As the battle over animal welfare heats up, ‘the greatest outdoor show on earth’ has some advice on responding to activists.
“We have been on the ‘bleeding edge of the wedge’ in terms of activists targeting the Stampede because of the audience that we deal with,” said Bonni Clark, communications adviser for the Calgary Stampede.
“Most of the people coming tend to be tourists, they tend to be city people, and they tend to be the sort of people who don’t see livestock all the time.”
For those people, “it all comes down to their experiences,” said Clark, who spoke at the recent Alberta Pork annual general meeting.
“Today, only one in 50 people have regular contact with livestock, a very important factor we need to consider,” she said.
“You have to make sure they’re not just getting that one experience of seeing that ad, hearing that tweet, seeing something on Facebook that’s really alarming or watching ‘W5’ (which has aired several undercover videos shot by Mercy for Animals).”
To do that, it’s key to be “matter of fact and very up front” when things go wrong, she said.
“We do everything we can immediately, with as much accuracy and transparency and detail as we possibly can, to give them everything they need,” said Clark.
In one case earlier this year, a chuckwagon horse died of unknown causes during training. Stampede investigators discovered the animal’s lung ruptured because of an aneurism, likely due to a parasite infection that had weakened its artery walls.
“When you have transparency plus details, you actually have context,” said Clark. “Without that context and detail, it’s hard for the media to present balance.
“We want to make sure our voice is heard on par with the people who would speak to the issue without actually knowing the facts.”
Do the right thing
But it’s not enough to “talk the talk,” said Clark.
“The very first foundational piece is to do the right thing,” she said. Just because we’ve been doing it the same way forever doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily the right way or the most up to date.
“You want to check your assumptions at the door.”
In the past several years, the Stampede has brought in third-party experts and scientific innovations to direct best practices for animal care and handling at the show.
“We want to be sure we’re putting that competence and those best practices into action,” said Clark. “When you know better, you do better.”
The Stampede also invests in the best equipment, she said.
“It’s not cheap, but we’ve budgeted for it,” said Clark. “We couldn’t do it all at once, but over the course of four or five years, we got to the point where we could invest in the best in the world with all the latest innovations, according to what our animal experts were telling us.”
And while a multimillion-dollar rodeo is very different than a break-even livestock operation, the change in public attitudes is “something that is growing” and affects everyone working in livestock agriculture, said Clark.
“It used to be that image that a cowboy was a steward of the land and a responsible, caring steward of his animals, and there’s a movement out there that’s trying to erode that image,” she said.
“That’s where we have to be cautious — all of us — that we’re not allowing the image of a food producer and the image of a cowboy to be eroded.”