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VHS is opposed to rodeo because most rodeo events involve the use of fear, stress or pain to make animals perform. There is also considerable risk of injury or death for the animals. These risks and the suffering the animals endure are especially unacceptable, given the unnecessary and frivolous nature of rodeo as entertainment.
Virtually all animal welfare organizations in Canada oppose cruel rodeo events, including the BC SPCA and Humane Canada. Rodeo is banned in the U.K., Holland, and several other U.S. and European jurisdictions. It is opposed by the American SPCA, the Royal New Zealand SPCA and the Australian SPCA. In Canada, the City of Vancouver and the District of North Vancouver have banned rodeos.
Changing public attitudes
Rodeo is not illegal in most places. However, if other animals, such as dogs, were subjected to the same treatment it is likely charges under the Criminal Code of Canada or provincial statutes would apply. For example, if a dog were to be chased at speed, lassoed, jerked backward and slammed to the ground it would likely meet the Criminal Code’s description of cruelty as “wilfully or recklessly caused unnecessary pain, suffering or injury to an animal…”
Rodeo events are not covered by Canadian animal cruelty laws because historically they are considered “generally accepted practices of animal management” for the treatment of livestock. This de facto exemption, curiously, applies to rodeo even though it is merely an entertainment.
Without the protection of current federal or provincial law, rodeo animals can only have their treatment mitigated by municipal bylaws, which can prohibit certain types of business, activities or events within their boundaries. Otherwise it is a matter of rodeo organizations voluntarily making changes to their events (usually under pressure from public opinion).
VHS has been successful in curtailing rodeo in B.C. The Abbotsford Agrifair rodeo was cancelled in 2016 after a VHS campaign, as was the Luxton Rodeo on Vancouver Island in 2015. In 2007, the Cloverdale Rodeo eliminated four events (calf-roping, steer-wrestling, team-roping and wild cow-milking) after a long campaign by VHS.
The Calgary Stampede has made a number of rules changes and measures to improve animal safety following VHS campaigns, as has the Chilliwack Fair rodeo. These changes do not go nearly far enough to address the suffering of rodeo animals, but they demonstrate that public pressure can have an effect.
In May 2006, after representations from VHS, Vancouver City Council voted unanimously to prohibit a number of rodeo activities.
The elimination of rodeo in Vancouver, and its partial curtailment in Surrey, Abbotsford and Vancouver Island, speak to the changing public attitudes to the treatment of animals. A 2015 survey by polling company Insights West found that 66 per cent of B.C. residents are opposed to rodeo (63 per cent across Canada).
The arguments and evidence against rodeo that VHS has employed rest on a simple premise: that rodeo is cruel to animals because it unnecessarily subjects them to fear, pain, stress and the risk of injury or death for the purpose of human entertainment.
Rodeos take place across North America, with the same competitors taking part in rodeos in Canada and the U.S. This video of American rodeos shows what really happens to the animals:
Why is rodeo inhumane?
Fear, pain and stress: Animal protection groups argue that rodeo exploits animals’ reaction to pain, fear and stress. This becomes obvious when one asks questions such as: Why would a calf or bull charge at full speed out of a chute into an arena full of people? (Answer: they are kicked, have their tails twisted or are even given electric shocks.) What makes rodeo horses and bulls buck? (Answer: A device called a flank strap is tied around the animals’ hindquarters, causing irritation and stress until the strap is released.) Were such methods used to motivate dogs at dog agility competitions, there would be a public outcry.
Even without physical coercion, the noise, alien surroundings and stress of being chased can cause extreme fear. The distinguished animal behaviourist, Dr. Temple Grandin (who designs slaughterhouses for the meat industry), has argued that fear is “so bad” for animals that it is worse than pain.
Injuries and deaths: Rodeo animals are injured or killed in rodeos regularly. The death of the calf that prompted changes at the Cloverdale Rodeo in 2006 had been preceded by the death of a steer in 2004 (a cowboy broke its neck during the steer wrestling event). It is difficult to get accurate figures on rodeo deaths and injuries but anti-rodeo activists have compiled a list of deaths and injuries at the Calgary Stampede – July 2009 Final from the Calgary Stampede, which gives a representative picture of rodeos risks to animals’ health and well being. It should also be noted that many painful injuries go unnoticed and unrecorded because bruising and internal bleeding are difficult to see.
Condoning of violence and animal abuse: Aside from what rodeo does to animals, there is also the question of what it does to us. That is, what message does rodeo give to the public, especially children? Most civilized societies rank kindness to animals amongst the highest behavioural values of humankind. From St. Francis of Assisi to Gandhi to the Dalai Lama, great moral figures have cited compassion toward animals as an essential human virtue. No one could argue that rodeo demonstrates kindness or compassion to animals. On the contrary, rodeo explicitly condones and glorifies violence and brutality toward animals.
The only message that rodeo can therefore give to society is that it is acceptable to treat animals brutally. For children, this is surely an undesirable moral lesson.
Specific rodeo events
The criticisms of rodeo (and the defence of rodeo) revolve around the specifics of each event. Following are descriptions of the main rodeo events.
