The Canadian National Exhibition is a thing of the past. And organizers are proud of that.
CNE general manager David Bednar hopes some “cutting-edge nostalgia” will draw the crowds as the grand old lady of exhibitions begins its 130th season.
The CNE has announced with great fanfare that “rodeo is back,” welcoming a corporate-sponsored rodeo, the Dodge Rodeo Tour, into Toronto.
This is the 11th Ex for CNE general manager David Bednar. The last rodeo was way before his time “but it was least 25 years ago,” he says. “So why bring it back now? We’re constantly looking for something that’s new but, at the same time, we have all these people who harp on tradition. So it’s a balancing act.”
“It came up at one of our committee meetings two or three years ago: What if we had a rodeo? Great idea. But then we had to find the right person to partner with. Whatever expertise we ourselves had long ago went by the by.”
Prize money for the rodeo season tops $250,000 and about 200 cowboys and cowgirls will be competing for about $30,000 at the CNE.
Unfortunately, Toronto hasn’t taken a moral stand on the issue of animal rodeo cruelty, as Vancouver did when it banned rodeo in the city in 2006. Vancouver’s city council accepted the clear evidence that rodeo events cause unnecessary suffering to animals.
The city of Surrey in B.C. saw yet another sign of aversion to rodeo when its Cloverdale Rodeo bowed to public pressure and eliminated four key rodeo events (calf roping, steer wrestling, wild cow milking and team roping). The move followed the death of a calf and a steer during roping events in recent years.
Cloverdale is one of Canada’s biggest rodeos and the elimination of the four events sent shock waves through the North American rodeo industry. A debate began in rodeo circles about whether some events, like calf roping, were sustainable in the face of changing social attitudes.
So the CNE’s decision to host a rodeo seems to fly in the face of what appears to be growing disquiet about whether the “sport” is humane, as rodeo promoters insist it is. They like to portray opposition as being confined to a few animal rights activists. In fact, all mainstream animal welfare groups in Canada, including the provincial SPCAs, oppose rodeo. The B.C. SPCA has even called on the public to boycott the events.
Consider calf roping. A young animal is goaded to come out of a chute at high speed, has a rope thrown around its neck and is jerked to a violent halt before being picked up and slammed to the ground. Can anyone truthfully say this is a painless experience for the calf? Imagine this happening to a dog or primate just to amuse a crowd.
The reason rodeo horses and bulls buck is because of “flank straps” tied around their hindquarters that cause irritation and stress. They buck because they want the strap and the rider off. If they were “born to buck,” as rodeo promoters say, then why the flank strap?
Steer wrestling involves a cowboy twisting the head of the steer until it keels over. The steer naturally resists, creating a grotesque scene of a man literally bending an animal to his will. That’s how the steer in Cloverdale died – its neck was broken.
Animal behaviourist Dr. Temple Grandin has written that fear is “so bad” for animals that it is worse than pain. And she is no bleeding heart – she designs slaughterhouses for the beef industry.
The rodeo industry trots out inane arguments to defend its activities, i.e. flank straps merely “tickle” the animals and the animals have thick hides so they don’t feel pain. Often, they pull out the “heritage” card claiming that rodeo is a demonstration of historical ranching skills. Most of this is baloney. Why would a real cowboy ride a bull?
The difference between rodeo and traditional ranching is that no one ever timed a cowboy’s work with a stopwatch and handed out huge sums of money for being the fastest. It’s this pressure that puts the animals under stress and at risk of injury.
Out on the range, calves were roped when they needed “doctoring.” It was done with care and with their welfare in mind. Who can believe that is what happens when a calf hits the end of a rope in a rodeo arena?
Rodeo is low and sensational entertainment sold as nostalgia for the Old West. It is a pity the CNE bought it. Anyone who has compassion for animals should not.
Excerpted from an article by Peter Fricker, Vancouver Humane Society, in the Toronto Star, August 15, 2008