The Calgary Stampede

It was opening night yesterday at the Calgary Stampede: another horse died in a chuckwagon race.

So what else is new? Last year six horses died at “the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.” This year, well, it’s just beginning.

Everybody in Alberta knows rodeo activities are cruel to animals. Everybody in Alberta knows chuckwagon races are dangerous for horses. Nobody in a position to do anything about it cares enough about it to do anything about it.

Indeed, nothing will ever be done to fix this situation by anyone remotely connected with the Calgary Stampede or the government of Alberta. After all, the Stampede Board owns Calgary’s soul and always has, and a goodly portion of the Alberta government’s as well.

Most Albertans let this go on because we don’t much care, because we enjoy it, because there’s money to be made doing it, or some combination of all three.

Everything you hear from the Calgary Stampede about how they really, really care about the safety and welfare of their horses is a load, if you’ll pardon the expression, of horse manure. (Example: “Honestly, we’re greatly saddened by what happened,” a Stampede spokesman said in today’s Calgary Herald. “We take the care of our animals very seriously.” Right.)

At least Calgary’s faint-hearted media covered last night’s animal death — although, as might be expected, the emphasis was on what the Stampede is doing to prevent horses being killed, not on what it does every year to kill them. Naturally, the story started out by telling readers that “the death comes during a year when the Stampede has made a number of changes to the chuckwagon races and increased veterinary inspections to make the competition safer.”

Do you wonder how a veterinary inspection can make an inherently unsafe race safer? Never mind!

A local radio station reported today that a blood sample had been taken from the horse before it was put down. Maybe they’re going to argue that the crash in which the horse broke its leg was the animal’s fault — as the Alberta authorities like to do when a human worker dies on the job. You gotta know, those rodeo horses live a tough life — at least half of them have a barley addiction!

In the past, Calgary media have attempted outright to suppress the debate about animal cruelty at the Stampede.

Back in 2009, both Calgary daily newspapers refused to run paid advertisements by the Vancouver Humane Society. The ads made the self-evident case that calf roping is cruel — though not as cruel by a long shot, it seems to me, as chuckwagon racing.

Some observers were surprised at the time that the Calgary Humane Society had nothing to say about this. They should not have been, really. After all, back in 2009, the Calgary group defined its goal as merely mitigating the effects of practices it knew perfectly well to be cruel.

“The Society recognizes that rodeo, chuckwagon racing and other related forms of entertainment involving the use of animals occur in Western Canada. Therefore, it is in the best interests of the animals involved that the Society work with those who use the animals to ensure the potential suffering is minimized,” it stated weakly on its Internet home page, noting that, like cheating at cards, “as events … chuckwagon races are not illegal.”

Since 2009, while the Society’s position has not really changed, it has grown a smidgen braver, testing the limits of what Calgary will put up with by stating that it “fundamentally opposes high risk rodeo events like chuckwagon racing, calf-roping, and steer wrestling.” It even has a number to call for people who observe instances of animal cruelty at the Stampede. However, like everyone else in Alberta, it is not really prepared to do anything about systemic cruelty to animals at the event.

The blunt fact is that the only way organized cruelty to animals in the form of rodeo sports will be stopped in Calgary and elsewhere in Alberta is through political and economic pressure from people in other provinces and other countries.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...