RODEO IN NZ: ANIMAL CRUELTY OR PC GONE MAD?
To the readers. Over the past 6 months I have been trying to critically assess issues surrounding rodeo in New Zealand, from an objective standpoint. This article forms the summary of that process, and describes my conclusions as well as the reasoning behind them. As with any opinion article I am sure there will be criticisms, and I want to encourage these for those who wish to provide them. Please feel free to ask me (in the comment section) for citations to back up the information in this article, and to provide constructive criticism if you feel the need.
According to the New Zealand Encyclopedia, rodeo first appeared in New Zealand in the 1960’s, and the first national championship was held in 1973. Currently there are approximately 36 rodeo events held in New Zealand each year. Although rodeo has some popularity in rural areas as a spectator sport, relatively few people participate in the events themselves.
Previously I had not expressed either support or opposition to rodeo. Approximately 6 months ago, after reading concerns about rodeo from various organisations in the media, I decided to look into the issue. My primary objective was to ascertain whether these concerns were simply overexaggeration and/or hysteria, or whether rodeo events were in fact a legitimate concern. Despite being born and raised in a rural area, I was by no means familiar with the ins and outs of rodeo. I set out aiming to avoid emotion, and to reach a conclusion that was based on fact as objectively as is humanly possible. I asked for video footage of alleged concerns from anti-rodeo campaigners, I spoke to qualified vets and SPCA officers that had attended rodeo events, I trawled the scientific research literature around the topic, and I looked to see if any animals had been killed in NZ in recent years as a result of injuries sustained during rodeo events. Finally, last month, I attended a rodeo event out where I grew up, which was being held at the sport grounds that I played club rugby for as a kid. In the remainder of this article I have attempted to provide a summary of my conclusions and the reasoning behind them.
The video footage from 2015-2017 rodeo seasons shows a variety of instances of distress and clear animal abuse, occurring at multiple different rodeo events up and down the country. This includes, but is not limited to: Animals (including young calves) enclosed and being shocked with cattle prods because they refuse to move forward to be mounted, calves having their necks twisted back the wrong way, bulls having their tails twisted at the base, and so on. Multiple animals have died in recent years as a direct result of injuries sustained during events at NZ rodeos. Attending vets I have spoken to have told me about horrific injuries that they have witnessed, as have SPCA officers who attend and assess events and report back to the Minister for Primary Industries. As a result, in part, of their experiences while attending rodeo events over the last two decades, the SPCA is calling for an outright ban on rodeo in New Zealand. Recently the New Zealand Veterinary Association released a position statement outlining concerns about rodeo events, and calling for a re-evaluation of the rodeo code of welfare. Although the NZVA have previously supported NAWAC decisions on issues which SPCA have criticized, for example the use of farrowing crates on pig farms, they appear to agree with SPCA on a number of issues surrounding rodeo events. Huntley rodeo has now been shut down not long after clear breaches of animal welfare codes were uncovered, following the publishing of video footage from the events. Huntly rodeo organisers Fraser and Craig Graham pulled the plug in 2014 “for fear of being prosecuted by the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI), possibly leading to a fine or even jail time.”. However in 2015 the organisers announced plans to reopen a modified event which would be ‘equestrian-based’. The RNZSPCA expressed disappointment at the action.
I attempted to find media surrounding the issue at Huntly rodeo, in order to try and understand a promoters perspective on these issues. Following the uncovering of the abuse at Huntly rodeo Fraser Graham said of the incidents, in an interview with Seven Sharp, that “There were a couple of animals that played up in the chutes. And one young bull sat down. And to try and make it get up so that he could get his ride, the cowboy stomped on it with his foot a few times…Didn’t hurt it…But it was perceived to be cruel”. When challenged by the interviewer, that Graham should accept this was cruel, he responded that perhaps it was but “In a very minor way”. In response to further questioning on footage of a significantly distressed palomino horse, the Graham’s response was that they “…cannot control the heat of the moment behaviour of some of the competitors.”, before going on to admit that they could not guarantee further breaches would not occur if the event were to remain in operation. I personally felt that this response was concerning in itself, as it attempted to shift blame onto the animals, and attempted to argue that clear breaches of the welfare code were not cruel. If organizers think that breaches of the rodeo code of welfare do not constitute a significant animal welfare concern, it appears reasonable to suggest that alternative measures of whether rodeo events are causing distress to animals are necessary.
