THE BLOG
06/30/2013 06:08 pm ET Updated Aug 30, 2013

The Underbelly of Rodeos: Busting the American Myth

These days YouTube seems to be doing the job of investigative journalism and law enforcement, hopefully in a helpful way. There really is nowhere left to hide and nowhere can it be said to be more useful than in exposing heinous acts of animal cruelty. Groups like Showing Animals Respect and Kindness (SHARK) have used social media to such a great degree that it is hard to refute egregious acts of animal exploitation and abuse. As the 2013 rodeo season gets well under way, we can expect to see yet more evidence that the animals suffer enormously for the jeering crowds.

In 2011 and again in 2012, SHARK's video of horses being given electric shocks to force them to buck at the Reno Rodeo tore across the national media and suddenly, the great American myth of the traditional rodeo where old fashioned cowboys show off their skills, came to a crashing halt. Like many large rodeos, Reno Rodeo is a huge money making event for everyone concerned. It is estimated to bring in around $42 million to the local economy, and that in itself is likely to bring out the worst in people. Power may corrupt, but the love of money sure competes for first place when it comes to people acting the lowest of the low and turning a blind eye to animal abuse in particular. At this year's Reno Rodeo, officials chose to ban all video cameras in what can only be an attempt to curtail any more images of abuses reaching the general public. A general public who are increasingly showing themselves less likely to support blood for sport. Now I have to say, I have come into contact with rodeo people who do hold their animals in the highest regard and have even reached out to animal welfare organizations to help clean up rodeos, so there are good people out there. But what essentially SHARK has revealed, is a huge underbelly of rodeo stock contractors and riders, who will do everything they can to win that prize money. And there's a lot of it at stake. In Reno, the Xtreme Bulls event alone offers $50,000 in prize money. Both Reno and Cheyenne rodeos have an estimated $1million in total of cash and prizes to be had.

Some of the largest and most controversial rodeos are yet to come. Rodeos like the Calgary Stampede, Cheyenne Frontier Days and Pendleton Round-Up have all come under fire for animal abuse. At the Calgary Stampede in July 2012, three horses were killed and another was seriously injured during the chuckwagon race. According to Reuters, fifty horses have died in chuckwagon races at Calgary since 1986. On the first day alone at the 2012 Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo, five animals were so badly injured they had to be taken out of the arena. Another poor steer's leg was broken in the steer-tripping contest, and that I'm sure was the end of him! In 2007 at the Pendleton Round-Up a calf had it's neck broken in the steer-busting event and that is just the tip of the iceberg as injured animals seem to pile up after each rodeo and then quietly dispatched to slaughter or euthanized immediately.

Events such as the Wild Horse Race held at rodeos like Cheyenne must come under more scrutiny for the treatment of the horses. Talk about watching a train wreck waiting to happen, just looking at the footage makes one shudder.

As far as the future for the horses and cattle concerned, well they are two a penny these days so very easily replaced. There is no heavenly retirement pasture for horses and cows that have endured the rodeo circuit; there is only the slaughterhouse if they make it that far. There are also unfortunately, no reliable statistics on the injured animals or what happens to them. I highly doubt any get the expensive treatment commonly associated with veterinary treatment and I cannot see a stock contractor paying for the treatment of an injured calf, can you?

There are other problems too in the rodeo world even where the women only events like the Barrel Racing are concerned. The Women's Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA) has recently had to wrestle with an endemic problem of performance enhancing drugs being used on horses. They have recently reinstated a long awaited random drug testing policy to tackle this alarming problem. Drugs like Phenylbutazone (Bute) and Lasix, were apparently being used to mask injury and others were used to enhance performance.

In years gone past one would never have thought that countries like Spain and Mexico would start to ban their very ingrained "tradition" of bullfights but they are. Although some towns in the US like San Francisco do have bans in place against rodeos there are other moves underfoot to ban certain rodeo events. Oregon has introduced a bill that would ban horse tripping at rodeos although the bill has been effectively gutted by the addition of a "right to rodeo" clause and with language saying it bans "intentional" tripping. I'm not sure what "intentional" tripping is. If you are lassoing a horse with a rope around the legs that is intentional, and if the purpose is to pull the horse over then you have intentionally tripped it. It is nothing short of ridiculous to try and obfuscate language to assuage rodeo people when clearly this is very dangerous for the animal.

On June 3, 2013 the Nevada governor approved a bill to ban horse tripping at rodeos and other entertainment events. According to the Legislature's online comment system, the Nevada bill was the most popular and had more comments than any other bill introduced. At the Riverdale Rodeo in California the Barnyard Scramble event was cancelled after local authorities received hundreds of complaints from citizens who had seen another SHARK video, the very disturbing footage of children madly trampling small animals for "fun." Apparently, the rodeo association and the local SPCA had not realized that offering live animals in competition was a misdemeanor and so, rapped on the wrists by law enforcement, obliged in canceling the event. Animal rescue groups like the Red Barn Rabbit Rescue and Gentle Blessings Animal Rescue, who have taken in numerous animals terribly injured at these events, may find some relief in that decision.

It might be difficult for some Neanderthal brains to understand but I believe animals do have at least the most basic of rights. The right not to be transported on double-decker trailers that cause immense stress and injuries, the right not to be drugged, electrocuted, tripped, dragged by ropes, injured and killed for entertainment. The rodeos these days remind me of the gladiator arenas of old where captives were forced to fight to the death to the laughing cheers of the crowd. Healthy sporting competition is one thing, rodeo is most certainly another. Just like Cirque du Soleil out performs animal based circuses so can rodeos switch to more enlightened forms of entertainment that does not include death and mayhem.