Opening night at the Calgary Stampede hit a roadblock when two protestors chained themselves by their necks to the inside rail of the racetrack. They allegedly used bicycle locks to accomplish their goal, which was to prevent the famous chuckwagon races from going off.
They managed to delay the start for about a half hour, which meant that the huge grandstand crowd had to amuse themselves while they wondered what was going on.
For some reason, Stampede workers threw a tarp over the women, as if to hide them from the grandstand crowd.
Eventually, the two women were cut free, taken away by police and now face charges of trespassing.
Bonni Clark, a spokeswoman for the Stampede, summarized the incident on Canadian Television this way: "Essentially we had a couple of trespassers who did not want the races to go on and we had 16,000 people in the stands who did."
And that's how it is at the Calgary Stampede. Some people may disagree with how animals are treated, but the event has adopted a Disney-like atmosphere and culture designed to convince the public that this rodeo is different. This rodeo cares about animals. This rodeo is making a difference.
And this rodeo is not going to change.
It's hard to read about last weekend's protest. Reports of it are behind a paywall of the Calgary Herald, the Stampede website doesn't mention it at all, and there is no social media of it other by than the Vancouver organization that staged the protest.
In this video interview, one of the activists explains why she isn't buying into the Stampede's story. She suggests that the Stampede's extensive defense of its treatment of animals is based on internal studies and programs and that the event is not open to independent evaluation.
Even former "Price is Right" host Bob Barker has spoken out against the treatment of animals at the Calgary Stampede. He was appalled when his old show sponsored a trip to the event as a prize for contestants--and said so, publicly. But the Stampede wasn't listening.
It's hard to argue with initiatives like Calgary's "Fit to Compete" inspections for the Thoroughbreds used in the chuckwagon races. Calgary introduced "Fit to Compete" in 2011.
As explained in this video, "Fit to Compete" gives veterinarians a close look at each of the chuckwagon horses from a fitness and health point of view. How many rodeos do that?
Rodeo cowboys, barrel racers and chuckwagon drivers can earn a lot of money at the Calgary Stampede. In fact, it is the world's richest rodeo, with over $2 million in prize money. But what do the chuckwagon horses get out of it?
A horse that excels at Calgary certainly goes up in value. But this year, Calgary wanted to do more. Thanks to the microchip identification system used in the inspections, records of exactly which horses raced on which nights can be compared with race results. At the end of the Stampede, the winningest horses will emerge, and they'll be recognized on the final night with the Equine Excellence Awards, presented for the first time in 2014.
Someone who doesn't mind being seen leading the Stampede's storybook parade is actor William Shatner. His humorous Priceline commercials and one-man shows are right in line with the Stampede's larger-than-life festival atmosphere. He's a Canadian, to boot.
In an unlisted video on YouTube, the Stampede attests to a retirement farm for bucking stock. Like most rodeos, the Calgary Stampede uses contractors to supply bulls and bucking horses; a mild protest erupted in 2012 when it was discovered that some rodeo stock is sent to slaughter.
The most contentious event at the Stampede is certainly the Rangeland Derby, those wild chuckwagon races with four Thoroughbreds hitched to a reasonable fac simile of a western-style chuckwagon for a full-speed race around the track. Those horses are owned by individual drivers or private owners, so there is no way to know how they are treated after their useful days on the chuckwagon circuit are over, and that is outside the Stampede's control.
You aren't like to see much protest against the Stampede based on social media; Calgary like most rodeos has a rule against taking photos or uploading images or video to social media.
What you see there, stays there.
When you buy a ticket to the event, this is part of the fine print of the transaction:
“To protect, among other things, the personal information of our guests, you agree: (i) not to reproduce, perform, display or upload any photographs, videos and/or recordings, that you may take or record while at the Calgary Stampede; and (ii) upon our request, to immediately remove and/or delete any and all such photographs, videos and/or recording online or from any other media.”
But the Calgary Stampede loves social media, and is very good at it. They have turned the formula inside out, however. Instead of crowdsourcing content, they turn flip the systems and supply the content to the crowd. They would love you to share their Instagrams, retweet their tweets, like their Facebook page, and subscribe to their YouTube channel. Just don't create your own.
The Calgary Stampede is a happy place where everyone dresses western, eats junk food, drinks beer, dances to great country and western music and yes, goes to the rodeo, mainly for the high-speed thrill of the chuckwagon races. Many of those who go are curious tourists from far, far away. Some are diehard fans.
And attendance is up; as of Sunday, almost 400,000 people had entered Stampede Park in the first three days of the huge festival/expo/rodeo; that was a 65,000 increase over 2013. They gawked at an $800,000 high-tech dream home, voted a Thai rollup their favorite midway treat, and cheered on the farriers from Australia to Norway competing for the title of World Champion. Extreme cowboy races, sheepdog trials, heavy horse shows and a giant new arena for horse events are testimony to the latitude of horse events that flesh out the offerings of standard rodeo fare.
But the rodeo is where its heart is, and a survey by Canadian Television found that 45 percent of Stampede visitors enjoyed the rodeo more than any other events--even more than the food or drinking.
If you needed proof of how dedicated this event is to its rodeo heritage, look no further than the rodeo stage show. The premise for this year's event was that the best parties at the Stampede each year are held back in the barn, where the public can't go. So this year, the party is center stage, with a 200-foot video screen and a troupe of singing and dancing Young Canadians. The show is hosted by famed chuckwagon driver Tom Glass.
It's the closest they'll ever get to "Chuckwagons on Broadway", and you're sure to leave the performance with a feeling that you know one of those drivers--and a few dozen of his singing, dancing blacksmith, cowboy, and cowgirl buddies.
No stone has been left unturned to integrate the love-the-Stampede feeling into every hour you spend on the grounds. It gives a whole new meaning to the words "pro-rodeo", and a whole new dimension to the value of selling your story from behind a smile and a white hat.