Podcast: Is rodeo obsolete?

Most people are opposed to calf roping.

In this month’s episode of The Informed Animal Ally, the Vancouver Humane Society’s Amy Morris and Chantelle Archambault are joined by guest Samantha Fuller to discuss how animals are impacted by rodeo, public response to rodeo events, and the future of rodeo.

Note: This written discussion has been edited for length.

Indigenous Biologist

Samantha graduated from the University of British Columbia last year where she studied and researched animal biology. Her research focused on improving the welfare of laboratory rodents, investigating attitudes toward rodeo events, and the use of animal welfare science in Indigenous wildlife stewardship. She is currently an Indigenous biologist, working with environmental science to and collaborating with Indigenous communities on their land stewardship program projects.

Welfare concerns in rodeo

Calf roping event at The Calgary Stampede. Jo-Anne McArthur \ We Animals Media.

Rodeos are stressful for animals

Chantelle: Recently you conducted work researching animal welfare concerns around rodeos. The Vancouver Humane Society has also been advocating to end the inhumane use of animals and rodeos since the organization was founded in 1986. Could you speak a little bit to how rodeo events impact animals and why that issue is important?

Samantha: There’s some evidence that suggests that the methods used in rodeos can be a source of stress for the animals involved. There’s also some concerns with specific events around the safety for both the animals and the human participants.

Amy: Can you share a little bit more about those stressors in rodeo that have come up in your research and how they impact animals?

Samantha: Stress can be measured in animals using either behaviour or physiology.

In calf roping, stress hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine have been seen to rise in the events. This will happen while being loading into chutes or during the roping event.

Bulls have shown escape and agnostic behaviours toward handlers, which can indicate fear distress.

Unfortunately, there’s few studies investigating specific rodeo events. But looking at other areas, we can assume there are other stressors based by the animals. For instance, transportation is a known stressor for beef and dairy cattle, and also different types of horse racing can be a source of physical stress for causing injury for the animals involved.

Training vs. provoking a fear response

Chantelle: Yeah, absolutely. You talked about fear responses in the bulls. We’ve spoken about that before on the show as well with fight, flight and freeze responses, and it’s something we can see when people use aversive training techniques.

Amy, this is something you spoke more in depth about when we did our animal training episode back in April. What would you say are some of the differences between the way that someone would train a dog and the way that animals are trained to “perform” in rodeo?

Amy: Yeah, it’s really interesting when we think about animals that are being trained with, let’s say, positive reinforcement. They’re provided an opportunity to offer the behavior that we want from them, and then they’re rewarded with something that they really like, something they love, something that makes them feel good, the moment that they show that behaviour.

For example, if a dog is walking and you make a loud noise, which let’s say is neutral stimuli that they haven’t been exposed to before, they turn their head because they heard the noise. Then they get that reward, that really good thing, and so then in the future, they’re more likely to turn their head when they hear that sound.

That’s kind of the basis of positive reinforcement. Horses can be trained this way too. Cows, even fish have been shown to be capable of learning using positive reinforcement.

But then we look at other training styles, and maybe not always training, but punishment can be used by people that add something unpleasant to decrease the behavior.

For example, a flank strap that’s really tight decreases an animal’s desire to stand still and makes them move in such a way is to try to remove that strap. One of the ways an observer can see that the strap is causing the animal to respond to it is that as soon as the time is up in rodeo, the people who are managing the rodeo animals remove the flank strap, which then leads the animal to calm down.

Much of what happens in rodeo has little to do with training. It has a lot more to do with triggering fear responses. Animals that are waiting to be released from the chute—so situations like steer wrestling and tie-down roping—may be hit or have their tails twisted while they’re in the chute. Something that makes them uncomfortable so that when the gate opens, they run out full speed.

It can also happen sometimes that animals will freeze in place and not want to leave the chute. That’s their response.

Animals used for rodeo are prey animals, so it isn’t common to see a fight response. You tend to see fleeing or freezing.

However, we know bulls can sometimes have a fight response as you would witness in bull fighting, and then sometimes you’ll see that with some of the bulls that are used for bucking, but they quickly move out of fight and into flight as soon as they’re given an opportunity to. So you can see that they still have that desire to respond to their fear by getting out of the situation.

Samantha: Yeah, I find based on the animal and the particular event, the response might be a little different. Like you said, for calf roping, there’s more of a promotion of that flight response. For bull riding, there’s more of that promotion for a fight response.

That’s kind of what they’re looking for in that instance because they’ll get scored based on how aggressive or how lively the bull is performing in that instance. The same with the horses in the bronc events. There’s definitely variations between the events of which response they’re trying to get.

