said he used his own money to travel around the U.S., conferring with rodeo promoters and securing the endorsement of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Assn.

“We have increasing gang activity here and all these nonprofits for kids that have had to cut back,” he said. “I was hoping this would pay for some after-school activities and maybe even inspire them to join groups like 4-H and the Future Farmers of America.”