It may surprise you to know that I’ve always wanted to go to the Calgary Stampede. I’ve never been even though it takes place every year in July and I’m only three provinces away from Alberta. Of course, were I to go today, I don’t think I would enjoy it very much. But I can still understand why people get excited about it: the crowds, the food, the music, the animals and of course, the cowboy hats.
The Calgary Stampede has been around since 1912 and prior to then it was a regular agricultural fair which started in 1886. It attracts millions of visitors each year and is steeped in tradition and is considered to be a part of Canadian culture and heritage.
The huge draw of the Stampede is of course, the rodeo. There is also chuckwagon racing, calf roping, steer wrestling, sheep shearing challenges, cutting horse (where a rider and their horse separate a cow, usually a steer or a heifer, away from the cattle herd and try to “win” by keeping it away for as long as possible), horse pulls and various other forms of contests.
All of these types of events are promoted as sport, tradition or skilled contests. Many of them are also very dangerous, for both the rider and the animals. A chuckwagon horse named Denny died at the Stampede on Tuesday of this week during a training exercise. The driver, Tim Haroldson, was also thrown from the wagon and had to be taken to the hospital. According to an article from Wednesday, Denny was a retired racing horse and he collapsed during a run from a ruptured aorta near one of his kidneys. As Dr. Gord Atkins from the University of Calgary’s veterinary school explained to reporters about Denny, this is due to a common parasite found in horses that damages their blood vessels until it causes an aneurysm which results in massive blood loss and death.
The article links to an article from the Calgary Harold, published the day before Denny died and is quick to point out that only 61 horses have died in the last 28 years of the Stampede and that is after thousands of races – far more horses die on race tracks each year. My response to that is that the Calgary Stampede is only a 10-day event not a year-round one as horse racing is. Were the Stampede year round, then the number would of course be higher.
There have been many recommendations over the years from organizations like the Vancouver Humane Society, the Calgary Humane Society and the Vancouver Animal Defense League to improve the safety conditions of both the animals and riders. It’s been a slow and strained process, as you can imagine. Immersed in tradition, the Stampede sees proposed changes to these events as a threat to their identity.
Here’s the thing about tradition: we humans cling to them, even when they no longer make sense or serve any larger purpose. Most puzzling is even when those traditions clearly involve the stress and potential harm or death to someone else, we continue to cling, often more tightly. Whether it’s serving turkey at Thanksgiving, eating ham at Easter, running with the bulls in Spain, clubbing seals in Canada or racing horses and riding bulls at the Calgary Stampede, we insist that these activities are what make the events special and therefore necessary. So often we keep doing things simply because that’s what we’ve always done.
The rationale behind tradition is that it also serves to make us unique from other cultures, countries or religions and is therefore essential to our identity. And yet, when others join us in those traditions, we celebrate the shared experience. It’s a strange paradox – we want to be different and be seen as such and yet we want others to share in our traditions so we can ultimately be united.
I’ve no doubt that most of the millions of people who participate in and attend the Calgary Stampede consider themselves to be animal lovers and proud Canadians. The people who participate in the Stampede in whatever capacity are not evil and mean people. But, at the heart of anything where animals are essentially used for the entertainment and amusement of humans, one of the ways we rationalize these actions is by calling it tradition. At the heart of these ongoing chuckwagon and calf roping events is the undeniable belief that animals are beneath us in some way and therefore free to use as we please. We need to collectively think beyond those assumptions – immediately. After all, a baby cow does not know they’re in a show. All they know is that they’re being chased by a horse in a loud and jarring arena by someone with a rope. A sheep does not know they’re in a competition; they only know that they are being roughly thrown to the ground while someone holds their legs and shaves all their fleece off. A horse does not know they’re in a race; they only know that they are being commanded to run very fast around a dirt track dragging a wagon filled with people. A bull does not know he’s in a rodeo; he only knows that he has been made agitated and is threatened by the person harnessed to his back. These creatures do not know that what is being done to them is part of “tradition”. Nor can they be reassured that we really mean them no harm or that no harm will come to them. All they know is that they have travelled a great distance to get there, they are in an unfamiliar place, their surroundings are noisy and unpredictable and the overwhelming presence of humans is a tremendous threat to them. A threat of which they have no means to escape from.
It’s time to start seeing tradition from the point of view of the animals we’re so insistent be a part of it. There are other ways to appreciate animals and teach traditions without reenacting the terror and confusion that accompanies our history. No one is asking that the Calgary Stampede be shut down; they are being asked that it change with the times to reflect a new tradition of humanity and animal protections. It’s simply not a good enough reason anymore to keep doing things just because that’s what we’ve always done. Historical events that involve subjecting another living being to stress and suffering should only be remembered, not recreated and celebrated.