Rodeos are Neither Fun Nor Sport

Rodeos have long been venerated as an institution of the American west, competitions that pit cowboys or cowgirls against "wild" animals, a carnival atmosphere with animals also performing clever tricks for cheering crowds. 

Some are actually large commercial enterprises, telecast from venues like Madison Square Garden, for example. Many participants have never actually lived or worked on a ranch or farm or as a "cowboy". 

There have also historically been rodeos in Mexico, Canada, Spain, South America, Australia and the United Kingdom. 

But, like circuses, traditional rodeos can exist only because animal cruelty is tolerated.  It is not enough to continue an activity simply because it is a tradition or symbolizes a bygone era. We know now the torment suffered by animals subjected to rodeos.  We cannot pretend any longer that what goes on at rodeos is anything but abhorrent animal cruelty like so many of the "blood sports" – bull fighting, dog or cock fighting, hog dog fighting or dog or horse racing. 

Rodeos were banned in the United Kingdom in 1934 under the Protection of Animals Act.

Is it really entertainment for people in this day and age to watch someone throw a rope around a calf’s neck and slam it to the ground, intentionally or not, causing the baby animal great pain, if not severe bruising or a fractured spine or broken neck, paralysis or death? Is it really fun to watch someone try to sit on a horse or bull that is bucking from severe pain and anxiety because a flank strap has been cinched tightly around its abdomen or genitals, sometimes with burrs, caustic ointments, or other irritants placed under the strap to increase the animal’s agitation? Is it fun to watch the would be rider spur the animal, adding to its pain and torment?

Why is it fun to watch a cow or horse that has been shocked with an electric prod, in great pain and very frightened? Animals that have been poked with sharp sticks and the like?

Even some rodeo supporters have called for a ban on calf roping, the most obviously cruel event. The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association acknowledges this at least implicitly. In its rules participants are told not to flip the calf backward intentionally: "Calves may not be intentionally flipped backward. Contestant must adjust rope and reins in such a manner that will prevent horse from dragging calf. Rope to be removed from calf’s body as soon possible after "tie" is approved. Roping calves shall be strong and healthy." But calves can still be wrenched any other way and slammed to the ground. The "rule" proves but does not prevent the cruelty.

Or consider the Omak Stampede Suicide Race every year at the rodeo in Omak, Washington. During this rodeo event horses are forced to plunge over a cliff (62 degree angle) and run at high speeds almost straight down for 225 feet into a river which they must cross and then gallop another 500 yards uphill. The horses suffer unimaginable panic and fear. They wrench their necks and backs and many times stumble and fall. Twenty horses have died since 1984, and numerous others have been injured or traumatized.

Just this past month at the Cheyenne Rodeo, a horse, Strawberry Fudge, died from a violent fall. It is reported that numerous steer and calves were killed or injured during events there. Another horse panicked and crashed into 2 barriers, collapsing for a time. Go here to see what happened.

See the video below for more on the cruelty of rodeos.

The Professional Cowboys Rodeo Association ("PCRA") claims to have nearly "60 rules" governing animal welfare during rodeos including the requirement that a veterinarian be present at all times. The theory is that treatment is available after the infliction of the pain and injuries, after the show.  Many of the rules are repetitive or have nothing to do with animal welfare.  The rules contain general language about providing humane treatment and avoiding abuse but do not prohibit any of the torment inflicted on animals in connection with rodeo events. There is no requirement for humane euthanasia. It is also far from clear whether any of the rules are even enforced. Records of violations cited and penalties imposed, if any, are not public.

The only notable rules offered by PCRA are (1) spurs must be dulled and rowels cannot be locked; (2) "sore, lame, sick or injured" animals or those with "impaired eyesight" should not participate; (3) sharp objects can no longer be placed under the cinch, saddle girth, or flank strap, and (4) prods or other such devices cannot be used during the rodeo event itself. The sanction for violation of these rules is hardly a deterrent, maybe disqualification from a particular event or rodeo and a minimal fine. Assuming the rules are even enforced.

Note that the PCRA governs only at most a third of the rodeos in the U.S. There are other organizations such as the Professional Bull Riders, Inc.; Women’s Professional Rodeo Association and those for college and high school competitions that more or less have some of the same rules. 

In a famous quote, the late C.J. Haber, a veterinarian with 30 years experience as a USDA meat inspector in slaughterhouses observed, "The rodeo folk send their animals to the packing house where…I have seen cattle so extensively bruised that the only areas where the skin was attached [to the body] was the head, neck, legs, and belly. I have seen animals with six to eight ribs broken from the spine and at times puncturing the lungs". (The Humane Society of the United States, interview with C.G. Haber, D.V.M., Rossburg, Ohio, 1979.)

State laws

In Oklahoma there is no specific exemption for rodeos from animal cruelty laws. But it is apparently assumed these laws don’t apply to rodeos. Indeed the state authorizes the spending of taxpayer dollars on prison rodeos.  For more on the cruelty of these rodeos…..