Calf-roping (also called tie-down roping): In this timed event a calf is goaded (often includes tail-twisting, kicking or knocking the calf’s head against the bars; electric shock devices are sometimes used) into the arena, followed by a horse and rider. The calf, which runs at speeds averaging 27 miles per hour, is roped around the neck and jerked to a sudden stop. If the animal struggles to his feet he will be lifted up and thrown down to the ground by the rider, who then ties three of calf’s feet together.
The young age of animal, the in-chute abuse and the impact of the sudden jerking on the calf’s neck make this perhaps the most offensive rodeo event. Cloverdale’s decision to drop roping events followed a calf breaking his leg in this event, which resulted in the calf having to be killed.
Chuckwagon racing: Invented at the Calgary Stampede in 1923, the chuckwagon race involves several teams of horses pulling wagons in a figure eight course and racing down a track at high speed to the finish line. Several other rodeos in Western Canada have adopted this event. More than 60 chuckwagon horses have been killed at the Calgary Stampede since 1986, mainly due to crash injuries and heart attacks brought on by stress. The considerable risk of injury and death to horses has made this event highly controversial but it remains one of the main attractions at the Stampede.
Team-roping: In this event two mounted cowboys attempt to rope and immobilize a steer in the least amount of time. The lasso is thrown around the steer’s neck by one rider and the other ropes the hind legs. The steer is then pulled from each end and stretched to bring him to the ground. Sometimes the steer is stretched so violently that all four feet leave the ground and he is suspended in mid-air by the neck and rear legs.
Steer wrestling: Here, a rider jumps from his horse on to the head and neck of a running steer. He then twists the neck of the steer until it falls to the ground. This can result in neck injuries – a steer’s neck was broken at the 2004 Cloverdale Rodeo and the animal had to be killed.
Wild cow milking: This timed event involves three cowboys chasing a roped cow, grabbing and twisting its head to stop it long enough for one cowboy to take milk from the cow’s udder. Extreme stress can be observed amongst the cows as they attempt to escape from the men chasing them.
Bronc-ridingBareback riding/bull riding: Riders compete to see who can stay mounted on a bucking horse for a set time. Despite claims by the rodeo industry, bucking is not a natural activity for a horse. Hence a “flank strap” is tied around the horse’s sensitive hindquarters to make him buck. The horse will buck until the strap is released. The horse is clearly being tormented by the flank strap and the desire to get the rider off. A flank strap is also used in bull riding for the same purpose.
Arguments defending rodeo
A number of arguments have been put forward by the rodeo industry to defend rodeo. Following are some of the most common, with counter arguments:
Rodeo animals are valuable, so they would not be mistreated or put at risk.
This is like saying that race car drivers would not put their valuable cars at risk in motor racing. 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 for those involved. The animals are valuable because they are put at risk. It is the violent, physical nature of the events that provides sensation and suspense that rodeo fans enjoy.
Rodeo animals are just like athletes in other rough sports.
Except that rodeo animals, unlike human athletes, have no choice in the matter. Is it likely a calf or steer would choose to be roped and thrown to the ground? Would a bull choose to be goaded into an arena of thousands of screaming people with someone on his back and a belt tied around his groin?
Rodeo is a valuable part of our western heritage and tradition.
In fact, most rodeo events bear little or no resemblance to real ranch practices, historic or modern. For example, why would a real cowboy ride a bull? Why would a real cowboy want to make a horse buck with a flank strap? A key issue is that rodeo events are timed, whereas real ranch practices are not. Timing makes these events faster, more stressful and more dangerous to the animals. Real calf-roping on ranches is a far more gentle practice in which calves are roped at slow speeds.
Rodeo animals are big and strong, with thick hides.
Just because an animal is large or has great strength doesn’t mean it can’t suffer. The injuries and deaths sustained by many rodeo animals make it obvious they are subject to violence, which in turn must cause pain. A thick hide, although it might obscure bruising, does little to protect animals against broken limbs, the pain of tail twisting or the hard kick of a cowboy boot. In any case, as has been stated by animal behaviourist Temple Grandin, it is likely that fear may be more stressful for animals than pain.
The animals are going to be slaughtered anyway.
The fact that some animals will eventually be slaughtered for food is not a justification for abusing them before they die. Rodeo has been termed “a cruel detour to the slaughterhouse.” While we slaughter millions of animals every day for food, no one would suggest putting it on show, timing it and awarding a prize to the fastest slaughterhouse worker.
Rodeo is popular and is treated as family entertainment in many places, so how can it be wrong?
Just because an activity is popular does not mean it is morally acceptable. Many activities that were considered popular and socially acceptable in the past are no longer tolerated, such as: circus freak shows featuring disabled and deformed people; black and white minstrel shows; cock-fighting; bear baiting, etc. As society seeks to become more civilized many such activities are banned. It should be remembered that in our own history many people routinely attended public executions.
Animal welfare organizations – positions on rodeo
Humane Canada (formerly the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies)
British Columbia SPCA
Ottawa Humane Society (pdf file)
Royal New Zealand SPCA (pdf file – see 6.4)
Humane Society of the United States
Animal advocacy organizations working to abolish rodeo>
SHARK (Showing Animals Respect and Kindness) – U.S. animal protection organization specializing in rodeo investigations
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)