Equine Welfare vs Rodeo: Cattle Prod Investigations and Calgary's Q&A Web Site Show Both Sides of the Animal Care Debate

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Rodeo and equine welfare: are they mutually exclusive?

Do you have a question about animal care at the Calgary Stampede© There's a web site for that!

Do you have a question about animal care at the Calgary Stampede© There's a web site for that!

It's hard to think of any other sport that deliberately pits man against beast. Rodeo was, in fact, created to showcase the skills of men in subduing cattle and horses. Along the way, rodeo has suffered black eyes and body blows from animal advocates. And yet, it's possibly never been more popular or seen by as many people around the world.

If you need any more evidence of that last statement, consider that the National Finals Rodeo ("NFR") no longer markets itself as an event; it is now an "experience", and there's no longer any need to use the full name; everyone on their wish list of fans knows what "NFR" is, stands for, and looks like. Being seen by millions and millions of people translates to being seen by more and more animal advocates, so the volume of criticism rises in tandem with rodeo's popularity.

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Standoffs between animal advocates and rodeos are nothing new. In 1905, the Cheyenne Frontier Days temporarily ended when the Wyoming?Humane Society?imposed a ban on spurs and steer roping. According to the archives of the?Denver Post, one cowboy was quoted as saying, "Riding a horse without spurs makes him about as active as an?extinct volcano." The spur-free rodeo was not a success, although Frontier Days did start up again after a few years.

Just this week, a video from the anti-rodeo group known as "SHARK" enjoyed a viral period; the group claims it shows evidence of the use of an electric cattle prod ?or "Hot Shot" on a?bucking horse in the chutes, a practice banned by PRCA-affiliated rodeos. The alleged violation came to light after the horse died in the arena at the Cowtown Rodeo in New Jersey.

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The rodeo issued this statement following the necropsy: "Cowtown Rodeo would like to release the final, official cause of death of our 9-year old horse Duke.? Dr. Robert Stephens, DVM has reported a ruptured aneurysm of the aorta blood vessel caused Duke to pass on June 29, 2013.?? The Cowtown Rodeo staff takes great pride in humanely handling and treating our rodeo livestock with compassion and respect.?? All Cowtown Rodeo employees uphold the PRCA and Cowtown Rodeo standards in regard to the handling of livestock. No electric prods were used on Duke.?? We continue to work with the SPCA as they finalize their investigation into this tragedy."

Rodeo is up against a powerful and vocal adversary armed with media in all its forms: social media, multimedia and the sympathy of the mainstream media. I first learned of the cattle prod charges by reading about in a British newspaper. In the light of this type of media blitz, it's up to rodeo to grit its timeworn teeth and find a way to cowboy on. Some of the new-thinking ways they have been doing that have been to increase transparency, humanize the stock contractors and educate the public about what goes on backstage.

All that, while at the same time adding fine print to tickets that forbid videotaping or photographing rodeo events. Keep your cell phone in your pocket if you want to enjoy the rodeo this summer, and be careful what the bumper stickers on your truck have to say.

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Two years ago, the Calgary Stampede invited animal behavior expert Dr. Temple Grandin to visit the rodeo and meet the press to discuss animal welfare at the rodeo. Last year, there were equine sports medicine research projects conducted during the rodeo.?This year, Calgary lifts the veil even higher by hosting a Calgary Stampede animal care question-and-answer web site. Readers' questions about animal welfare and how the contests conducted are laid out in a graphic?format and?answered in detail. Given Calgary's tragic statistics of chuckwagon wrecks in recent years, the pressure is on.

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Calgary Stampede brought in veterinary researcher Dr. Renaud Leguillette from the University of Calgary vet school ?last year to study the heart rates and recovery times of the chuckwagon horses.

Calgary packages the new website not as a way to address its critics but to inform its actual and potential audience. "It's only natural that people who aren't familiar with western traditions and events would be curious about the animals and events at the Stampede," the rodeo states.

"Around the world, people are generally becoming more and more distant from agriculture and large animals," explains Paul Rosenberg, Stampede vice-president of programming, in a press release. "What we are trying to do is create a forum where people can submit their animal-related questions and ask whatever they want about animals that participate, compete and exhibit at the Stampede."

"On one hand, it's about providing information, and on the other, it really is about dispelling misinformation. We are looking at it from two points of view," adds Rosenberg.

The problem is that the public already has two points of view, and their minds may be made up before they set foot on a fairground or turn on the television. Love it or hate it: rodeo hears from both sides, whether in ticket sales or hate mail. They can only hold their breath while hoping that rodeo is in the news this summer for all the right reasons, while animal advocates are distracted by the pressing immediacy of stopping horse slaughter, saving the wild horses, stopping Walking horse soring and/or finding homes for unwanted horses. There's plenty to keep everyone busy, and for a lot longer than eight seconds.

Rodeo flag photo by Alan Cordova.

To learn more:

Horse Politics: Identifying the Enemy in a Streaming Video World of Ag-Gag Bills and Fine Print on Tickets

Equine Reproduction Milestone: First Clone-to-Clone Mating Produces a Foal Who Is Born to Buck

Calgary Stampede Chuckwagon Race Tragedy Kills Three Horses, Injures More

Video: Temple Grandin's 11-Minute Stampede of Common Sense About Equine Welfare and Thoroughbred Durability

AVMA President's Award to Washington's "Rodeo Doc", Doug Corey

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