Animal Treatment in Rodeo

The treatment of animals in rodeo has been a source of concern for the industry, the public, and the law for decades. Protests were first raised in the 1870s, and, in the middle twentieth century, laws were enacted to curb events using animals. The American Humane Association (AHA) has worked with the rodeo industry (specifically, the PRCA, Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) to establish rules improving animal treatment in rodeo and the treatment of rodeo animals. Today, animal cruelty complaints in rodeo are still very much alive, and continue to be a source of aggravation to the rodeo industry.

The PRCA (which governs about a third of the rodeos conducted in the United States annually) has provided rules for its members regarding animal welfare. Some locals have banned the use of certain rodeo tack (equipment worn by an animal) including flank straps (also called ‘bucking straps,’ irritants which encourage bucking) and certain events such as steer tripping (roping). Some charreada (amateur Mexican-American rodeo) events staged in the United States saw a crack down in the early years of the twenty-first century.

James Serpell of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine stated in his ‘In the Company of Animals’: ‘It is perhaps exaggerated to claim, as one author has, that the rodeo is ‘the modern equivalent of the public hanging.’ Nevertheless, these performances hinge on the violent subjugation of living animals, some of which are deliberately incited to frenzied violence by raking them with spurs, constricting the genital region with leather straps, or by thrusting an electric prod into the rectal area. At the same time they are often given bogus, malevolent names in order to deflect sympathy from their plight. Occasionally, they are maimed or killed, and many are forced to undergo the same terrifying ordeal several times a day. Yet the rodeo is presented to the American public as a harmless, red-blooded entertainment in which the cowboy – the epitome of wholesome, manly virtue – uses his courage and skill to overcome and subdue untamable, outlaw stock. Doubtless, the Romans employed similar fantasies to justify their activities in the Circus Maximus.’

Charreada is amateur rodeo among Mexican Americans in the United States with family-owned arenas being operated for 200 teams in 12 states. Eight states have cracked down on several traditional events including horse-tripping, an event in which the front legs of a running mare are roped causing her to fall, and steer tailing in which a steer is flipped to the earth by grabbing his tail. Some Mexican Americans have expressed concerns their culture is being unfairly targeted and point to the deaths of Eight Belles and other race horses as evidence that Anglo sports involving animals see few restrictions.

Protests were first raised regarding animal welfare in the 1870s, and, beginning in the 1930s, some states enacted laws curtailing rodeo activities and other events involving animals. In the 1950s, the then Rodeo Cowboys Association worked with the American Humane Association to establish regulations protecting the welfare of rodeo animals that were acceptable to both organizations. These regulations appear in the PRCA’s annually-updated rule book. But rodeo saw its greatest growth in the 1970s and with it a rise in animal cruelty complaints. The PRCA and AHA have insinuated that these charges exist solely for the fund-raising purposes of other humane interest groups. The protests and complaints have made the PRCA realize that public education regarding rodeo and the welfare of animals needs to be undertaken if rodeo is to survive.

In his ‘Author’s Note’ to ‘Chasing the Rodeo’ (2005, 2006) author W.K. Stratton states, ‘Without question, rodeo exploits animals for the entertainment of humans, causing injury and death to hundreds of horses and cattle each year.’ Stratton notes that as many as a dozen head of steer and calves will die annually at a single large rodeo like the ‘Calgary Stampede,’ and that many valuable roping horses have died over the years at the ‘Pendleton Roundup’ which is conducted on slippery grass. He also points out that while PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) characterizes rodeo as ‘cruelty for a buck,’ conservative Matthew Scully, a special assistant to and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush as well as author of ‘Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy’ calls rodeo ‘gratuitous abuse of animals.’ Stratton notes that he attended twenty plus rodeos and bullriding events in researching his book and saw ‘animals injured in the arena, some badly enough that they had to be destroyed.’

However, accusations of cruelty in the USA persist. The PRCA acknowledges that they only sanction about 30 percent of all rodeos, while another 50 percent are sanctioned by other organizations and 20 percent are completely unsanctioned.[5] Several animal rights organizations keep records of accidents and incidents of possible animal abuse.[8] They cite various specific incidents of injury to support their statements,[9] and also point to examples of long-term breakdown,[10] as well as reporting on injuries and deaths suffered by animals in non-rodeo events staged on the periphery of professional rodeo such as chuck wagon races and ‘Suicide Runs’ (horses and riders run down Suicide Hill, a 62-degree slope). Additionally, according to the ASPCA, practice sessions are often the scene of more severe abuses than competitions.

