It’s Stampede time in Calgary and that means another round of debate about rodeo. I’ve never been a fan myself; I’ve just never found the tormenting of other animals in any way entertaining.

And that’s what rodeo looks like to me. Goading a horse to buck or a calf to run so it can be slammed to the turf strikes me less as sport and more as animal abuse as spectacle. Proponents advance a number of arguments. It’s our tradition, they say. Well some events may be, but some aren’t. For example, chuck wagon races, the premier event of Stampede rodeo and the killer of many a horse, was invented by Guy Weadick, the American cowboy performer and promoter who founded the Stampede.

Tradition is commonly an argument of last resort, an argument of desperation. Justifying something because we’ve always done it has no moral centre. If it did, we might still be keeping slaves or denying women the vote.

Another defence is that rodeo illustrates how animals and people work together. The animals are athletes, say the advocates. This might mean something if the animal is volunteering, but it is in fact coerced. It isn’t working together; it’s man dominating beast.

Or we hear that rodeo helps inform us about where our food comes from, that it doesn’t come from plastic trays in the supermarket. It forces us to recognize that we consume real live animals.

It does that. But even more important for people to know is that beef is a ridiculously inefficient way to provide ourselves with protein, and extremely damaging to the environment I suspect, however, that’s not the sort of information about our food that rodeo enthusiasts are eager to share.

Rodeo people treat their animals well, we are assured. They are valuable assets after all. And indeed they are, drawing revenue for the promoters and generous prizes for the cowboys. And rodeo people I have no doubt are compassionate people, so I assume the animals are well fed and sheltered. But most slave owners were no doubt also good people. Those immersed to a certain way of life generally have great difficulty in perceiving its sins.

And, with that in mind, we might ask how the animals feel about rodeo. Aside from any physical suffering, they are after all sentient beings, living in emotional worlds of their own.

Why do the horses buck? The answer is not, I suspect, the anthropomorphic suggestion that they are trained athletes. The best explanation I have heard is that, aside from certain physical prodding, they respond to provocation in accordance with what they are—prey animals.

When a large creature jumps on the back of a prey animal it’s intent is to kill and eat that animal. The prey animal, wired to protect itself from predators, instinctively reacts with fear and a desperate attempt to rid itself of the perceived danger. In other words it bucks because it is terrified. Its terror provides our amusement.

More and more people are not amused. Circuses have been forced to abandon animal acts and Canada has passed a law that bans keeping whales and dolphins in captivity and outlaws using them in performances. Over two-thirds of Canadians oppose the use of animals in rodeos. Even in Alberta, which has the highest support in the country, only 31 percent are in favour.

But the show will go on. The Stampede could function perfectly well without rodeo, of course, but “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth” is Calgary’s main event, a major money and prestige earner for the city, and no one is going to mess with the formula.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *