Under Scrutiny

Animal care at the Calgary Stampede

By Curtis Gillespie

For certain animals, human and non-human, the 8,900-hectare Calgary Stampede Ranch, located about halfway between Brooks and Hanna, is paradise. When I arrived there on a bright and windy day last May, I was met by Raymond Goodman, the ranch manager for close to a decade. From the corral at the ranch’s high point—which isn’t very high, as high points go—the shortgrass prairie extended in every direction, the treeless gentle swell of the topography evidence of the ice age that scoured the land.

The Stampede bought this ranch in 1961 for $200,000 (it’s now valued at $3.4-million) to preserve, improve and guarantee the quality of its own bucking stock. The plan proved so successful, the ranch now acts as a stock contractor for rodeos across North America, including Texas. There are 500 horses at the ranch and about 50 bulls, and approximately 80 mares are bred each year, resulting in another 65 to 75 foals. (The Stampede doesn’t breed bulls; it buys them from breeders and at sales.)

We hopped into Goodman’s truck and went to check for newborns. A foal only a couple of hours old stood under its mother, nuzzling for milk. Goodman pointed and smiled. “He’s still a bit wobbly.” More foals dashed across the range, all gangly legs and knees and hoofs moving at high speed, sometimes even in the same direction. Some will be among the world’s top bucking horses.

The day before my visit, I met Keith Marrington, director of rodeo and chuckwagon, on the Stampede grounds in Calgary. Every animal under the Stampede’s care is treated the way “you’d treat any top athlete,” he said. They are well fed, receive excellent medical attention, get plenty of natural food and water, and exercise freely, all for the price of having to perform a few dozen days a year for eight seconds at a time.

Rodeos are regularly criticized by animal welfare groups, but the Stampede says it is attentive to evolving public opinion and ethics as it improves animal care in rodeos. On the open range of the Stampede Ranch, with the sun streaming down, a foal is just a foal—a horse, free, beautiful, learning to run. The newborn foal will have at least a few years of this, of nothing but oats, fresh water and plenty of exercise and companionship. Then it’ll be time to perform, and the young horse’s fate will become markedly less clear.

Just southeast of downtown Calgary, up against the Elbow River, lies Stampede Park. Here I met with Paul Rosenberg, vice-president of programming. The Stampede has done a great deal of thinking about how it “delivers product,” he said. As its website notes, “Western events, such as rodeo, chuckwagon racing and the many agriculture exhibitions and competitions, reflect the unique heritage and character of southern Alberta.” The Stampede wants to be sure it reflects the city it calls home, which is “proud of its past, proud of its diversity,” Rosenberg said. “We’re all about preserving and promoting Western heritage in the context of modern Calgary.”

But many observers and critics question the Stampede’s connection to “Western heritage.” Historians, including Max Foran at the University of Calgary, have documented that many of its rodeo events—in fact, the Stampede itself—were started by an American showman named Guy Weadick in 1912. In Icon, Brand, Myth: The Calgary Stampede, Foran writes that since the 1960s, the event has focused “primarily on the generic Western myth, [and] little in the Stampede speaks of the Western Canadian frontier experience.”

Internal surveys suggest that the Calgary Stampede would have no trouble surviving with a reduced-risk rodeo.

Internal surveys suggest that the Calgary Stampede would have no trouble surviving with a reduced-risk rodeo. (Dan Bannister)

Some rodeo events do have a somewhat tenuous connection to the past, but others have no particular link to Western heritage. Calf roping is practised on ranches, though in a much gentler form than you’ll see at the rodeo. Steer wrestling, however, was never a part of a cowboy’s life. Horses were bucked in order to break them, but the Stampede has reversed this by creating a line of horses bred to buck. Chuckwagon races were dreamt up by Weadick to take advantage of the growing popularity of car racing. And bull riding? As former Stampede Ranch bronc rider Ron MacLean told me, “Why would a cowboy, or anyone, ever want to get on a bull for any reason?”

Of course, even if these events were directly connected to our frontier experience, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re worth celebrating.

Peter Fricker, the director of projects and communications for the Vancouver Humane Society (VHS), is a relentless and vocal critic of the Calgary Stampede. Why? “Because the animals are treated inhumanely, and there’s the risk of injury or death,” he explained. “And it’s for the trivial purpose of our entertainment. The Stampede is promoted as an image of Canadian culture, nationally and internationally. We’re opposed to the idea of that kind of activity representing Canada.”

