There's no doubt about it: chuckwagon races are as exciting as hell. There's also no getting around the fact they’re cruel to horses.
With the 100th anniversary of the Calgary Stampede almost upon us -- the "Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth" marks its centennial on July 6 -- it's time once again to turn our attention a popular event that uses pointless cruelty for entertainment.
For, sure as shootin', a horse will die in a Stampede chuckwagon race this year, as horses die pointlessly every year for the entertainment of the humans who pack the Stampede grounds to witness the thundering excitement of the races.
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 -- and deadly for the animals.
Last year, only two horses died in the Stampede's chuckwagon racing competition. The year before, six were killed at the Stampede, four directly attributable to chuckwagon racing. There are always some -- since 1986, well over 50 have been killed.
When it happens, the people who protest this cruelty will be dismissed as sissies and do-gooders. Professional chuckwagon racers will say how very, very sad they are. The deaths will be ignored by the Stampede's organizers, and by pretty well everyone else in political Calgary. Politicians of all stripes who should know better will show up at the Stampede looking fashionably butch in their Western Stetsons, chaps, spurs and Cuban heels.
Not one of them will say anything negative about the fate that awaits the wagon horses, because that would be tempting fate and, in the case of Conservatives like Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Alberta Premier Alison Redford, the rage of the people to whom they owe their success, if not their souls.
Learned treatises will appear in the comments section of blogs like this explaining that horses love to run, 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 good people of Calgary. What's more, there will also be some sharply angry comments about how the Stampede is all about the cowboy's trade, it’s a vital part of our western culture, and people who don't like it can go to blazes, yadda-yadda.
Readers will forgive me the appropriately western metaphor, I'm sure, if I say that at least as far as the chuckwagon event is concerned, this is all bullshit.
You can make a case for calf roping as a worthwhile cowboyin' skill. You can make a case for riding belligerent broncs, bulls and steers as not being all that dangerous for the beasts -- although a horse died in 2010 doing that too -- and fair to boot in the sense the riders are taking bigger risks. You can argue persuasively that both emphasize riding and roping skills still relevant to the Western agricultural industry.
But no such case for the relevance of chuckwagon races can be made. Racing sandwich trucks and taxicabs around the track through an active pedestrian crossing would have more relevance to the state of the cattle industry in Calgary today -- which hasn’t even been entitled to call itself Cowtown since the last cattle auction decamped for Strathmore in 1989.
Tell me: what is the relationship between the agricultural industry of 2012 and racing lightweight wagons (too small to carry even sandwiches and coffee) hauled by four horses accompanied by mounted outriders around a track, using demolition derby tactics to keep competing rigs from passing?
None of this will get much coverage in the chickenhearted Calgary media, of course. In 2009, both the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun refused to run paid advertisements that the Vancouver Humane Society wanted to place claiming calf roping is needlessly cruel.
Commercial newspapers like the Herald and the Sun and their broadcasting equivalents are always going on about the vital role they play in local democracy as they come hat in hand to taxpayers for disguised subsidies such as favourable postage rates, tariffs on cable distribution of broadcasts and lower funding for the CBC. But when an actual topic of debate arises in their community that is opposed by a wealthy and powerful group, they won’t even allow the proponents of an opposing view to buy an advertisement expressing a reasonable opinion!
As I have said in this space before, 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 do it.
Most Albertans let this go on because they also don’t care, because they enjoy the races, because there's money to be made doing it -- about $1 million in prizes for the racers at the Stampede alone, according to the Wikipedia -- or some combination of all three.
The Calgary Stampede ethic emphasizes the courage and masculinity of its participants. But real men aren’t cruel to dumb beasts for no reason but entertainment and money.
This is a barbaric and pointless activity that should be an embarrassment to every Albertan who thinks of himself as a real man.
This is why bullfighting is dying out in the macho Hispanic world.
According to the U.K.'s Independent newspaper, polls last year in Spain showed that more than 60 per cent of Spaniards now express disapproval of bullfighting, with an accompanying "drastic drop" in the number of bullfights. "Even in the bullfighting heartland of Andalusia, the number of fights fell by 50 per cent between 2007 and 2010."
In Catalonia, the regional parliament banned the bloody spectacle in 2010 and the ban took effect on New Year’s Day this year. The last bullfight was held in Barcelona on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.