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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

OPINIONSocietyJuly 14, 2022

What’s wrong with rodeos?

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

With the legality of rodeos once again challenged in court, anti-rodeo campaigner Lynn Charlton explains the impacts of these events on the animals involved.

I filmed my first rodeos, solo, in 2013.

The events were held on beautiful sunny days, with country music playing, relaxed crowds and announcers cracking jokes. I sat up on the bank while kids ran about, hot chips were eaten and people chatted and laughed. Stop right there, and this was no different to many other family-oriented outdoor events. That is, until the animals began “performing”.

Despite their clear distress as they tried to get rid of the predator on their backs, the animals’ behaviour was anthropomorphised by the announcers. “That bull wants to get even with the cowboy for showing him up last time” or “that horse loves to play to the crowd”. When a disoriented bull couldn’t work out how to exit the arena: “He loves all the attention and doesn’t want to leave.” The crowd laughed along.

Sometimes the commentary was slightly amusing, and listening to the laughter, I could feel the pull to go along with it. I’m sure this is what happens for most people. I’d heard animals loved rodeos, had great lives as performers and were saved from slaughter. It’s an image cultivated to distract from the violence committed against them in the name of entertainment, as became blatantly clear when I moved down to the arena fence with my camera.

Panicked, riderless horses galloped and bucked a metre or so in front of me, stirrups flapping and hitting their sides. Their mouths were open and tongues visible, which stunned me. I had not noticed this from the bank. Racing alongside the fence, trying to get away from pick-up riders attempting to unbuckle the bucking strap to slow them down (straps send animals into a panic), their power and terror was scary to stand so close to.

I’d ridden horses in my teens and had never seen anything like it.

Calf roping, a common rodeo event (Photo: Getty Images)

I was right opposite the chute that held the calves, and the steers for wrestling. When released, they came towards me, were sent airborne at the end of a rope, somersaulting. Others had their horns grabbed and necks twisted 180 degrees. Other steers wore fake horns and had their back legs pulled out from under them, while someone pulled their head in the opposite direction. One of the disoriented bulls had thick blood coming from his mouth.

Since then, public criticism of rodeos has increased, following media stories and complaints to the Ministry for Primary Industries about rodeos failing to abide by the minimum standards in the rodeo code of welfare. The New Zealand Animal Law Association (NZALA) issued a 2018 report stating rodeos were illegal as they breached the Animal Welfare Act 1999.

The National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC) then convened an expert panel to look into the impact of rodeo events on animals. It found those impacts were moderate to severe in all events bar one.

In 2018 NAWAC released a new rodeo code of welfare that essentially made no change to the 2014 code – which rodeo clubs repeatedly failed to uphold anyway – thereby ignoring the expert panel’s findings. These codes in no way protect animals.

Meanwhile, rodeo continued. Deaths and injuries of animals occur every year at rodeos, the most notable being one season where three horses and a bull died. Two bulls were euthanised due to catastrophic injury during the 2019/20 season and another bull euthanised in 2020/21. (The number of deaths during training is not recorded.)

Following a successful legal challenge to the use of pig farrowing crates in 2019, NZALA and Safe filed further court proceedings against the minister for agriculture and NAWAC in 2021 for allowing rodeos to breach Animal Welfare Act obligations to handle animals in a way that minimises the likelihood of unnecessary or unreasonable pain or distress.

They aren’t seeking a ban on rodeo, but want a review into how rodeo as a sport operates against the Animal Welfare Act. A judicial review was heard this week at the High Court in Wellington. It was accepted in the court that due process in the issuing of the 2018 code was not followed and lawyers for the government and NAWAC admitted “blunders” had been made.

Protesters at a rodeo event in Martinborough in 2019 (Photo: Karoline Tuckey/RNZ)

Teams of animal advocates have filmed and photographed at rodeos up and down the country over the last few years (mostly pre-Covid.) People often ask what it’s like, how we do it. Our team – sometimes two middle-aged women, other times four or five people – set up our chairs, tripods and cameras in the open.

Over the years rodeos realised who we were, so there was no point in trying to be discreet like we did the early days.

Once the events start, we’re focused, moving the cameras along the chutes, watching for signs of animal panic and distress. There are typically six or eight chutes holding horses or bulls, and we’re scanning the whole time.

When something happens, our focus is on capturing it – keeping the scene in the shot, being alert for what might happen in the next-door chute or another chute further along. We can see when an animal is in distress, thrashing around trying to escape, using hooves against the handlers, or has gone down in the chute.

We don’t see details. We don’t see that their eyes are shut, or open extra wide, or that their mouths are gaping. We don’t see the grisly details of the neck twist, or how the mouths of horses and bulls are wrenched open in horror, how their limbs and backs are positioned as they buck and thrash. We don’t see the details of the falls or crashes into fences or hear them crying out or bellowing.

All that comes later, when we’re going through the footage and photographs.

That’s also when we see the tail twisting, the pinching, punching, shoving of calves, the hitting of horses in the face, the sneaky use of electric shocks, the animals that went to ground. Seeing fear and panic in animals is particularly upsetting. We don’t usually see the injuries, the bruising, the strained ligaments, the sore muscles, the paralysis that quickly sets in once bulls that have broken their backs exit the arena.

We didn’t see the hoof torn half off a horse, or the horse that exited the arena in distress and smashed into a post, breaking its neck. There have been several examples of the public witnessing bulls break their legs, a couple of horses break their necks, calves unable to put a leg on the ground or lie stunned and unwilling to move.

Some of those injuries are obvious, but most injuries are the unseen ones that will be felt by these sentient beings over the coming days and weeks, and the unseen injury of terror. Animal advocates have documented the experience of animals used in rodeos to show what happens to them and how they respond.

They’ve told their story now, and the whole country has heard them.

Now we wait to see whether the law hears them too.

Keep going!