animal welfare News/Blog

Celebrities and animal welfare




By Peter Fricker, VHS projects and communications director. This article was originally published online in the Georgia Straight on February 6, 2013.



Animal lovers around the world have applauded the many music industry artists who have cancelled appearances at SeaWorld after the documentary Blackfish exposed the inhumane captivity of orca whales at the Florida marine park.

Acts like the Barenaked Ladies (who led the way by cancelling first) have received high praise for taking a principled stand on animal welfare. Those that followed have received considerable positive publicity for their apparent high ethical standards.

One of those acts, the veteran rock band Heart, recently explained their compassion for animals in an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, in which the band’s Nancy Wilson states: “…when you look at the underbelly of rodeos and carnivals, these animals are tortured and neglected and forced to do things that are highly unnatural for their breeds for our entertainment. It’s really not fair.”

It would be an inspiring expression of compassion if it weren’t for the fact that Heart is booked to appear at one of the biggest rodeos in North America, the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo, in February.

Nancy Wilson apparently believes animals are “tortured” at rodeos yet she is going to be part of the entertainment featured at one. But she won’t appear at SeaWorld because of concerns about the orca whales.

The reason for Ms. Wilson’s inconsistent application of principle is unknown. Is it because orca whales have more charisma than calves and steers? Or is it because there hasn’t been a Blackfish-style, blockbuster documentary putting the spotlight on rodeo cruelty?  If there were, would we see artists from the music industry rushing to cancel rodeo appearances?

Could the shocking truth be that celebrities’ business decisions are driven by profit, not principles?

Which brings us to the recent announcement by Canadian icon Shania Twain that she will appear at this year’s Calgary Stampede.

Ms. Twain is a vegetarian (reportedly for ethical reasons) and a well-known animal lover, with a passion for horses. Last December, she promoted her Las Vegas show with a video titled “The Love of Horses” in which she describes the “confidence and trust” that can exist between horses and humans.

That same month, she appeared at the National Finals Rodeo (NFR), riding a horse into the rodeo arena. Videos released by a U.S. animal rights group have shown horses at the NFR being subjected to electric shocks on several occasions, including the December during which Ms. Twain was appearing at the rodeo.

The use of electric shocks is in addition to the routine use of flank straps (tied around the horse’s hindquarters) and spurs that are used to make the horses buck.

The Calgary Stampede, where Ms. Twain is scheduled to appear in July, is noted for its controversial chuckwagon race, in which more than 50 horses have died since 1986.  In 2012, it emerged that the Stampede sends young, unwanted bucking horses to slaughter. Videos have also been released online showing horses at the Stampede being rammed with rods, slapped and goaded to make them perform.

Stampede events like calf-roping and steer-wrestling have also attracted criticism.  Three-month-old calves are routinely chased, roped to a sudden halt and thrown to the ground. Last year, a steer had its neck broken and had to be euthanized.

Mainstream animal welfare groups, including the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies and the national SPCAs of the United States, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom are opposed to rodeo because they have determined that it is inhumane. Even the Calgary Humane Society says it “fundamentally opposes high risk rodeo events like chuckwagon racing, calf-roping, and steer wrestling.”

Apparently, none of this has convinced Ms. Twain that rodeo might be at odds with her own values, ethics and professed love of animals. An online petition has been launched in an attempt to change her mind.

Perhaps it is too much to expect that celebrities should set moral examples.  They are, after all, just entertainers.  But it would be nice if, when they espouse a set of values, they lived by them.