In several states rodeo events are specifically exempted from animal cruelty or protection laws. The term "rodeo" is not always even defined, meaning the term could encompass a wide number of activities. Some states have adopted the PCRA rules. Alaska, Alaska Stat. § 11.61.140; Arkansas, 5-62-105 (new 2009 felony cruelty law exempts rodeos);Arizona, A.R.S. § 13-2910.06 Colorado, C.R.S. §§18-9-202, 19-2-918.5; Florida, Fla. Stat. § 15.0391 (designates the Silver Spurs Rodeo in Osceola County as an official state rodeo); Kansas, K.S.A. § 21-4310 (exempts rodeo practices accepted by the rodeo cowboys’ association); Illinois 510 ILCS 70/3.03-1  (It is illegal to "knowingly create, sell, market, offer to market or sell, or possess a depiction of animal cruelty" except rodeo events); Missouri, §578.007 R.S.Mo.  (exempts rodeo practices currently accepted by the Professional Rodeo Cowboy’s Association); Montana, Mont. Code §45-8-211 (exempts rodeo activities that meet humane standards of the professional rodeo cowboys association); Nebraska, R.R.S. Neb. § 28-1013, .01, .02; Nevada, Nev. Rev. Stat. §574.100; New Mexico, N.M. Stat. §30-18-1 (exempts the use of commonly accepted Mexican and American rodeo practices, unless otherwise prohibited by law); New York, NY CLS Agr & M § 351 (exempts rodeos from laws prohibiting fighting between animals or animals and people); North Dakota, N.D. Cent. Code, § 36-21.1-01 (exempts rodeos from animal cruelty laws); Oregon, ORS § 167.335; South Dakota, S.D. Codified Laws §§ 40-1-2.4, 1-6-16.8 (exempts accepted "use[s]" of livestock from animal cruelty laws and rodeo is the state sport); Virginia, 2 VAC 5-150-10 (excludes rodeos from laws regulating animal exhibitors); Washington, Rev. Code Wash. §16.52.185; and Wyoming, Wyo. Stat. §§6-3-203, 8-3-119 (exempts rodeos, the official state sport, from animal cruelty laws).  

Idaho Code § 25-3514 exempts from the state’s animal cruelty laws "exhibitions, competitions, activities, practices or procedures normally or commonly considered acceptable. The practices, procedures and activities described in this section shall not be construed to be cruel nor shall they be defined as cruelty to animals, nor shall any person engaged in these practices, procedures or activities be charged with cruelty to animals.

A 2008 Utah law, Utah Code §76-9-301 states that "a live, nonhuman vertebrate creature that is owned, kept, or used for rodeo purposes" is not an animal, "if the conduct toward the creature, and the care provided to the creature, is in accordance with accepted rodeo practices". Animals "owned, kept or used" for "rodeo purposes" are not protected by the state’s animal cruelty laws.

Iowa Code § 717D.3 exempts rodeos from its laws regulating animal contest events. Minnesota, Minn. Stat. § 346.155, exempts rodeos from its laws for regulated animals. Texas, Tex. Occ. Code § 2152.002 exempts rodeos from laws regulating circuses, carnivals and zoos.

California‘s recently approved Proposition 2, Cal Health & Saf Code § 25992, exempts animals used in rodeos. That law eliminates some factory farming abuses by giving pregnant pigs, hen laying eggs and veal calves some room to stretch their limbs fully and turn around. 

The Good News

Rhode Island, have laws regulating treatment of animals at rodeos. In California, a licensed veterinarian must be available during the rodeo, though can be an hour away. Veterinarians have the authority to declare an animal cannot "compete". "Any animal that is injured during the course of, or as a result of, any rodeo event shall receive immediate examination and appropriate treatment". Records of rodeo injuries must be kept. " The rodeo management shall ensure that no electric prod or similar device is used on any animal once the animal is in the holding chute, unless necessary to protect the participants and spectators of the rodeo."  Violations constitute an infraction punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 for a first offense and up to $5,000 for a second or subsequent violation. 

Bullfights are banned in California, and a violation is a misdemeanor. Cal. Pen. Code 597m.

The Rhode Island laws, R.I. Gen. Laws § 4-20-1-20-9 also require a licensed veterinarian to be available. A manager must be present during the rodeo.  Rhode Island bans participation by anyone previously convicted of animal cruelty as a result of being in a rodeo. 

Also, "[t]he roping of any calf in any rodeo is limited to breakaway calf roping, where the calf is released immediately after it is roped without the animal being subjected to a sudden stop or fall." R.I. Gen. Laws § 4-20-7  

Ohio law bans use of "twisted wire snaffles, unpadded bucking straps, unpadded flank straps, electric or other prods, or similar devices." ORC §959.20

Wisconsin, Wis. Stat. § 951.07, prohibits the use of "a bristle bur, tack bur or like device; or a poling device used to train a horse to jump which is charged with electricity or to which have been affixed nails, tacks or other sharp points".

St. Petersburg, Florida famously bans rodeos, the only jurisdiction in the U.S. to do so. §17-198.

In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, "[n]o rodeo or rodeo related event shall be permitted in which animals are induced or encouraged to perform through the use of any practice or technique, or any chemical, mechanical, electrical or manual device that will cause, or is likely to cause physical injury, torment or suffering. The following devices are specifically prohibited at all events: electric prods or shocking devices, flank or bucking straps, wire tie-downs, and sharpened or fixed spurs or rowels.". §635.04 Also, a licensed veterinarian must be present throughout the rodeo and has "complete and unilateral authority over the treatment and utilization of rodeo animals and/or livestock. In the event it is the decision of the veterinarian that an animal is unable to be utilized, that decision shall be communicated to the stock contractor for compliance." §635.07. A humane agent must be notified of all rodeos and be given access to the animals. §635.05-.06.

Baltimore prohibits "use of any chemical, mechanical, electrical, or manual device that is likely to cause physical injury or suffering." §10-407.

There are a few other smaller cities that have taken steps to limit suffering inflicted by rodeos. Some local jurisdictions are prohibited by state law from offering greater protections for animals, but to the extent it is possible, county or city governments can be a good place to start to stop the pain and suffering even just by banning electric prods or other devices or some events like calf roping.