In 1990, the Toronto City Council requested the Toronto Medical Officer on Health to report on rodeo practices and whether ‘such practices could be deemed cruel to animals’ when a major rodeo was planned for the Toronto Sky Dome. The officer found pleasure not to be an element in an animal’s experience in rodeo as electric prods, flank straps, sharpened sticks, spurs and other tack were used to provoke animals into reacting in such a way as to make certain events thrilling for spectators. The officer further noted that guidelines instituted to prevent animal abuse at sanctioned rodeos were paid little heed and calves suffered damage not readily visible such as bruised tracheal cartilage in roping events. All bucking events were found by the Medical Officer to rely on the application of irritants to make the animals ‘fly’ from the chutes. The Medical Officer stated in his summary that in terms of a dictionary definition of cruelty most rodeo events have the potential to cause injury, grief, or pain, and therefore can be considered cruel.

‘The Calgary Humane Society opposes the use of animals for any form of entertainment in which they are placed at risk of suffering undue stress, pain, injury or death.’ Given its position on animals in entertainment, CHS opposes rodeo events like chuckwagon racing, calf-roping and steer wrestling that are the most often implicated in injurty to animals.

While other organizations may wish to intervene through protest, or other means, CHS has found it can best protect the interests of the animals involved by working with organizations that put on such events. Over more than a decade of work with the Calgary Stampede, Calgary Humane Society has been instrumental in significant changes that have reduced injuries (for example, changes to the chuckwagon track that reduced stress fractures ot the legs of horses; penalizing of calf-roping that yanked the calf backward) and eliminated certain high risk events (like wild cow milking).

‘The [Humane Society of the United States] HSUS opposes rodeos as they are commonly organized, since they typically cause torment and stress to animals; expose them to pain, injury, or even death; and encourage an insensitivity to and acceptance of the inhumane treatment of animals in the name of sport. Accordingly, we oppose the use of devices such as electric prods, sharpened sticks, spurs, flank straps, and other rodeo equipment that cause animals to react violently, and we oppose bull riding, bronco riding, steer roping, calf roping, ‘wild horse racing,’ chuck wagon racing, steer tailing, and horse tripping.’ The HSUS came into being in 1954 as an offshoot of the AHA, and initially tackled legislation regarding humane slaughter, the protection of laboratory animals and other issues. In the 1970s, the organization began eyeing rodeo and its ‘psychologically damaging’ effect on children.

PETA criticizes the United States military in its annual expenditure of tax dollars to support the Professional Bull Riders (PBR). The Army’s goal is apparently the recruitment of new soldiers by sponsoring rodeo contestants, and providing public relations and pageantry support. PETA notes American tax dollars are fueling ‘horrific and cruel rodeo events’ and that rodeo typically uses gentle animals who are driven to wild behavior through the application of spurs, flank straps, prods, and tail-twisting. PETA observes rodeo animals suffer fear and pain. ‘The ASPCA is opposed to all rodeo events that involve cruel, painful, stressful and potentially harmful treatment of livestock, not only in performance but also in handling, transport and prodding to perform. The ASPCA recognizes the cruel treatment inflicted on many additional animals in the process of practicing to compete in rodeo events. Further, the ASPCA is opposed to children’s rodeo events such as goat tying, calf riding and sheep riding (‘mutton busting’), which do not promote humane care and respect for animals.’

The PRCA admits it only oversees about a third of the actual rodeos that occur in the United States annually, and, according to their own public relations information, the organization has taken steps to improve the welfare of animals. The organization claims that most rodeo animals enjoy what they’re doing. The PRCA’s regulations and rules require, among other things, provisions for injured animals, veterinarians on site at PRCA sanctioned rodeos, and spurs with dulled, free-spinning rowels. Health regulations mandate vaccinations and blood testing of animals crossing state lines, and sick or injured animals are given appropriate veterinary care.

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