A recent VHS campaign brought about change at the Cloverdale Rodeo in Surrey, BC. In 2007 that rodeo dropped calf roping, steer wrestling, wild-cow milking and team roping. The VHS’s primary objective now is to have calf roping banned at rodeos across Canada. Scientific analysis of this event, Fricker said, shows that “it’s highly stressful and the animals feel it very acutely.”

The Calgary Humane Society (CHS) opposes the use of animals “for any form of entertainment in which they are placed at risk of suffering undue stress, pain, injury or death,” and “fundamentally opposes rodeo events like chuckwagon racing, calf roping and steer wrestling.” Even so, it works with the Stampede to advance animal care, which has drawn criticism from organizations such as the VHS.

I asked Patricia Cameron, executive director of CHS, if the organization takes donations from the Calgary Stampede. “That rumour is completely false,” she says. “To take such a donation would be a conflict of interest.”

But how, I asked, can CHS be so opposed to rodeos and yet work so closely with the Stampede?

“The Stampede brings a lot of positive things to our city, and we would like to see it as safe and as enjoyable for the animals as it is for people. We’ve actually found that a lot of positive change has come about through what I would call our respectful exploration of issues with the Stampede.” And anyway, she continued, “the antagonism is exhausting.”

Jennifer Woods, an independent livestock-handling specialist, monitors and advises on the Stampede’s animal-care practices. She is paid by the Stampede, but assured me that, “I call it how I see it.”

What’s it like to be a rodeo animal, a bucking horse or bull, under the care of the Stampede?

“Well, they’re performers!” she replied. “They enjoy what they do. They’re sporting animals; they’re not forced to do it.”

Then, do rodeo participants look after their animals because they are living creatures or because they are investments? Marrington said a good chuckwagon horse can be worth as much as $50,000 and a top bull up to $200,000.

“You know, I hate that,” responded Woods quickly. “You take care of your animals because it’s the right thing to do. You need good, healthy animals in order to get rodeo contracts, but if you know these people, you know they love their animals.”

As an independent auditor of the Stampede’s animal-care practices, Woods was given free rein, as it were, on the Stampede grounds during the 2010 event. She found problems but also an openness to share practices and discuss the future of rodeos and animal care. The Stampede declined to release Woods’s 2010 animal-care audit because, according to Lindsey Galloway, the Stampede’s former director of corporate communications, Woods’s mandate was “to go out and find problems,” so the report did not offer balance.

Woods, who “believes” in rodeos “as long as they are done humanely,” feels that the Stampede has taken positive strides in animal safety and welfare, with calf roping a recent example. New rules disqualify a cowboy if a roped calf is jerked off all four feet and its body touches the ground before the roper reaches it. When asked whether any Stampede activities had her wishing that things were different, Woods answered immediately: “No.”

Many question Stampede rodeo’s connection to “Western heritage.” Little in the event speaks of the Canadian frontier experience.

How can we know if animals are suffering? Ed Pajor, a distinguished professor of animal welfare at the U of C, is a non-compensated member of the Stampede’s Animal Care Advisory Panel, established in June 2010. “There is a new responsibility of ethics around the use of animals,” he said. “I think the Stampede is doing a good job understanding and responding to that.” He agreed that events such as calf roping are problematic, but said there’s no scientific evidence that it’s cruel. “It may defy common sense to say that,” he said. “But we can’t evaluate animals from a human perspective.”

Harder data wouldn’t necessarily resolve the issue, either, he explained: “This is where we hit the conundrum of what science can and can’t do. Our job isn’t to provide commentary, so, even with the data, it becomes a philosophical and moral issue.”

Animal welfare expert Temple Grandin—who is cited by both sides in the debate—writes in Animals Make Us Human that we provide farm animals “with food and housing, and in return most of the offspring from breeding cows on the ranches are used for food.” In her opinion, animals have emotions, and the most important thing for an animal is not the length of its life but the quality of that life. A good life for an animal, she writes, “requires three things: health, freedom from pain and negative emotions, and lots of activities.”

The animals at the Stampede Ranch are well cared for and have considerable activity. But in Animals in Translation, Grandin writes that the “single worst thing you can do to an animal is to make it feel afraid. Fear is so bad for animals, I think it’s worse than pain.”

Many in the Stampede community say horses enjoy bucking, running, chuckwagon racing. Yes, horses are “built to run,” but common sense suggests the circumstances under which they are forced to run or buck are far from the criterion of “freedom from pain and negative emotions.”

