July 19, 2007
Once again the Calgary Stampede has seen the tragic and needless deaths of horses in its notorious chuckwagon races. And once again there have been calls for the event to be banned. Usually, the Stampede makes its excuses, the incident is forgotten and nothing happens. But this time things could be different.
When the Cloverdale Rodeo in Surrey, B.C. announced in May that it was dropping four key events – calf-roping, team-roping, steer wresting and wild cow milking – it sent shock waves throughout the rodeo industry in North America.While most rodeo spokespeople put on a brave face and denied it would have any effect on events outside Cloverdale, it’s clear that some in the rodeo community are having second thoughts.
For example, Dale Leschiutta, the president of the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association (CPRA), is telling the association’s members to get ready for change. In a letter to the membership published on the CPRA website he discusses the Cloverdale decision: “We cannot ignore the reality of what occurred. Our world is changing and we must change or risk losing some things that are very important to us.” More importantly, he refers to specific events: “You will see changes in tie-down roping coming from your board with the cooperation of tie-down ropers.
The Calgary Stampede, which is not a member of the CPRA, has been adamant that it will not make any changes to its rodeo events. As a high profile event the Stampede may appear immune to shifts of public opinion originating from the “wacky” west coast. But is this just an arrogant complacency that ignores the lessons of Cloverdale?
Animal protection groups had been criticizing the event for years, and the deaths of two animals in three years certainly had an effect on public opinion. But there are underlying factors that may have led to the decision to drop the events. Surrey, the Cloverdale Rodeo’s home, is growing and urbanizing rapidly. To a new, young and culturally diverse generation the appeal of rodeo is limited. Vancouver’s decision in 2006 to ban rodeo altogether may have encouraged Surrey’s city council to support the Cloverdale decision. People seemed to like the Cloverdale Country Fair but not the accompanying rodeo – a point not lost on the politicians. Whatever combination of reasons resulted in the end of four major rodeo events, it’s clear that some kind of cultural tipping point had been reached.
Could the same happen in Calgary? The city is growing, with an increasingly young, educated population that is at least 15 per cent ethnic minority. The real draw of the Stampede may be the accompanying entertainment (and partying) rather than calves being dragged through the dirt. Will rodeo continue to be popular and “cool” with a new generation or will the Stampede become associated with crowds of overweight American tourists mingling with old men in string ties?
Much will depend on whether what happened in Cloverdale has permeated the public consciousness. It has certainly sparked debate on agricultural and rodeo Internet forums and in specialist media. Surprisingly, there has been some strong support for changes to rodeo in these circles. Ranchers have been quoted in the Western Producer, Canada’s largest agricultural publication, expressing abhorrence for the calf-roping event and pointing out that it is not standard ranching practice to chase a calf at full speed, jerk it to a sudden stop and slam it to the ground
To those who oppose rodeo it’s only a matter of time before their arguments win over mainstream public opinion in Canada. In the 21st century it’s hard to justify the use of fear and pain to make animals perform for human entertainment. The rodeo industry’s claim that the events are based on ranching practices is largely a myth (Nobody ever timed a cowboy’s work with a stopwatch.) There is also the “it’s our heritage” argument, but just because something has been acceptable in the past it doesn’t mean it should remain so. Bear-baiting and cock-fighting were traditions in Europe for centuries until civilized values trumped heritage.
Perhaps the Stampede will withstand changing public attitudes and Calgary will end up being the last bastion of rodeo, but many will be asking: Is that something to be proud of?