Canada’s Calgary Stampede is being called a “brutal violent spectacle” of animal cruelty by the Humane Society of Canada, which has filed a complaint with Canada’s broadcasting regulator over the airing of the world’s largest outdoor rodeo.
The push to have broadcasters phase out the Stampede — which kicks off this week — from their programming is sparking renewed debate over the controversial Canadian event, which in the last decade has been linked with more than two dozen animal deaths.
“It’s a form of violent entertainment (in which) animals are abused and exploited,” says Sinikka Crosland, president of the Responsible Animal Care Society in B.C. and executive director of Canadian Horse Defence Coalition.
“But because it’s an accepted thing, people don’t tend to look at rodeo with a critical eye.”
Rodeo scholar Tamara Palmer Seiler acknowledges this disconnect, describing the Stampede as “a kind of carnival where the world is turned upside down.
“It’s one of those festivals where what’s not acceptable in the daily grind becomes acceptable,” says Seiler, a professor of communication and culture at the University of Calgary. She explains city-dwellers’ attraction to the Stampede as a mix of “nostalgia for the lost world of the frontier, the end of open-range ranching and a sense that, with industrialization, the world has changed.”
Though Seiler observes that infatuation with cowboy mythology is fading, giving rise to growing public concern over rodeo-animal welfare, she predicts it will always have a place in the national psyche.
“Many people feel very close to this as part of their cultural background,” says Seiler, who grew up around rodeos and horses. “What may appear to the casual onlooker as cruelty may be just (a display of) a dangerous world in which people can be hurt, animals can be hurt.”
Since 1986, the Humane Society of Canada has documented more than 40 animal deaths linked to the Calgary Stampede alone.
Outside Calgary, chuckwagon racing at the Saskatoon Exhibition in 2008 saw as many as eight horses perish. The year before, a calf had to be euthanized due to injuries sustained during the tie-down roping event at B.C.’s Cloverdale Rodeo, leading organizers to ban the event altogether. And in May of this year, four chuckwagon horses lost their lives at a rodeo in Northern Alberta.
Of the latter deaths, the president of the Grand Prairie Stompede committee told local media: “I think for some people, that’s part of the allure, the danger of it. It seems to be that’s the exciting part.”
The Humane Society of Canada has formally asked the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission to phase out broadcast of the rodeo, which the organization claims violates code by glamorizing violence against animals. But the CBC plans a record 140 hours of coverage this year.
“Our fascination with the Old West makes these animals pay a terrible price,” says Society CEO Michael O’Sullivan, who has inspected rodeos as part of his 40-plus years in animal protection.
“They’ll tell you they’re stopping these animals from going to the slaughterhouse. But ask anyone where the rodeo retirement home is for horses and cattle.”
Rodeo participants, however, speak of their sport as a proud celebration of cowboy heritage and skills mastery, with the livestock likened to well cared-for athletes.
“The relationship you have with animals in the cowboy way of life is more unique than anybody could ever imagine having with their pet dog,” says Josh Peek, a 29-year-old rodeo champion competing in this year’s Stampede.
“Injuries are going to take place, that’s inevitable. But calves don’t just die if they get hurt. That’s a $500 calf. And we’ll put ten or 20 thousand into a horse that gets injured just to bring him back.”
Doug Fraser, a spokesman for the Calgary Stampede, says they’re working with the Alberta SPCA and Calgary Humane Society to uphold what they consider the “highest standard of animal care” in rodeo. Under stricter chuckwagon rules introduced last year, a driver was slapped with a 10-second penalty and a $2,500 fine, and ordered to pay the driver with whom he collided $10,000 for the death of his horse.
Fraser points to 2008’s event as an example of a “very successful year” — one chuckwagon horse was euthanized as a result of injuries sustained in a collision between two rigs.
Barry Cooper, who spent much of his childhood behind the scenes at the Stampede, says critics are simply ignorant to the realities of ranching and need to appreciate the “joys of being a redneck” — a term he uses affectionately.
“Everybody, when they were little, played cowboys and Indians,” says Cooper, author of It’s the Regime, Stupid: A Report From the Cowboy West on Why Stephen Harper Matters.
“The people who lodge these complaints . . . are philosophical illiterates when it comes to animal rights because there is no such thing as animal rights. It’s something these people have invented as an analogy with human rights.”
Rodeo Animal Deaths in Canada: A 10-year Snapshot
2009: Four horses are killed at the Grand Prairie Stompede chuckwagon races.
2008: A reported eight chuckwagon horses perish at Saskatoon’s Marquis Downs over a four-day racing event, while another chuckwagon horse is euthanized at the Calgary Stampede.
2007: A Stampede chuckwagon crash kills three horses. At a B.C. rodeo, a calf is euthanized due to injuries sustained in the tie-down roping event.
2006: Two Stampede horses are killed as a result of a chuckwagon collision.
2005: Nine horses plunge to their deaths off a bridge during a Calgary Stampede trail ride.
2004: An accident at Edmonton’s Klondike Chuckwagon Derby leads to four horses being destroyed. The same year, a veteran Stampede bull is put down due to internal trauma and a horse competing in the Stampede’s wild-horse event is euthanized after breaking its leg.
2002: Six chuckwagon horses are put down at the Calgary Stampede, along with a calf whose leg was broken during the roping event. In Edmonton, a four-wagon collision results in the death of a horse.
2001: A three-month-old calf is euthanized after its leg is broken during a roping event at the Calgary Stampede.
1999: A bucking bronco at the Can-Am Rodeo in Ottawa slams into a fence and breaks her neck, dying in front of 6,000 people. The same year, three horses perish at the Stampede and another is put down in Edmonton after breaking its leg in a rodeo event.
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