This is all further complicated by the Stampede’s role as a supplier of bucking stock for its own and many other rodeos. “Our horses are genetically bred to buck,” said Marrington. “We have records going back 34 years. It’s like a racehorse: you breed a fast one to a fast one and you might get a fast one. Same with a good bucker to a good bucker.” Marrington told me the operation is computerized, and stock is sorted electronically.

One in three Albertans used to have a direct link to agriculture. Now it’s moving to one in 60. What, then, is our orientation toward an animal?

Training starts when the horses are four years old. They are put in the chute and given a halter. “As they get older, we put a little more responsibility on them. It’s like any other athlete. A young hockey player is going to go through a process to get to the pros. We have the same thing.”

If the horse shows “potential,” it is “dummied”—given an unlocked saddle to see if it has ability. If the horse shows “ability,” it is ridden by progressively better cowboys until the Stampede introduces it to the pro circuit. “The first time you put that dummy on, you can tell,” said Marrington. “But we give them every opportunity, because some mature differently than others.”

I asked what happens to the horses that simply aren’t suited to bucking, that aren’t naturals. “We usually keep ’em around,” said Marrington. “A lot of mares go into the breeding program, even if they can’t buck, because we know they’re genetically good. We do cull, no question about that. But the fact is, you can get some young horses, for whatever reason, that fight the chute or are just bad, and they’ll run right over you and could hurt cowboys with no ability. And they’re disposed of, and that’s all I’m going to tell you. They’re out of the system, out of the inventory. It’s inventory in, inventory out.”

The next day, I asked ranch manager Raymond Goodman how many times, on average, a young horse is dummied before being rejected.

“Usually three or four times.”

“And if they’re mares, they go back into the breeding program?”

He nodded.

“And what about geldings and studs? Are they culled?”


“And they go where? Fort Macleod?”

“Yup. Fort Macleod.”

It’s impossible to know exactly how many horses a year the Stampede sends to the Fort Macleod horse slaughterhouse, which primarily supplies Asia and Europe. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency refused to release the number, but the math isn’t hard to do. Culling is necessary, as Goodman said, because the ranch “just wouldn’t support a thousand head.” It averages 70 foals a year, and the number of head stays more or less steady.

Greg Evans is a partner of the Moore Equine Veterinary Centre, the Stampede’s vet of record for a quarter-century. I met Evans in Calgary after he completed his rounds at various stables and farms around the city. There were more than 10,000 animal “events” at the 2010 Stampede, he said, meaning single, discrete instances where an animal was involved in a performance. A horse ridden by a cowboy roping a calf would constitute two animal events. Given the sheer number of these events, Evans feels the overall incidence of animal injury was relatively small in 2010, especially in the context of everyday farm and ranch mishaps.

“There were six fatalities at the 2010 Stampede, which were horrible, of course,” said Evans. “Even one is too many, so you never stop trying to prevent all of those. We had eight major injuries or incidents, which is when an animal requires attention and significant rehabilitation or euthanization. And we had 25 minor injuries, such as a cut. So according to our animal-care log, we had about 35 to 40 injuries out of close to 10,000 animal events. Now, I’m not saying that’s good or bad. We’ve really only just started gathering this kind of thorough data. But my gut feeling is that this is a pretty low ratio of injury relative to other equine competitions.”

Evans told me that having to euthanize horses is a regular occurrence in veterinary practice, the reasons varying from old age to a broken leg from stepping in a gopher hole. Any farmer or rancher will tell you that lame, infirm or excess animals cannot be kept around; the farm will go under. Evans’s point, essentially, is that the Stampede is acting as would most of its constituency.


Steer wrestling at the Calgary Stampede Rodeo. (Dan Bannister)

The Stampede’s Paul Rosenberg said attitudes toward animals have shifted in step with demographics, and he wonders if our perception of animals, particularly large ones, has influenced opinions on animal care. “I think one in three people in Alberta used to have a direct link to agriculture,” he said. “Today, only 1 in 45 has any kind of direct access, and it’s moving to 1 in 60. The connection to an agricultural rural life is distant. What, then, is your point of orientation toward an animal?”

Why shouldn’t animals be put under stress, fear or threat of injury, assuming that’s what happens at rodeos? We do it in horse racing. We do it at zoos. We do it in laboratory testing. We do it when we leave dogs home alone. And we most certainly do it in the name of food production. And if our relationship with animals stands on a continuum from reverence to degradation, where do rodeos sit on that arc? From what shaky platform could we decide?

