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Saturday, July 24, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Animal-Rights Activists Hope To Go To Court To Stop Suicide Race

For years, animal-rights activists have fought the Omak Stampede rodeo's legendary Suicide Race with protest signs, chants and banners.

Now, for the first time, they're trying to take their battle to court.

But even as trial races begin this weekend, Okanogan County prosecutors are sharpening their legal spurs to stop the west-of-the-Cascades activists short in their tracks.

Yesterday, the Progressive Animal Welfare Society, or PAWS, filed criminal charges in Okanagon District court charging Suicide organizer "Cactus" Jack Miller with the drowning of two horses during last year's Stampede and for conspiring to unlawfully injure other horses for the sake of amusement.

"It's not a suicide race, it's equinicide," said Mitchell Fox, animal-issues director for Lynnwood-based PAWS.

In the legendary Suicide Race, said to be a traditional rite of passage for Native American boys, 20 riders plunge down a steep, 200-foot hill, scramble through the Okanogan River and sprint to a finish. Four races are scheduled Aug. 13-15.

The race is the highlight of the Stampede, which annually draws more than 40,000 spectators and pumps as much as $3 million into Omak's depressed economy. But in the past decade, the event has been tainted with protests from PAWS that it is unnecessarily reckless and cruel. Eight horses have died in the past 10 years, including two that drowned in practice runs last year.

PAWS justifies its ability to file criminal charges on a statute that lets humane societies act as officers to enforce the state's Prevention of Cruelty to Animals law.

But Okanogan County Prosecutor Michael McNeff is moving to dismiss the charges.

The reason, he says: PAWS can only enforce the law if it has approval from the Okanagon County Commission and has been sworn to duty by a county Superior Court judge.

McNeff goes on to complain that the PAWS affidavit on probable cause shows no probable cause. It charges that two horses drowned. But, McNeff says, "it gives no probable cause of a crime being committed. No evidence of an investigation, nothing."

"They're purporting to be police officers. But they obviously have had no law-enforcement training."

McNeff said he welcomes PAWS to secure approval from the County Commission to act as law-enforcement officers.

But that could be difficult. PAWS protests have long fallen on deaf ears with Okanagon County officials, and one of the county commissioners, Ed Thiele, sits on the Omak Stampede rodeo board this year.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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