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Rodeos are promoted as rough-and-tough exercises of human skill and courage in conquering the fierce, untamed beasts of the Wild West. In reality, rodeos are nothing more than manipulative displays of human domination over animals, thinly disguised as entertainment. What began in the 1800s as a skill contest among cowboys has become a show motivated by greed and big profits.(1)
Standard rodeo events include calf roping, steer wrestling, bareback horse and bull riding, saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling, steer roping, and barrel racing.(2) The animals used in rodeos are captive performers. Most are relatively tame but understandably distrustful of humans because of the harsh treatment that they have received. Many of these animals are not aggressive by nature; they are physically provoked into displaying “wild” behavior in order to make the cowboys look brave.
Tools of Torment
Electric prods, spurs, and bucking straps are used to irritate and enrage animals used in rodeos. The flank, or “bucking,” strap or rope—which is used to make horses and bulls buck—is tightly cinched around their abdomens, which causes the animals to “buck vigorously to try to rid themselves of the torment.”(3) The irritation causes the animals to buck violently, which is what the rodeo promoters want them to do in order to put on a good show for the crowds. The flank strap, when paired with spurring, causes the animals to buck even more violently, often resulting in serious injuries.(4) Former animal control officers have found burrs and other irritants placed under the flank strap.(5) In addition, the flank strap can cause open wounds and burns when the hair is rubbed off and the skin is chafed raw.(6)
Cows and horses are often prodded with an electrical “hotshot” while in the chute to rile them, causing intense pain to the animals. Peggy Larson, D.V.M.—a veterinarian who in her youth was a bareback bronc rider—said, “Bovines are more susceptible to electrical current than other animals. Perhaps because they have a huge ‘electrolyte’ vat, the rumen [one of their stomachs].”(7)
The End of the Trail
The late Dr. C.G. Haber, a veterinarian who spent 30 years as a federal meat inspector, worked in slaughterhouses and saw many animals discarded from rodeos and sold for slaughter. He described the animals as being so extensively bruised that the only areas in which their skin was attached to their flesh were the head, neck, legs, and belly. He described seeing animals “with 6-8 ribs broken from the spine, and at times puncturing the lungs.” Haber saw animals with “as much as 2-3 gallons of free blood accumulated under the detached skin.”(8) These injuries are a result of animals’ being thrown in calf-roping events or being jumped on by people from the backs of horses during steer wrestling.
Injuries and Deaths
Although rodeo cowboys voluntarily risk injury by participating in events, the animals they use have no such choice. Because speed is a factor in many rodeo events, the risk of accidents is high.
A terrified, screaming young horse burst from the chutes at the Can-Am Rodeo and, within five seconds, slammed into a fence and broke her neck. Bystanders knew that she was dead when they heard her neck crack, yet the announcer told the crowd that everything would “be all right” because a vet would see her.(9)
Incidents such as this are not uncommon at rodeos. By the end of one of the annual, nine-day Calgary Stampedes in Alberta, Canada, six animals were dead, including a horse who died of an aneurism and another who suffered a broken leg and had to be euthanized.(10) The following year, at the same event, six more animals died: five horses in the chuckwagon competition and a calf in the roping event.(11) In 2005, fear caused a stampede as horses destined for the Stampede were being herded across a bridge; some jumped and others were pushed into the river. Nine horses died.(12)
The Omak Stampede is an annual event in Washington that features the Wild Horse Race, in which tethered wild horses are released into the arena while cowboys try to mount and ride them (one horse died in 2005). The event culminates with the Suicide Race, in which horses are ridden at furious speeds down a steep hill and into the grandstand. That event killed three horses in 2004; 19 horses have lost their lives to the race in the past 20 years.(13)
During the National Western Stock Show, a horse crashed into a wall and broke his neck, and another horse broke his back after being forced to buck.(14) Dr. Cordell Leif told the Denver Post, “Bucking horses often develop back problems from the repeated poundings they take from the cowboys. There’s also a real leg injury where a tendon breaks down. Horses don’t normally jump up and down.”(15)
Calves roped while running routinely have their necks snapped back by the lasso, often resulting in neck injuries.(16) Even Bud Kerby, owner and operator of Bar T Rodeos Inc., agrees that calf roping is inhumane. He told the St. George Spectrum that he “wouldn’t mind seeing calf roping phased out.”(17) During Rodeo Houston, a bull suffered from a broken neck for a full 15 minutes before he was euthanized following a steer-wrestling competition, which was described by a local newspaper as an event in which “cowboys violently twist the heads of steers weighing about 500 pounds to bring them to the ground.”(18)
Rodeo association rules are not effective in preventing injuries and are not strictly enforced, and penalties are not severe enough to deter abusive treatment. For example, one rule states that “if a member abuses an animal by any unnecessary, non-competitive or competitive action, he may be disqualified for the remainder of the rodeo and fined $250 for the first offense, with that fine progressively doubling with each offense thereafter.” These are small fines in comparison to the large purses that are at stake. Rules allow the animals to be confined or transported in vehicles for up to 24 hours without being properly fed, watered, or unloaded.(19)
Spurn the Spurs
If a rodeo comes to your town, protest to local authorities, write letters to sponsors, leaflet at the gate, or hold a demonstration. Contact PETA for posters and fliers.
Check state and local laws to find out what types of activities involving animals are and are not legal in your area. For example, after a spectator videotaped a bull breaking his leg during a rodeo event, a Pittsburgh law prohibiting bucking straps, electric prods, and sharpened or fixed spurs in effect banned rodeos altogether, since most rodeos currently touring the country use the flank straps that are prohibited by the law.(20)
Another successful means of banning rodeos is to institute a state or local ban on calf roping, the event in which cruelty is most easily documented. Since many rodeo circuits require calf roping, eliminating it can result in the overall elimination of rodeo shows.