Amy: Yeah, I find it really interesting. Certainly to get that difference of, okay, are these animals trained? And maybe yes, in some cases they’re trained or they’re made to grow accustomed to the way that they’re expected to perform. But it seems like often they’re motivated through fear.

Samantha: Yeah, and I think there’s a certain amount of genetic manipulation that goes on with rodeo stock as well, trying to achieve that higher scoring animal, which can obviously play in how they respond.

Amy: Right, like with the bucking behaviors.

Samantha: Primarily, I think those are the ones where there’s more genetic roles in how they select those animals.

Public attitudes to rodeo

Rodeo culture at the Calgary Stampede

Chantelle: It’s really brutal to think about what these animals are going through, but a lot of the culture around rodeo minimizes the individual experiences of animals.

And I know that part of your research was looking at attitudes toward rodeo. The VHS recently ran a campaign on ending animal suffering at the rodeo, and part of that was monitoring rodeo events.

Amy, I wanted to talk to you about that because you watched three days of the Calgary Stampede rodeo while that was underway. I was wondering what some of the things were that you observed about the rodeo culture in Calgary.

Amy: What I found most interesting was listening to the commentators as they observed the rodeo events.

There was a really big focus on money, who was going to take money away from the event, and what I understood from that is that performers depend on placing in a certain ranking to take an income from the event. So they’re incentivized to perform the way that the rodeo expects them to.

But even with that in place, there’s many situations where things go wrong, such as when calves are pulled off their feet by the rope that gets wrapped around their necks rather than put on the ground by the people who are handling them,often aggressively. In the rodeo, these instances are considered no time—their scores aren’t counted—but the animal still gets pulled off their feet.

There were quite a few of these during the Stampede. It seems like even if it potentially causes more harm in that the calves are getting pulled off their feet and maybe dragged by the horse, it seemed difficult for the person performing to manage that. Obviously they don’t want that to happen because they don’t get a score, but it was still happening quite a bit.

I also noticed there were a lot of interesting comments made about animals and their behaviour.

There’s a lot of sociology of how people describe other people or other animals, and I noticed people commenting on whether the animals are nice or not, whether they comply or behave or not. There’s also a lot of commentary about the calves straining and struggling with this expectation that they should be submitting; where we know it makes sense that an animal that’s wanting to be free and being contained is going to struggle and try to get free.

I also noticed a big emphasis on the event as being part of the circuit to qualify on a world scale. It’s a reminder that even though the event only happens once a year, the animals performing in the rodeo are often traveling frequently and long distances. Especially the different horses are going to different events throughout the season and practice sessions through the year.

Travel is stressful on everyone, humans and animals, but particularly these animals aren’t being given a choice as to whether they want to opt into that travel. Horses and cows are herd animals and they’d rather be with a group of horses and cows over being put in a trailer on their own and traveling to a loud and stressful arena.

Responses to advocacy

Amy: We shared some of the photos and videos from this event on social media, and I’m curious, Chantelle, being the person who saw all the social media comments, what are some of the ways that people respond to posts from VHS’s website,

Chantelle: There’s a very strong response. One thing that’s really clear is this is an issue that people feel very strongly about either way. There are people who would love to see rodeos cancelled for good, but the rodeo supporters feel just as strongly that they should be kept around forever.

I’ve noticed that people on the side of rodeo kind of move the goalposts when you’re talking about rodeo, every time you point out an issue.

So if we say that animals aren’t given choice whether to participate, people will say that, actually, animals love being in the events, so they would choose to.

But we know for a fact that animals aren’t given a choice because we see what happens to them if they try to opt out of the behaviors. For instance, we shared a video of a horse during a bucking event who instead of having the flight and fight response, had a freeze response and just stood still in the chute. That horse was just repeatedly smacked in the face. They kept opening the gate and trying to hit and push the horse out.

We shared that video and the response to that video was, well, the horse wasn’t being hit that hard; the person just slapped or pushed the horse; they weren’t punching them, and the handlers wouldn’t actually hurt the horse. The video shows that horses aren’t given a choice, but we do know that horses are hurt in these events also.

Animals are catastrophically injured and die at the Stampede quite frequently. The VHS started tracking fatalities in 1986, and since then, 105 animals have died at the Calgary Stampede. Those deaths are happening almost every year. But on the other hand, when we shared those numbers that animals actually are in fact injured and killed by these events, people will just say, those deaths just happen sometimes, or it’s not enough deaths to really worry about. But those individual animals’ lives matter and we as humans don’t need to be putting them in those situations where they’re at risk for our entertainment.

Another response we hear a lot is deflection. People will say that advocates shouldn’t be looking at this issue at all because there are all these other issues happening in the world.

