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Witnessing How Animals Were Treated at the Calgary Stampede Bummed Me Out

We sent a reporter to cover the Calgary Stampede, and the way the animals were treated left a bad taste in his mouth.
July 15, 2014, 4:43pm

A miniature pony chuckwagon race. Photo via the author.
Before the chuckwagon races, Marley Daviduk and her friend Samantha Baskerville ran across the track in front of a very full Grandstand at the Calgary Stampede and bicycle-locked their necks to an infield fence. The two members of the Vancouver Animal Defence League unfurled signs in violent red: “BLOODSPORT” and “NO MORE DEAD HORSES.” They’d been planning this for more than two years. People noticed. There were laughs and boos. It didn’t take long for Stampede staff to see the women and cover them with a tarp.

Police came and the locks were cut. Baskerville, it turned out, had locked herself to an unwelded post. The women spent four hours in police custody—then hit the road after promising to appear in court in August. The chuckwagon races went on as though nothing had happened.

Marley Daviduk (R) and Samantha Baskerville (L) protest at the chuckwagon races on July 4th. Photos supplied by Marley Daviduk and Samantha Baskerville.

On July 6, two days after the incident, Daviduk called me from a campsite nestled in the safe mountain bosom of BC.

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“We’re vegan animal rights activists—we don’t like rodeos,” she said. “But we really feel that with the chuckwagon races, there’s a chance at ending this… the risk of injury and death is way too high.”

She’s got a point. Chuckwagon racing, a distinctly Canadian sport that was first showcased at the 1923 Stampede, is the Stampede’s most deadly. In it, heats of 1,300-pound, four-by-four horse-wagons race around a one-kilometre track at full speed. I’m talking race times of less than 1 minute 20 seconds as contestants vie for prizes of over $1.15 million. There have been broken legs, heart attacks, and burst aneurysms. And imagine it: rigged in and going fast, one horse faltering means the others and the wagon coming down in a tangled mess of metal and flesh. More than 60 chuckwagon horses have died at the Stampede in the past 28 years, and this year marked the tenth straight year that a horse has died too. A driver was even hospitalized after a serious crash during training.

Chuckwagon racing isn’t the only part of the Stampede raising activists’ ire. Anita Virginillo and the Calgary Animal Rights Effort have been holding anti-rodeo demonstrations near the Stampede’s main gate throughout the event with signs that say “CONTEST OF CRUELTY,” “BUCK THE RODEO,” and “STOP THE BLOOD SPORT.”

Responses have been mixed. Most folks just smirk or nod and keep walking by, but there are also a lot of laughs and shouts like “get a job!” When I showed up on Sunday, a cowboy-hat-wearing firecracker of a facetious blonde was even giving the 20-or-so demonstrators shit for making signs with inks that contain animal by-products.

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“We’re opposed to the exploitation and abuse of sentient animals that are used in the rodeo and subjected to a tremendous amount of piercing pain, stress, injury, and death all for the sake of entertainment,” Virginillo told me. Calf roping, she added, is particularly egregious.

“We’re proud Calgarians, but we’re ashamed of the Stampede,” she said. “It just seems so barbaric to us.”

I talked to a Stampede spokesperson who gave me a well-rehearsed PR spiel:

“The rodeo is a celebration of the skills that happen every day on ranches on five continents of the world,” Bonni Clark said from a media booth.  “These skills are rooted in best practices for animal care, and the rules at the Calgary Stampede are far more stringent than at other rodeos.”

Clark, who was in head-to-toe western wear, talked with a sort of smiling disingenuity as though a TV camera was pointed at her. When I asked her about all of the animal injuries and deaths at the Stampede, Clark didn’t move an inch. “Any time that you get a large volume of animals in any one place… you may have a catastrophic health issue,” she said. “It’s all a matter of perspective in that these animals are in a very public venue.” The Stampede, she added, is being used by animal rights activists to further their own interests. “They have a right to express their opinions,” Clark said. “They also have a right not to attend our event.”

For some reason, Stampede offiials placed signs near animal rights demonstrations. I found this funny. Photo via the author.
I guess Clark didn’t like my line of questioning, because she soon accused me of having a preset agenda (which I didn’t). She then tried to make me feel like an ignorant urban candy ass—or maybe I just felt that way already from being around all this leather, sweat, and swagger. Who knows.

