While it is too early to tell whether this year's Calgary Stampede will result in any animal deaths, activists are already protesting outside Stampede grounds, urging the public to boycott the corporations that sponsor the 10-day event, which begins today.
They have cause. Since 1986, 59 animals at the Calgary Stampede have died or been euthanized. Of that number, 51 have been horses.
The worst animal accident for a single event related to the Stampede took place in 2005, when nine horses died after jumping off a bridge into the Bow River as they were brought to the city from the Stampede's ranch. The Stampede's internal investigation ruled that the accident was not caused by sudden noise, as was initially thought, but because the horses became spooked by each other while being herded across the bridge.
The Calgary Stampede is a western Canada tradition dating back to 1912. Faced with growing heat from animal rights protest groups in recent years, the Stampede's organizers say they have implemented major safety changes for the chuckwagon races and rodeo events like steer wrestling and tie-down roping (also known as calf-roping). This year, it became the first rodeo in North America to implement the "no time for dog fall rule" for steer wrestling. Last year, one steer was euthanized after suffering injuries from the event and Stampede organizers hope the new rules will ensure animal safety.
During steer wrestling, cattle can occasionally fall with their legs underneath their bellies or on the opposite side of the cowboy, known as a "dog fall." The fall can increase the risk of cervical spinal damage, but under new rules the steer must be thrown with its head and feet facing in the same direction. Now if a "dog fall" occurs, the judge will automatically end the run and the cowboy receives a "no time" score.
Three years ago, the Calgary Stampede established the Chuckwagon Safety Commission. Since then, changes have been made to improve track safety in chuckwagon races and modifications have been made to chutes and chute gates for all rodeo events.
But Jeremy Thomas, a spokesman with the Calgary Animal Rights Meetup group, says these changes are "superficial." Despite the improvements, he says there is the possibility that many animals are being mistreated behind the scenes while in training.
In 2007, the Cloverdale Rodeo in British Columbia banned team roping, cowboy cow milking, calf-roping and steer wrestling. The changes were made following an incident that same year where a steer had to be euthanized after a calf-roping event. Ultimately, the Animal Rights Meetup group wants the Calgary Stampede to follow suit and ban rodeo events that the group say are inhumane.
"We're against the whole rodeo, but we would like to start seeing the end of the worst of the worst -- the steer wrestling and the calf roping," said Thomas.
Last week, about a dozen members of the Meetup group began protesting outside Stampede grounds, urging the public to boycott corporations that sponsor the rodeo. These corporations include Bell Canada and Labatt Brewing.
"We're warning sponsors such as Bell that if Bell doesn't stop sponsoring cruelty to animals, people are going to start switching providers," said Thomas.
Last year, Bell sponsored the steer wrestling event. This year, the company is sponsoring the rodeo, Bell Midway Circus, and the Bell Pavilion at Stampede Park. Bell media relations representative, Jeff Meerman, said the company is aware of the protesters' concerns regarding the Stampede rodeo.
"We listen to feedback and take it all into account when we review our marketing sponsorships," said Meerman by email.
"In the case of Stampede, the actual events we sponsor on the grounds change from year to year."
Meanwhile, BMO say their Stampede sponsorships are "centered around farming, families and kids."
"We are pleased to support events that support family values, such as BMO Farm Family Awards, BMO Kids' Day and the BMO Kids' Zone during the Stampede," said BMO media relations contact, Ralph Marranca, by email.
"We do not sponsor the rodeo and thus I don't feel it would be appropriate for us to offer a comment."
Doug Fraser, media relations manager at the Calgary Stampede, says the Stampede is a leader in the highest standards of animal care. He says that the Calgary Humane Society and the Alberta SPCA monitor the regulations set out by Alberta's Animal Protection Act. Both organizations are provided with unrestricted and unfettered access to the Stampede Park 24-7 and meet each year with Stampede officials to pass on recommendations for improving animal welfare at rodeo events.
Additionally, a team of veterinarians are on Stampede Park full-time to oversee that animals are being properly cared for during all of the exhibition, educational, and competition events.
A new animal care panel was established by the Stampede earlier this year to find ways to enhance animal safety, Fraser said, adding that it is one of many significant changes to its animal policies and procedures over the past 10 years.
Even though animal deaths and injuries have occurred in the past, he says the number of injuries in calf-roping and steer wrestling are extremely low compared to the number of runs taken each year and across the country at other rodeos.
"Nobody cares more about these animals than we do. There are injuries and we do tend to these animals as quickly and humanely as possible," said Fraser.
Though the Calgary Humane Society works closely with the Stampede to enforce practices consistent with Alberta's Animal Protection Act, the organization is fundamentally against the use of animals for events when they are put at risk for injury or death.
"There's always areas that can be improved," said Desiree Arsenault, manager of communications at the Calgary Humane Society.
"Since 1994, we have been making recommendations to the Stampede to eliminate calf -roping because of the high risk to animals."
But Fraser says it is unlikely the Stampede will cancel popular rodeo events, adding there are over a million people who visit the event over the 10 days each summer and many more watch the rodeo on television.
"We feel we have the endorsement of the vast majority of people who know that rodeo and chuckwagon races are part of our western heritage," said Fraser.
"We would tend to want to go with our supporters of which there are far, far more supporters than detractors."
The Calgary Animal Rights Meetup group plan to continue their protests over the next two weekends and are expecting a turn-out of about 25 people each day.
"We believe that for each one of us that comes out and holds a sign, there are many Calgarians who are disgusted with the rodeo but aren't the kind of people who protest," said Thomas.
"When you look at all the deaths, the injuries and mainly the fear...then we have to ask ourselves is this worth it? We think no."
Calgary Stampede Animal Care: http://calgarystampede.com/about/animal-care/
Alberta SPCA - Animal Protection Laws, Alberta's Animal Protection Act: http://www.albertaspca.org/cruelty_connection_laws.asp
Calgary Humane Society's Position Statement, Animals in Entertainment: http://www.calgaryhumane.ca/Page.aspx?pid=424
Laura Schober is a Toronto-based freelance writer and recent graduate of the University of Western Ontario's Master of Arts in Journalism program. Her work has been published in the London Free Press, The Tyee, and Rabble.ca.
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