Animal activists are quick to denounce the Calgary Stampede for animal cruelty. But it turns out very little research has been done on animal welfare at rodeo events.
“As a scientist, I can say that there is no data on rodeo and how animals are being treated. That’s where some of the research we’ve been doing is really focused,” Ed Pajor, a University of Calgary professor of animal welfare, said at the recent Livestock Care Conference.
Pajor is one of four members of the Calgary Stampede’s animal care advisory panel and, contrary to what many of its critics claim, the event’s organizers don’t brush animal welfare under the carpet.
“The Stampede has done a great deal,” he said. “They’ve made animal care and animal welfare part of their strategic plan. They listen closely to the expertise around the table, and they’ve come up with numerous strategies and approaches.
“They receive a lot less credit than they deserve. The changes they’ve made within their organization are far reaching.”
The Stampede has developed its own code of practice for animal welfare, based on legal recommendations, industry standards, and individual rules for each rodeo event and animal exhibition. It has also hired Jennifer Woods, an animal-handling specialist, to conduct audits.
“These assessments and audits don’t sit on the shelf. Changes are made as budgets allow,” said Pajor.
For example, after the flood of 2013, the Stampede made a major investment to replace all of the hardware in the bucking bull chutes.
On the other hand, while many rodeo supporters say rodeo animals love performing, it is difficult to measure this scientifically, said Pajor. In his team’s research, behavioural indicators of fear in animals — including tail flicking, defecation, kicking, and ‘eye whites’ (more white area is a sign of stress) — are monitored.
“One of the things that I heard a lot about the Stampede is that animals are handled very badly, that they’re handled very roughly,” he said. “That type of story was out there as part of the discussion around the treatment of animals at the rodeo.”
To see whether this was true, Pajor and his students studied bucking events at the rodeo to see if they could pick up indicators of fear and stress during loading and prior to performance, when animals are in the bucking chutes. Using behavioural analysis and infrared thermography (which measures heat in the eyeball to indicate stress levels) researchers collected data at the Stampede for several years.
In the holding pens, animals appear calm and relaxed, even though there is lots of activity and other animals are being moved about.
“Based on what I heard, I thought I was going to see animals getting very nervous prior to performance, and animals getting a lot more restless — that’s not what we saw,” said Pajor. “We saw animals that were pretty calm in the back.”
Researchers scored the handling of the animals as well as the behaviour of bulls when they were being loaded, and watched for negative behaviour, such as kicking or charging.
“The people in the back who are moving the animals are well trained in terms of animal movement,” said Pajor.
The handlers mainly used a rattle paddle to move the animals, but there were a few instances of handlers hitting the animals or striking them with the gate. In general, very few animals experienced aversive handling at all, and the frequency of animals hit by a person or gate were low.
“Very few animals had trouble loading. For the most part, the story here is that the animals move very easily.”
While animals appear to be calm, some of their calmness could actually be attributed to a phenomenon called “learned helplessness,” which means the animals stop resisting or displaying fear even when distressed.
“It’s not that the story is completely in the clear, but what we are definitely not seeing is a whole bunch of crazy animals behaving in some sort of way in the chutes prior to the actual event, before the doors open,” said Pajor, adding researchers need to design additional experiments to get the whole story.
Less experienced animals showed more fear responses than experienced ones, but bulls react to human behaviour that is not specific to the rodeo. Most of the animals don’t have a lot of experience with people, and may be reacting more to being close to people, microphones and cameras, than to the rodeo itself.
Pajor praised the Stampede for its forward thinking and for allowing researchers to have access to the entire site. Other North American rodeos are now looking to — and starting to adopt — Calgary Stampede’s guidelines, he said.