Rodeos sell cruelty posing as western heritage

Peter Fricker
Edmonton Journal
Publication Date:
June 8, 2009


Last weekend four horses were killed at the Grande Prairie Stompede chuckwagon races. The deaths were reported by the local newspaper under the headline, “Attendance up at Stompede ’09.” They weren’t mentioned until paragraph seven, where they were described as one of the “downsides” of the event. (the others being parking and admissions, which will be improved next year.)

This blase reaction is perhaps not surprising. Such deaths happen all the time. In the Calgary Stampede alone, more than 40 rodeo horses have been killed since 1986,mostly in chuckwagon races. Who knows how many others have died or been injured in smaller rodeos across Canada.

Does anyone in Grande Prairie care about horses dying for the sake of entertainment? Joel Acton, president of the Stompede committee, told local media that nobody was happy about the deaths, but added: “I think for some people, that’s part of the allure, the danger of it. It seems to be that’s the exciting part.”

Animal welfare in Canada is in a sad state when risking animals’ lives can be described as exciting. But we have all become conditioned to rodeo animals being subjected to stress, fear, pain and even death. We’re told repeatedly by rodeo promoters that it’s part of our heritage, that the animals are willing athletes, that they are too highly valued to be put at risk and are too big and tough to feel fear or pain, and so on.

But these arguments just don’t hold up. Heritage? The chuckwagon race was invented in 1923 by Guy Weadick, aU. S. vaudeville performer. Real cowboys did not ride bulls(why would they?) or wrestle steers (an event that originated in the 1930s). Rodeo is mainly an American import that has almost nothing to do with the Old West or real ranch work.

Are rodeo animals athletes, like football players?Unlike human athletes, they have no choice in whether they take part. Is it likely a calf would choose to be roped and slammed to the ground? Would a bull choose to be goaded into an arena full of screaming people, with someone on his back and a flank strap tied around his hindquarters?

Too valuable to put at risk? That’s like saying race-car drivers would not put their valuable cars at risk. Of course they do, because the financial rewards outweigh the risk.The same is true in professional rodeo, which offers large cash prizes and generates significant revenue.The animals are valuable because they are put at risk. It is the violent, physical nature of the events that provides the sensation and suspense that rodeo fans enjoy. As Mr. Acton says, that’s part of the “allure.”

Too tough to feel pain or fear? Just because an animal is large or has great strength doesn’t mean it can’t suffer. A thick hide might obscure bruising, but does little to protect animals against broken limbs, the pain of tail twisting or the hard kick of a cowboy boot. Spurs, even with dulled rowels, do not tickle.

As for fear, Temple Grandin, the distinguished animal behaviourist has stated: “The single worst thing you can do to an animal emotionally is to make it feel afraid. Fear is so bad for animals I think it’s worse than pain.”Worse than pain. Yet rodeos see terrified three-month-old calves chased, roped to a jerking halt, picked up and thrown to the ground. That’s not suffering?

Rodeo inflicts precisely such torments just to amuse a crowd. Civilized Canadians who care about animals should be speaking out against this inhumane travesty posing as western heritage.

Peter Fricker is projects and communications director for the Vancouver Humane Society.