The question of our role in animal suffering has occupied and perplexed philosophers for thousands of years. The VHS locates the core of the modern debate, and our societal hypocrisy, at the point between using animals for food and using them for “entertainment.” It claims rodeos must end because they are conducted solely for our entertainment, whereas animal suffering in the name of food production, while still horrific and in need of amelioration, can be held to a different standard.

The extremes on either side of the rights debate seem entirely unreconcilable. On one side, animals have no rights and no acknowledged emotions, and are utterly subservient to our needs and whims. The other side is wonderfully parodied in the movie Notting Hill, when Hugh Grant’s blind date proclaims herself a “fruitarian” who eats only what has fallen off a tree or bush.

What difference does it make to an animal to be used for consumption or entertainment? An animal living a significant portion of its life in safe and comfortable conditions, but subjected to a dose of fear and cruelty while performing in rodeos, at least avoids the slaughterhouse. Is killing an animal to eat it any more ethical? It’s not strictly necessary for humans to eat animals to survive.

Within these philosophical arguments rests the fundamental problem facing the Calgary Stampede. The Stampede rodeo, as is, falls well within the typical spectrum of human and animal relations. But if the “Western heritage” tag line were replaced with a more accurate description: “rodeo—a largely mythical construction justified through cultural amnesia and shared hypocrisy,” Stampede rodeo would be unmarketable.

Rather, the Stampede appears to be following its only realistic option, celebrating something that isn’t particularly authentic—the rodeo events that are supposedly part of our Western heritage—while trying to do right by its animals. To have a conversation with Stampede personnel is to know they don’t want animals to suffer, and are willing to improve the lot of animals, which is not quite the same as calling the Stampede an enlightened proponent of animal welfare. If anything, rodeos are something of a socio-cultural mirror held up to reflect the values of the society around them. Rodeos exist because, frankly, we are willing to let them.

A generation ago, no one could have imagined we’d be talking about animal welfare at the Stampede today, in the same way that it’s impossible to predict what the Stampede rodeo will look like a generation from now. “I’m not so gutsy as to make a prediction on future events in the rodeo,” Rosenberg said, “but I think there will be an evolution. It will become more sophisticated for the market it serves, so urban rodeos may be different from rural rodeos. Events may be tailored to what that community wants.”

The Stampede’s own data indicates the rodeo is no longer the primary driver of the 10-day exhibition. According to a 2009 internal survey, only 16 per cent of respondents went to the rodeo on the day they visited Stampede, and just 13 per cent, or one in eight people, called it their favourite part of their day on the grounds. The conclusion seems clear: the Stampede would probably survive without the rodeo and would have no trouble surviving with a reduced and/or reduced-risk rodeo.

If the Stampede’s core purpose is to preserve and promote Western heritage, altering the nature of the rodeo would not compromise that purpose. If, as Rosenberg himself notes, Calgary and western Canada are increasingly diverse and cosmopolitan, how long before the rodeo is not just a historical anachronism but a cultural one, too?

The Calgary Stampede has embarked on a radical new program of animal care, replete with audits, experts, panels and media campaigns. These are positive steps. But in the realm of animal welfare, it’s asking “How should we do this?” when maybe the question ought to be “Should we do this?”

The Stampede, however, is a mirror, not a generator, of our social mores, and we need to ask that question on its behalf, and answer it, too. The Stampede will change to survive, but only to the degree society tells it to. It deserves credit for instigating changes and for opening up to the public and the media. But the potential answer to the “Should we do this?” question has perhaps been missed, namely that there are numerous ways to celebrate and preserve the traditions of the West, and many of them involve animals that do not need to suffer or die. The crowds will still come out.

It’s hard to imagine that the Stampede won’t continue to evolve toward a future with a rodeo that looks significantly different from what it does today. Rosenberg said as much. “Changing the rodeo for competitors can be difficult to manage,” but by the same token, he continued, “we want to meet the expectations of our fans and patrons. They’re looking for authenticity, but they also want safety—for both animals and competitors.”

A divide exists today, a divide in all of us. Marrington captured it most accurately, if chillingly. A rancher connected with the Stampede for the past 25 years, he told me the Stampede puts “a lot of pressure on us to make sure our standards are high.” But he’s also the man who described the horse cull at the Stampede Ranch as “inventory in, inventory out.” Sitting at his desk in Calgary, he paused, then added that it isn’t any different from culling a cow herd. “It’s reality.”

True. But it’s a reality we’ve created—and one we could change.#

Curtis Gillespie is co-founder and editor of Eighteen Bridges. His latest book is Almost There: The Family Vacation, Then and Now.


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