“Ninety-eight percent of society have no contact and no context around large livestock… which makes the Stampede more essential than ever,” Clark said. “As a reporter, I get to go and ask the experts questions and really delve in deep, versus you—you might ask a few cursory questions here and there.” Could she tell that this offended me? Maybe not. “Look at our rodeo as a whole,” Clark added, “and judge it by its entirety.”

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So that’s what I did.

The Stampede is a spectacle: 18,000 people, most in cowboy hats, seated and standing and drinking in the early afternoon around an arena that smells faintly of hot tarmac, beer, hay, sweat, and shit. There’s a lively announcer, rodeo clown antics, and plenty of plugs for sponsor. There are even beautiful blonde women in bright outfits who ride around the ring between events while people shout, talk, cheer, and laugh in the summer sun.

My media pass gets me close to the action. And if you’re the type who’s looking for cruelty, you can find it. There’s a guy standing next to the chutes in

calf roping (called ‘tie down roping’ in Calgary to make it sound more humane) who pulls the little three month-old animals’ ears and slaps their heads before the gates open (Clark says that the slap-happy dude is only making sure that the animals run out head-first to be hogtied by a cowboy chasing it down on a horse). Then there’s steer wrestling, where a cowboy leaps off a horse and grabs a bull’s horns and pivots the animal by the neck until—wham—it hits the ground. No surprise: a steer was euthanized the other day after suffering a serious neck injury in the event.

Calf roping is raising activists' ire. Photo via the author.
Saddle bronc, bareback, and bull riding all operate on a similar premise: tighten a flank strap around a wildly bucking animal’s hindquarters (not its balls as a lot of people believe), then hang on for dear life. For Stampede animals born and raised on a ranch, you’re bred to buck. Then you’re sent down to Calgary and squeezed into a tiny chute. Then suddenly some guy jumps on your back and the chute opens and—bam—the strap tightens and spurs dig into your sides and you jump and kick while people in the stands cheer when all you’re really trying to do is get the fucker off and get the strap loose. (“The flank strap,” PR lady Clark says, “is fuzzy sheep’s wool” that “tickles” the horses “sensitive underbelly” to encourage bucking). God forbid you break a limb or don’t perform, then it’s off to the processing plant. Mmm horse meat.

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I see this, and part of me wants to see at least one rodeo cowboy get his teeth kicked in. And then I see a bareback rider get his hand caught in a rope and dragged under the mad bucking bronco until he’s cut free. Gasps and cheers. It was terrible. And there was another bull that attacked a horse after throwing off its rider. If the bull’s horns hadn’t been trimmed (how unfair), it would have been a goddamn bloodbath.

I ask spectators how they feel about this all. No surprise that most love the sport—they’ve put down good money (as much as $267 for an infield seat) to be here. There

audible gasps when calves get body-slammed in the roping event, but it doesn’t bother anyone enough that they get up and leave. Ultimately, however, it’s hard to gauge what average Calgarians think about the rodeo, because if they find it distasteful, they just won’t go. Still, rodeo attendance remains steady at the Stampede, and I’d hazard to guess that most Calgarians don’t give too much of a shit about the sport either way. A three month-old calf is hogtied at the Calgary Stampede. Photo via the author.
So I see and experience all of this, but—believe it or not—I also start to get it too. The rodeo is one of our last true bloodsports, a distinctly North American nod to the chariot races and animal hunts of ancient Rome’s coliseum. It’s man vs. nature at its most primal, a reminder of what kind of skills it took for our species to come out on top—a domineering sport pioneered by wild west daredevil cowboys who probably couldn’t have cared less about what the bull felt when they jumped on its back. And today’s competitors are skilled—there’s no denying this. So skilled that rodeo can be an art. I’m talking about Fred Whitfield swinging a rope or the perfect grace of a one-handed bull ride, the cowboy in control (not flapping around like a pathetic ragdoll), and riding in his crisp John B. Stetson hat, even after the buzzer goes, then jumping off the raging animal and landing on his feet with the bull calming right down and trotting out of the arena as though it’s all in a day’s work. That’s the ideal, I guess, but rodeo usually isn’t so graceful and smooth.

There’s a paradigm split as wide as Alberta is long between those up in arms for the animals and those who darn well are gonna rodeo until the cows come home. And it’s funny too—continued protests only seem to spur on the Stampede’s “we care so much about the animals” rhetoric. OK, they take protective measures and mitigate risks, but let’s not deny it: rodeo is cruel. How could it not be? Call a spade a spade, I say—rodeo is as mean as it gets, but it’s also a hell of a lot of fun. @dsotis