That’s a technique known as whataboutism. It basically aims to distract from the topic at hand. Of course, it’s possible to care about this issue of animal suffering in rodeo and work to address other different issues at the same time. And if everyone really believed that we shouldn’t be looking at one issue because there’s another one, nothing would ever improve. There’s always going be other issues.

So in general, there’s a lot of denial, moving the goalposts, and deflections to avoid discussing the very real fear and stress and pain and risk that animals face in rodeos so that humans can carry on hosting these events and participating in them and watching them.

At the same time, it’s clear that public opinion is increasingly critical of how animals are treated in rodeos. So I think that the fact that there is such strong pushback to criticism of these events shows that the industry is concerned about how the future of rodeo is going. Maybe this is not something that is sustainable to continue.

Amy: I think some of those observations apply to any type of advocacy or change.

Polling results on rodeo attitudes

Amy: Samantha, you recently collected some data about people’s perceptions of rodeo events and their responses to rodeo footage. What did you learn from that?

Samantha: People’s attitudes seem to be guided by a couple things, including:

  • the perceived cultural value of the event;
  • how the animals are treated; and
  • the risk and safety of the event.

And these are most influenced by like that person’s attitudes towards animal use in general.

There’s kind of these two ends of the spectrum.

On one side, somebody will think all animal use is okay, so all of these events are okay. And then on the other side, there’s no animal use is okay, so no event is okay. And these are kinda like hypothetical endpoints. Most people fall within kind of this gradient of how they view the use of animals.

Public perceptions of 4 rodeo events

And in this study in particular, it seemed to also be influenced by the species in the particular event and the age of the animal. For this study, we looked at four events:

  • Barrel racing;
  • Chuckwagon racing;
  • Bull riding; and
  • Calf roping.

In general, most people approve of the events using horses. I think there’s this relationship or perceived relationship between horses and riders, so most people think that horseback riding is okay. As a result, most people approved of barrel racing. For this event in particular, people recognize the importance of the place of women in rodeos.

There was a slight decrease in the approval of chuckwagon races, and this was due to the fact that a lot of people thought there was more risk involved in the event because of the number of horses and the proximity of the wagons.

More people disapproved a bull riding and felt like the animal was being exploited and angered for the sake of entertainment. Bull riding was most polarized in terms of the cultural significance. Some people in the U.S. in particular said it was in our all-American sport, it needs to be conserved; while others thought the event was barbaric and outdated.

It’s important to note for chuckwagon racing and bull riding, there was a lot of uncertainty in whether people approved or disapproved. And this might be due to like a lack of information or they’re kind of unable to pick which value is more important to them, the cultural aspect or the potential of harm to animals.

Finally, people most disapproved the calf roping event. People identified the age of the animal as a concern, referring to the calf a lot of the time as a small baby, which in turn may have led to them to perceive more stress and injury involved in the event. Some participants who approved of calf roping thought it showcased a vital skill for the meat industry in general.

Amy: What were you surprised by with all of these research findings?

Samantha: I thought it was interesting how much cognitive dissonance was present regarding animal use and entertainment.

Cognitive dissonance is a stress response when people have information that doesn’t align with their beliefs. And like you said, it can result in people either, discounting information or they’ll provide some sort of explanation to justify their beliefs.

In this study, the contradicting information was the safety and animal treatment versus this cultural value and historical value of the event.

People who approve of high levels of animal use don’t necessarily associate negative states to the animals, or they’ll even say the animal is enjoying the event. They are also more likely to say that training of participants and the rules in place or government rules protect the animals and the people from getting hurt, as another justification to those perceived risks.

And then on the other side, people who disapprove of all animal use were more likely to associate these negative animal welfare and risks, but they’re also more likely to disvalue any cultural significance. They would say things like, rodeos are like a Greek Colosseum and the viewers are violence seeking.

So there’s definitely this divide and this polarization.

Amy: Yeah, it’s really interesting because I think about just the ways that the animals experience the event, and then the ways that people think that they’re experiencing the event.

Based on the scientific evidence we have of animal behaviour, it can be drastically different.

We had one email from someone who said basically that they thought that the wild pony racing (a children’s event at the Calgary Stampede where the kids try to mount a pony that’s trying to get away and doesn’t want to be mounted) was important because the ponies almost always “win”. And winning means getting away, not getting mounted by the children. I thought that was really interesting because animals don’t have a concept of winning and losing; of competing against each other or competing against the children.

They aren’t winning exactly, but maybe they’re getting away or avoiding the stimuli that they find aversive. But the idea that we put that label on them gave me a real insight into how people shape their ideas about animal behavior.

