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By Renée Jean, Business and Tourism Reporter
Saturday was not a good night to be a rooster in Moorcroft.
Wings flapped, feathers flew and birds squawked in a pen just large enough for teams of two to try their hand at chicken roping.
The event was at Dewey’s bar in Moorcroft, a small community of less than 1,000 people in northeast Wyoming along Interstate 90, right at the turnoff to Devils Tower.
A large crowd gathered for the event, which was open to all ages, from very young children to grown men and women.
The chicken-roping arena was created in a room adjacent to the bar, more usually home to pool tables and dart boards. It was built from cattle fence panels displaying plastic advertising banners from various businesses.
This year’s event featured roosters instead of chickens after owner and handler Troy Dysart’s chicken coop was invaded by a predator that ate most of his chickens.
Not For Money
Dysart doesn’t host the chicken roping event at Dewey’s for money, although he is, in more recent years, being paid a nominal fee to cover the cost of his gasoline.
But when he started nine years ago, Dysart wasn’t paid a thing – and didn’t expect to be. He was just trying to help a friend.
February gets to be a very slow month not just for cowboys who like to rope, but for businesses in Moorcroft. While the community is often referred to as the “gateway” to Devils Tower, sitting as it does at the I-90 turnoff for the first national monument, this doesn’t give the town much help in capturing a lot of business from tourists.
“People headed to Devils Tower just want to keep going,” bartender Chris Castello told Cowboy State Daily. “And the ones coming back are usually too tired to make a stop.”
In the summer, tour busses occasionally stop. And ranch hands will come in for burgers served buffet style.
But there’s none of that in February, which is the slowest of the slow winter months, Castello said. The month is very hard on all Moorcroft businesses that rely on some traffic from visitors to get by.
These days, Dewey’s is owned by a different set of friends, Rachel and Kaare Kimsey, than when Dysart first began the annual chicken roping.
Rachel Kimsey told Cowboy State Daily she’s tried a number of things during winter to attract business, from karaoke to live bands.
Lately, she’s had some luck with bingo every other Thursday, but chicken roping brings a much larger crowd to the bar. It’s among the single largest crowd they’ll see all year.
Dysart, meanwhile, doesn’t believe the night of roping really hurts his chickens or his roosters either — even though it’s clearly a stressful night for them.
“There’s a spot this time of year where (chickens) kind of go dormant,” he said. “They don’t lay as many eggs. And then we’ll rope them, and they’ll start laying more eggs.”
Cowboys in Wyoming will be cowboys. And they grow up roping everything in sight: calves, goats, horses and, yes, chickens.
“It’s a way of life for a lot of guys,” Castello said. “They spend every Friday night in summer roping calves, if they’re not rodeoing.”
But during winter, there’s not a lot of roping activity to be had, which helps explain the popularity of chicken roping, Travis Connally told Cowboy State Daily.
Connally and his brother Toby are team ropers.
“We grew up on a ranch and roping is something we do every day,” he said.
Chicken roping once helped the two brothers stay sharp, though there aren’t as many of the events anymore, Connally said.
It wasn’t really a circuit, though, as Castello had previously told Cowboy State Daily.
“There were a lot of towns that did it, and we used to go to a lot of them,” Conally said.
Connally has organized chicken roping events as a benefit when, for example, someone needed help with medical expenses.
The events are popular in cowboy country. When you add helping someone to the mix, it’s a surefire way to bring a lot of people out on a cold winter night.
“Even people who don’t ride a horse can do this,” Connally said. “And it’s fun.”
Moorcroft is now the only chicken-roping event left that Connally knows about in Wyoming.
“They died down,” he said. “Most bars don’t allow it.”
Connally always comes to Moorcroft’s event. In fact, he’s won it the past three or four years running.
First- and second-place winners get a small purse, which is based on how many entries there are for the night. The entry fee was a mere $5 for each attempt, and there was to be a maximum of about 100 entries.
There’s also a little bit of swag. In this case, shiny belt buckles.
Careful And Swift
Connally is cool and collected on the chicken-roping, or, in this case, rooster-roping, floor.
It’s immediately clear in both his stance and gait that he’s done this before, and that he’s actually really good at it.
It’s also clear that he’s being careful; just enough to get the roping job done, and no more.
He doesn’t want to hurt the rooster.
In fact, no one really wanted to hurt the roosters, though not all the ropers were as skilled and practiced as Connally.
And some clearly had more alcohol in them than others.
Ropers are not allowed to lift the chickens up too high in the process of roping them.
A dead chicken would be a costly thing. Not only would the roper face a $100 fine from the state of Wyoming, but the owner of the bird would want a couple hundred dollars to replace his or her bird.
Never mind the attention a bird’s death would bring to the Cowboy State. A quick Google search showed the event itself was being widely circulated online by various animal rights groups that are aghast at the event.
But the ropers can and do lift the bird by its neck sometimes, to try and nudge its feet in the right direction for that second rope.
This was heartily discouraged by members of the crowd, who loudly called it out as “cheating.”
Each team is allowed a maximum of three casts with the rope. If the bird isn’t properly noosed by the second cast, the team’s turn is over and it leaves the arena without a time.
Misses were frequent, as were misfires, where the rope catches a wing as well as the head, or the feet first instead of the head first.
In both cases, the rules require the rope, which looks more like thin twine, be immediately — and carefully — removed.
That was often a tussle with the rooster, to get the unhappy bird free, which sometimes led to it flying off, outside the ring, squawking the whole way, with feathers flying.
Sometimes, however, roosters were too riled up when they entered the ring and would fly away before the roping even began. Those birds were usually traded right away for a calmer bird and given more rest.
Dysart brought 13 or so roosters to the event so that no one rooster would get roped any more than nine times.
But the roosters didn’t only have to contend with people trying to rope them by the neck and feet. Sometimes, people in the crowd would come along and poke at them as well.
One clearly intoxicated woman, for example, kept pecking at roosters with her fingers. She was egged on by some in the crowd, who warned her the bird would bite back.
When it finally did, there was laughter.
The woman did it several more times during the course of the event and appeared amused each time.
Some of the cowboys did speak up for the roosters at times, though.
For example, a man who reacted negatively to being pecked by a rooster during the process of removing ropes from around its neck and feet was yelled at by another, nearby man who witnessed the whole thing.
“Be. Nice. To. The. Roosters!” the man yelled at the top of his lungs.
“He bit me,” the other man replied, defensively.
“So?!” The man responded, affronted. “I get bit all the time. It’s not a big deal!”
It highlighted what many who saw the incident were no doubt thinking in that moment: It was the chickens who were not having a good night in Moorcroft.
A little bit of pecking back ought to be expected.
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