Next I decided to research the history of animal welfare organisations, as well as local body governments, with respect to rodeo. Media resources show that the SPCA have been calling for a ban on rodeo in NZ since at least the 1990’s. During this time Auckland SPCA ran a three-year campaign that lead to rodeos being banned at Auckland’s Easter Show. Their subsequent campaigning, along with support from animal welfare organisations and the public, resulted in Auckland City Council banning rodeos from council-owned land within the city in 2008. Christchurch City Council had been asked by animal welfare organisations to follow suit. At the time a banner was seen flying behind an aircraft over Christchurch City that read “AKL CAN, WE CAN, CCC BAN RODEOS.” However Mayor of the time, Bob Parker, stated to media that it would be “ridiculous to ban an event that passed SPCA inspection.”.* The Christchurch City Council did not pass any bylaws on rodeo. Unfortunately, at a subsequent 2014 rodeo event in Christchurch, an animal was severely injured and had to be euthanized. This occurred Horncastle Arena, formerly Westpac Stadium, a council owned and operated venue. I have contacted Vbase to see if they intend to host another rodeo in future, or if they would consider hosting one again if approached by rodeo event promoters. I did receive an email back last Thursday morning, that asked why I was enquiring, and which I promptly responded to with a detailed explanation. At this point I have not received an answer to the questions mentioned above. Edit: after emailing again today (Tuesday), I received a response explaining that Vbase were quite busy with events currently but hoped to prepare something for me in the coming days.
*Although the SPCA had been historically opposed to rodeo, their inspections were to ensure events operated in line with the rodeo code of welfare. SPCA had criticized the code, which outlined rules for rodeo events that were supposed to reflect the Animal Welfare Act 1999. SPCA submissions were largely not accepted by the committee that constructed the code. However SPCA officers can not bring legal action, upon persons involved in acts which they deem to be cruel, unless those acts are specifically in breach of the code. As such, SPCA inspection officers could only ensure that events complied with the code.
With regard to the published science on this issue: High quality research on the topic of animal welfare at rodeos is scarce compared to many areas of scientific inquiry. The most recent scientific publications on this issue state that more research is necessary. However there is good evidence from this research base to demonstrate that animals do suffer in at least some of the events included in NZ rodeo competitions. Australian agricultural & veterinary scientists from the University of Queensland conducted a high quality study, which was published recently in the scientific journal ‘Animals’. The study was actually commissioned by the Australian Rodeo Association, who were hoping this would show that the animals were not suffering, amid fears that animal welfare concerns might cause events to be shut down. However the results demonstrated that all calves involved in rope and tie showed behavioral signs of stress (specifically eye rolling), and they also found that both naive and rodeo experienced animals had significantly elevated stress markers in blood samples following rodeo events. There had been a study published prior to this, but which measured cortisol levels only, and which was less methodologically sound than the more recent publication (e.g. Calves were transported from the rodeo arena back to the farm ~20 minutes away prior to blood collection, whereas in the more recent study blood collection was undertaken immediately following each rope & tie procedure). So far the weight of peer-reviewed scientific evidence appears to support the conclusion that these animals do in fact suffer at rodeo events.
Confusion among rodeo proponents, on the science around this issue, may be the inadvertent result of a 2003 article by Mark Fisher of Kotare Bioethics Ltd., titled “the effects of roping on the behaviour and physiology of calves in a rodeo”. This article was cited by NAWAC in their scientific review summary, during development of the rodeo code of welfare. However this article was not a typical scientific research publication, but rather a report prepared for MPI (formerly Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries). Unlike the article mentioned previously, the Fisher (2003) article was not published in an academic journal, which would require it to pass the scrutiny of a scientific peer review process.
At this point in my investigations, various different avenues of evidence appeared to point to the same clear conclusion. In order to look at the issue from an alternative perspective I considered whether failure to change, in the face of the evidence, might lie with social opposition between community groups. Is this issue a matter of conflicting interests between rural and city folk? Based on my own experience, I did not believe that support for animal cruelty is a common trait among rural people. Throughout my life I have personally interacted with countless people, from rural communities, that have nothing but the utmost respect for their animals. While attending a rodeo event last month I spoke to several locals, and some expressed similar concerns to those which I had heard from the SPCA with regard to rodeo. While I was talking with protesters outside the entrance to the rodeo ground, one local walked past with their dog and told the protesters to “keep up the good work”. The club I played rugby for as a kid is based at the same sport ground this rodeo event was being held. My father was one of the people that helped, alongside others in the community, to establish this very sport ground many years ago. Following a thorough analysis of all of the available information, neither him nor I could say with a clear conscience that we are not deeply concerned for the welfare of animals involved in these events. Based on what I know about the number of good people throughout our rural communities, most of whom pride themselves on high animal welfare standards, this issue appears to be far less to do with rural interests than some have argued. It turned out that several of those involved with the rodeo protest movement were people with backgrounds working in the dairy farming sector. I recall learning the position of one protester, who had previously competed in rodeo events themselves before deciding that several of the events were not in line with their personal values.
It is now my position that rodeo should be banned in New Zealand, but that those involved in the activity should be actively encouraged, and warmly welcomed, into other highly physical sports that New Zealand has to offer. Hopefully with this outlook we can all work together to retain the positive physical aspects of the events for those keen sportsmen & sportswomen, while avoiding the need to sacrifice animal welfare in the process.