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Yet another annual message to the Calgary Stampede: don't hurt animals for entertainment

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The chuckwagon races at the "Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth" back in the day. Photo: Calgary Stampede

There will be a "thorough review process surrounding chuckwagon safety" after the deaths of six horses during the 2019 Calgary Stampede, which is now mercifully over.

Oh, please! There will be no meaningful review of the safety of the horses that are abused for fun at the Stampede, just as there will be no meaningful review of the undeniable cruelty to which these animals are subjected.

Pro forma annual claims that "this is as upsetting to us as it is to our community" don't change a thing.

Interviews with professional chuckwagon racers saying how very, very sad they are and what a pal their horses were don't change anything either.

And repeated assurances like this year's pledge "the Stampede's commitment to the safety of animals and the conditions of their participation in our events is paramount to our values and brand integrity" won't change anything at all.

Promises like these don’t change anything because it's plain on the face of it that the only thing the Stampede takes seriously is the bad publicity generated among "bleeding hearts" like me every time a horse has to be put down after a chuckwagon race.

The plain ugly fact is the equine carnage continues year after year at the Calgary Stampede because chuckwagon races are exciting and nobody in Alberta gives much of a hoot.

"The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth," they call it, and I guess that's true if you consider pointless cruelty for the sake of entertainment a great show. Horses die virtually every year for the entertainment of the humans who pack the Stampede grounds to witness the thundering excitement of "the chucks," and they're dying in greater numbers than usual this year.

Unlike other rodeo sports, which may be cruel in the sense they're uncomfortable for the dumb beasts involved, chuckwagon races are particularly dangerous for horses because of the nature of the creatures themselves and the tactics used by wagon drivers to cut off competing rigs. The resulting spills are exciting for spectators -- and deadly for horses.

As ever, whenever horses are killed, those who protest this cruelty are sure to be dismissed as sissies and do-gooders. The deaths will be ignored by the Stampede's organizers, and by everyone else in political Alberta. Certainly our new United Conservative Party government will ignore them because they make a cult of trying to look and sound as butch as possible in their Smithbilts, chaps, spurs and Cuban heels. (Just like the NDP did in 2015, come to think of it.)

Me, I'm just sick of it. I'm sick of the learned treatises about how horses love to run and how and if they could talk would surely tell us they’re good with the risk of being whipped around the track for the entertainment of the people of Calgary.

I've got news for you: If Mr. Ed, the talking horse of 1960s TV fame, were still around, he'd tell you he'd rather give the chuckwagon races a miss, this year and every year, thank you very much.

I'm sick of hearing how the Stampede is all about the cowboy's trade and a vital part of our precious western culture, yadda-yadda.

I hope readers will forgive me one more time for the appropriately western metaphor when I say that at least as far as the chuckwagon races are concerned, this is pure bullshit.

You can make a case for calf roping as a worthwhile cowboyin' skill. You can even make a case for riding belligerent broncs, bulls and steers as not being all that dangerous for the beasts, most of the time. You can argue persuasively that both rodeo events emphasize riding and roping skills still vaguely relevant to the Western agricultural sector.

No such case can be made for chuckwagon races.

Racing sandwich trucks and taxicabs around the track through an active pedestrian crossing would have more relevance nowadays to the state of the cattle industry in Calgary -- which hasn't been entitled to call itself Cowtown since the last cattle auction decamped for Strathmore in 1989. (And I was there, buckaroos, covering it for the Calgary Herald.)

What is the relationship between the agricultural industry of 2019 and racing wagons too small to carry sandwiches and coffee pulled by four horses accompanied by mounted outriders around a track, using demolition derby tactics to keep competing rigs from passing?

As I have said time and again in this space, everybody in Alberta knows rodeo activities are cruel to animals, everybody in Alberta knows chuckwagon races are dangerous for horses, and nobody in a position to do anything about it cares enough to bother.

Mostly, we let this go on because we don't care, because we enjoy the spectacle, because there's money to be made doing it -- more than $1.45 million in prizes this year -- or some combination of the three.

The Calgary Stampede ethic emphasizes courage and masculinity. But real men aren't cruel to dumb beasts for no reason but entertainment and money.

This barbaric and pointless activity should be an embarrassment to every Albertan, especially those who think of themselves as a real men.

Will the Stampede's governing board ever man up and do anything about this? Not a chance. I leave it to readers to make of that what they will.

A timely note to readers about the words used above

I admit it, this post is almost word for word the same as the one I published on July 13, 2015, a year in which only four horses died in the Calgary Stampede chuckwagon races. Like I said then, it's not plagiarism if you're plagiarizing yourself.

About all I had to do this year was revise the number of equine casualties, note the diminishing size of the prize pot, and change the name of the political party in power that encourages this travesty. Plus update the pious quotes from the Stampede, of course.

Why bother changing anything else? At a time in history when even Catalonia and three Mexican states have banned bullfighting, nothing has changed at the Stampede -- which may not be the Greatest Outdoor Disgrace on Earth, but is certainly in the running -- or ever will without pressure from outside Alberta.

Well, in fairness, some things change. Chuckwagon race prize money this year appears to be down from more than $2 million four years ago. I wouldn't be surprised the declining prize money is an indicator of what consumers are telling companies that sponsor pointless cruelty. Maybe that's a message that should be passed on to this year's sponsor of the event, General Motors Corp.'s GMC truck division.

In addition to the ever-popular suggestion the horses died doing what they loved, the defences trotted out for this annual disgrace keep getting more preposterous. Consider Licia Corbella's column in yesterday's Calgary Herald, which tries to portray criticism of Stampede chuckwagon racing as evidence of "an undercurrent of anti-western sentiment."

She quotes stockbroker J. P. Veitch, the former bull rider nowadays generally known for his supporting role as husband of former Conservative MP and leader Rona Ambrose, saying "the criticism reminds him of the refrains heard about Alberta's energy sector."

In fairness, Mr. Veitch was talking about bull riding, not chuckwagon races. But you wouldn't want to be a horse as lame as this kind of argument. I wonder whatever happened to the spike in the Calgary Herald newsroom we used to use for submissions like this?

Well, this much is true. After 71 years of doing very little to diversify our economy from fossil fuels, Alberta would be in deep trouble if the oilpatch dried up overnight. But ending cruelty to washed-up racehorses sent down to the chuckwagon circuit? I think our economy could stand the blow.

Maybe the hearings by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's House Un-Albertan Affairs Committee into foreign-funded defamation and disinformation will be expanded to include people who think chuckwagon racing is a national embarrassment and cowboy boots make your feet hurt if you're just walking around in them.

What the hell, we might as well be as moronic as possible.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Photo: Calgary Stampede 

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