Despite our reluctance to let go of the frontier mythology, rodeos have as much relevance for the 21st century as do stagecoaches. Though they originated as a legitimate display of working cowboys' skills, today's rodeos have deteriorated into nothing more than money-making enterprises for "cowboys" who spend more time flying from one venue to another than they do riding what's left of the open range.
Faux cowpokes aside, rodeos help maintain the fiction that animals exist for our pleasure to be used as entertainment--or for any other purpose--we desire. But the most compelling reason to relegate rodeos to history's slag pile is the pain and harm visited on the animals who are unwilling participants in assorted displays of bravado.
Promoters claim the horses, calves and bulls used for rodeo events are well cared for. Yet a rule of the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association states, "No stock shall be confined or transported in vehicles for a period beyond 24 hours without being properly fed, watered and unloaded." So even if the rule is followed--and there is nothing to say it will be other than an individual's moral sense--confined animals can go without food and water while wallowing in their own waste for 24-hour periods. If parents did this to an infant, they would be charged with child abuse.
Animals suffer during the events as well. Since there would not be much of a show if the involuntary performers placidly milled around the arena, assorted tools of torment are used in order to provoke the animals into crowd-pleasing mania.
A tightly cinched flank strap or rope is fitted around the abdomens of horses and bulls in order to provoke the requisite bucking behavior. Since the strap is painful (imagine an excruciatingly tight band around your midsection), the animals buck in a futile attempt to free themselves from the source of the pain. If spurring is used in conjunction with a flank strap, animals will buck more vigorously, thus increasing the possibility of serious injury or even death.
In order to get them agitated and ensure a better performance, painful electric prods are used on cattle and horses while the animals are still in the chutes. "Bovines are more susceptible to electrical current than other animals," according to a veterinarian quoted by an animal-rights organization. Which means cows suffer disproportionately from the prods.
What was once known as the calf-roping event, but now sanitized to "tie-down roping," subjects calves no more than six months old to a litany of cruelty. It starts while the young cattle are still in their pens. There they are poked and prodded by handlers in order to ensure they will bolt from the gate at a high speed when they are released.
Once in the arena, the calves are lassoed around the neck, a practice resulting in their heads twisting backwards as the animals come to an abrupt stop. Sometimes, their entire bodies are wrenched backwards before they are slammed to the ground to have their legs tied.
In all fairness to rodeo, barrel racing is a fairly benign activity where human (usually female) and horse are working in concert rather than in opposition. A simple event, the horse is ridden as quickly as possible around a pattern of barrels. Since a good barrel-racing horse can cost many thousands of dollars, they likely are better cared for than other rodeo animals whose eventual fate is the slaughterhouse.
Still, it is impossible to understand how rodeo, a pursuit largely dependant on the pain and subjugation of animals, can call itself a sport. The notion of sportsmanlike behavior implies conduct informed by standards of fairness and at least an attempt at parity. That's why there are rules delineating the parameters of competition. We don't allow 300-pound men to box 125-pound women, for example.
But when it comes to animals, we conveniently conclude the rules don't apply. Each time we take our children to a rodeo or a circus, or any event where animals are treated as objects to be exploited, we are sending a clear message: Animals have no intrinsic right to life; their value is measured by their usefulness to humans; and they are expendable commodities easily replaced.
The rodeo is over for this year, but it will be back. It will continue to draw crowds and imperil animals unless and until the spectators filling the stands decide there are better ways to spend their time and money.