How will survey data be used?

Chantelle: Samantha, this is really fascinating data. How do you think this could be used in the future?

Samantha: Survey data can help researchers identify the areas the public’s concerned about, and inform possible areas of future studies.

For example, providing more information about chuckwagon racing and bull riding—the events that there is a little bit more uncertainty about—could impact the approval of these events or clarify some of the perceptions around these events. Or, adding safety precautions to events that people are perceiving the safety risks such as chuckwagon races could also improve the acceptance and in turn the welfare of these events.

Amy: Is there anything you didn’t ask in the survey that now that you’ve gone through that process, that you’d want to study or ask in the future?

Samantha: Yeah, with these fairly strong opinions about culture and animal use, I think it would be interesting to investigate this a little further by providing potential changes or refinements that could happen in events and see if there’s still that cultural and entertainment value to it, as well as maybe a lower perceived risk.

For an example, if in calf roping you use the mechanical calf or breakaway ropes, which are ropes that once the animal’s caught it kind of releases the tension and breaks away, would they still find this event entertaining?

Amy: I’d be curious about that as well. Certainly I’ve seen people ride on mechanical bulls and have a great time. There’s so much scoring that goes down to the animals that I’m so curious if you took away the scoring of the animals and just had people be scored, it would be a little bit more consistent and maybe make it more of a sport.

So curious to see where the future takes us with rodeo.

Dropping animal events would not impact Stampede attendance

Amy: VHS actually gathered some polling data about opinions towards rodeos. Chantelle, I was wondering if you could talk about the findings from that poll.

Chantelle: Certainly. During last year’s stampede, the Vancouver Humane Society commissioned a Research Co. poll of Calgary residents to ask about their current plans to attend the Stampede; so if they were going to attend that year or if they had already attended that year, and also if they would attend in a future year if the rodeo and chuckwagon events were removed.

The poll found that there was virtually no change in attendance if those the rodeo and chuckwagons were dropped. 64% of people said they had attended that year or were likely to attend, and 63% said they would be likely to attend without the chucks and rodeo.

So although we’ve assumed the Stampede has continued hosting those inhumane animal events out of financial motivation, we can see that dropping them really wouldn’t have much impact on attendance at all.

The poll also showed that removing those events would draw in new crowds. 24% of people who didn’t attend last year expressed an interest in attending the Stampede if it didn’t have rodeo and chuck wagon racing.

Of the people who hadn’t attended and would change their behaviour, the biggest change was in the youngest group of people, where about two out of five non-attendees from last year (aged 18-34) would be likely to attend if the rodeo and chuckwagon races were removed.

That makes sense; we’ve heard from many people who won’t attend because of the animal suffering.

Beyond the animal events, there is another draw: the Stampede is a major arts and culture event. The concerts alone draw in hundreds of thousands of people every year. Coverage in the news of this year’s event pointed out that the events that do cause animal deaths almost every year don’t really resonate with the crowds coming for the concerts.

As there’s more information available and people are becoming more aware of what animals go through and how they experience the world, it would make sense for the Stampede to lean more into the concerts and the arts and the midway elements and start moving toward a rodeo-free future that’s more in line with the public’s values.

What’s next?

Amy: Thinking about what impacts that we can have, what can the people listening to this podcast do to support individual animals’ needs being met and their wants and desires being cared for, and put an end to some of these inhumane practices?

Chantelle: So there are really two major factors that are going to help end inhumane rodeo practices, and those are public opinion and policy change.

The first step is fewer people buying tickets and attending rodeos. The industry’s main motivation is profit, of course. So if people aren’t spending their money supporting those events, there’s really no financial motivation to continue them.

You can help with this by sharing the posts from the Rodeo Truth page on social media to show the realities of what animals experience in rodeo and encourage other people to boycott rodeo events.

Follow Rodeo Truth on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok and share the posts:

Secondly, you can help by asking your municipality’s mayor and council to introduce a bylaw that bans inhumane rodeo events.

The City of Port Moody in B.C. recently passed a bylaw unanimously to prohibit inhuman rodeo events. The City of Vancouver and the District of North Vancouver also have bylaws in place.

This is a really impactful step, whether you live somewhere that hosts rodeos or not. If you live somewhere that doesn’t host rodeos currently, a proactive ban can be really important because it prevents new rodeos from being introduced, and it helps to grow the precedent for other municipalities to follow suit.

You can also take the Say No to Rodeo Pledge on the Rodeo Truth website, which we’ll share with Stampede organizers and Calgary decision-makers to show them that the public opposes those events.

Next episode

We hope you’ll join us again next month for discussion on plant-based eating and health.