Just like rap music, rodeo is a product of American culture that New Zealand has adopted with open arms. The tradition has morphed somewhat since its formative years in the Old West. Back then it was a block of time set out for necessary farming activities like sorting and branding stock. Now, particularly in NZ, it's become a family fun day where burly participants imitate their Texan counterparts by throwing on comically large hats to enter an arena and rope three-month old calves in an attempt to impress onlookers. But it's not all a hayride, according to rodeo opponents.
The country's core animal rights group, Safe, says the activities force animals to endure needless suffering and gross mistreatment for the sake of entertainment. Recent improvements to the Welfare Code for Rodeo have done little to appease the organisation, who calls the revisions a "sick joke". However, they earned a small triumph last month when one rodeo closed its gates permanently after being found guilty of breaching the welfare act. This followed a complaint lodged by independent activist Lynn Charlton who detailed the brutality she witnessed at the Huntly Rodeo, treatment that she says is being echoed at other events all around the country. VICE got in touch with Lynn so she could tell us more.
VICE: The Huntly Rodeo closed down off the back of your complaint. How did you feel when you found out about that?
Lynn Charlton: I thought it was wise of the organisers to make that decision because they have obviously realised that, in spite of their recent claims of following the animal welfare legislation, they haven't been doing that.
In the press following your complaint the rodeo operators seemed fairly confident that they wouldn't be shutting down.
Rodeo folk seem to believe that they hold high standards of animal welfare and that the animals are looked after well, but the evidence states very clearly that the opposite is true. Those involved don't have a clue about what animal welfare even means.
What was the most shocking thing you witnessed at the rodeo?
I witnessed was a youth sitting on a bull that had collapsed on the ground in a chute. The law says that you are supposed to release animals that have gone down in the chute because obviously they are showing distress. Not only did the organisers, judges, and vets, not insist this animal was removed, but the youth was allowed to sit on the bull and kick the animal repeatedly in the neck while it was on the ground. At the same time there was another youth standing in the arena, and he was stomping on the leg of the same bull. The bull got to his feet, and then he was ridden. All those actions are against the animal welfare legislation. The fact that the vets or organisers did nothing to prevent this is an indication that none of them are following the legislation at all, and at a number of rodeos I've attended it's exactly the same scene.
So you think that behaviour is common in the rodeo scene?
It's very clear to me that rodeo is a sadistic act of torturing animals, making them very frightened, and making them try everything in their power to remove something that feels like a predator from their back. That's why they react the way they do.
What was your intent with going to rodeo shows initially, and did you expect to see what you did?
I wanted to see for myself what it was all about and decide whether I thought it was a cruel thing or not. And it is clear that there are distraught animals. One of the signs of distress in a bull, because bulls have faces that don't show emotion, is excessive salivation. You see that repeatedly in rodeo, the bulls are pouring mucus. And when I say pouring, I mean pouring with a great line of mucus flying from the mouth of the bull, sometimes with blood in that mucus. That's the vast majority of bulls.
What do you think of the revised Code of Welfare for Rodeos that was recently released?
The code clearly supports the abuse of animals while purporting to be a code of welfare. I'm glad to see they have banned the riding of sheep. I think the use of bells on bulls has also been banned, and fireworks. But really, the code is nonsense. By saying you can abuse animals in one way and not another, they are still supporting the abuse of animals. The code states that the animals should be handled in a way which minimises the likelihood of unreasonable pain or distress. Well, rodeo is about causing pain and distress all day long, and this is why there can not be a humane rodeo. Without pain, distress and fear, these animals could not be ridden. These animals show you that when you go to rodeo.
Some proponents of rodeo claim that rodeo is part of our agricultural history. What's your take on that?
It's definitely not part of ordinary farming culture. There are a great number of rural people and farmers who are completely against rodeo. It has only been operating in New Zealand since the 1960s, and I heard that from the president of the Rodeo Cowboys Association. So it's not a tradition at all, it's an import. If you go to a rodeo you will see people dressing up like cowboys and cowgirls, chewing something that makes them seems like they're from the plains. It is actually a bit of a comedy; they are posing like they've been watching too many cowboy movies. So it's very much a theatre, but it's a theatre of cruelty.
Do you see its popularity increasing?
Cruelty will always have its supporters. It always has and it always will. Rodeo has been working hard to increase their support base. I think people may now be starting to question it.
In the spectrum of animal used in sports, where does rodeo sit?
They call the use of animals a sport but these are entertainment industries. They're often gambling industries too, for example greyhound racing, horses racing, and rodeo. The people involved in riding the rodeo animals are fit and healthy young people that could be doing really good things in other ways. They are athletes themselves really. But it's a pity that they are having to use animals to entertain, because that's what we are talking about.
Recently two horses died after racing in the Melbourne Cup, an event that New Zealanders actively take part in. What kind of message does that send?
I think it sends a strong message because there has been a strong backlash about it and I think people who maybe didn't consider it much before are maybe opening their eyes and thinking 'gosh, is this an industry I want to support?' There are all the fashion shows and everything but when you actually boil down the Melbourne Cups and other races, they are actually about exploiting animals, and the animals are dying because of it.
What is the end game for you, what would you like to see happen with regards to rodeo?
I would like to see a ban on rodeo because I support Dr Peggy Larsen's view, she's a former bronc rider in America, who says there can be no humane rodeo.
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