5 Feb 2017

Insight: Rodeo - A Dusty Feud

From Insight, 8:12 am on 5 February 2017

Graphic footage of the treatment of animals in rodeos has re-ignited calls to ban the sport. The Government insists rodeos are here to stay, but some animal activists say, at a minimum, young animals should not be involved.

A metal chute opens and a calf runs at full speed across the sand-pit arena chased by a mounted cowboy.

This is the rope and tie event - one of the mainstays of every rodeo and the most controversial.

The animal gets a lead of several metres, before the rider chases it with a lasso, catching it by the neck and pulling it to an abrupt halt.

The cowboy dismounts, turns the calf to the ground and ties its legs together before releasing it after six seconds.

Young riders also use the young animals. 

As the government rejects calls to ban rodeos in New Zealand, animal welfare activists say, at the very least, using calves in rodeos should be stopped.

The Labour Party has since committed to banning the use of animals under 12 months, if elected.

Rodeo, though, is a relatively popular sport.

The New Zealand Rodeo Cowboys Association has 31 member clubs, which hold more than 30 rodeos throughout the country. It is aware of the negative publicity the rope and tie brings to the sport.

The arena at the Warkworth

The arena at the Warkworth Showgrounds Photo: RNZ/Paloma Migone

At the Warkworth Rodeo, north of Auckland, on New Year's Day, the rope and tie event was first thing in the morning - two hours before the public was due to arrive. The competition was reportedly held first at the Taupo rodeo.

Warkworth Rodeo Club president Tom Whiteford said it was because some may think the event was "a bit unfair" on the animals.

Rodeo Cowboys Assocation's spokesman Gary Jackson said controversy was not the only reason behind the competition being the first of the day.

"We have it for two reasons," Mr Jackson said. "The first is so it can be done when it's cool, and the second, is not to keep it out of the public eye, but [to have it] over and done with."

When asked why he did not scrap the rope and tie from rodeos, he said it was a standard event and there was no evidence to support a ban.

Gary Jackson is the spokesperson for the NZ Rodeo Cowboys Association

Gary Jackson is the spokesperson for the NZ Rodeo Cowboys Association Photo: RNZ/Paloma Migone

He said the calves were "robust", about five to six months old and weighed in excess of 120 kilograms.

The animals were worth about $500, so "nobody messes around with that capital either", he said.

The animal activist group Safe and the Anti-Rodeo Action New Zealand have released videos of rodeos throughout the country and said calves - like other animals in rodeo - were put under stress.

In a video of what they say is the Mid-Northern Rodeo, a rider can be seen missing a calf's neck, instead catching it by the front legs. The animal somersaults in mid-air. Its head nearly touches its back.

In a video released to Insight by SAFE/Farmwatch from the Kakahi Rodeo, near Lake Taupo, calves can be heard making noises when caught and the whites of their eyes are on display - a feature that could be seen as sign of stress or anxiety.

SAFE's chief executive Jasmijn de Boo said the code of welfare was not protecting the animals. The event was "unbelievably unfair".

"[The calf] just wants to be with their mother and runs away in fear and gets roped, yanked off their feet and twisted.

"They really seriously injure themselves and are frightened. These animals are actually prey animals and want to be in herds ... they want to get away from danger and harm."

Calf-roping at the Huntly Rodeo 2013

Calf-roping at the Huntly Rodeo 2013 Photo: Anti-Rodeo Action

The SPCA, the New Zealand Veterinary Association and the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC) have expressed concern about the use of calves in the sport.

NAWAC is tasked with giving independent advice to the Minister for Primary Industries, Nathan Guy.

There are 18 codes of welfare covering different animals and activities. NAWAC updated the rodeo code in 2014. 

In it, the committee said it continued to "hold welfare concerns for the use of animals in rodeo and, in particular, events using calves". 

"The committee is aware that rodeo events using calves have been banned in a number of countries due to the perceived physical and psychological stresses that they place on the animals."

The code says best practice is to not use calves in rodeos before setting minimum standards on how to use them, including not having any contestant who drags, busts or causes a calf an unnecessary amount of pain or distress disqualified.

The codes of welfare are not legally enforceable, meaning those who breach it face no penalties. Any prosecution would fall under the Animal Welfare Act, which has a much higher threshold.

However, the Ministry of Primary Industries has been given new powers, which would allow it to create additional regulations and issue compliance notices.

Three new rules still being reviewed apply to rodeo, including banning the use of electric prods on animals under 100kg. Minimum standards in the code recommend no animals under 100kg should be used.

According to the ministry, an investigation into complaints about rodeo last year led to the rodeo association scrapping the need for the calf to be roped for six seconds.

The Rodeo Cowboys Association confirmed this, but SAFE/Farmwatch's video from Kakahi Rodeo appears to show the rule still in place.

Callum Irvine, from the Veterinary Association, which represents about 75 per cent of vets, said opinion on rodeos among members was mixed, but it was worried about the use of young animals.

Callum Irvine, NZVA Head of Veterinary Services

Callum Irvine, NZVA Head of Veterinary Services Photo: SUPPLIED

"They are less experienced. There is a concern that the fear and stress associated in using them may not be justified anymore," he said. "We would like to see it re-evaluated."

The SPCA agrees. Its chief scientific officer, Arnja Dale, said it was time to increase regulation around the use of calves in rodeo.

"Calf roping is banned in a number of countries and the reason it's banned is because of the physiological and physical stress that is put on to these vulnerable animals. It's the least we can do as a nation."

The use of calves is banned in the United Kingdom and in the states of Victoria and South Australia.

The research behind rope and tie in rodeo - and whether it's harmful to the animal - has been described as scarce and conflicting.

Since the code was last updated a study by Australia's Queensland University - commissioned by the rodeo association in Australia - found calves used in rodeo showed signs of stress.

Its author, Clive Phillips, said the study showed an increase in stress hormone in experienced calves that were tied and younger animals that were walked across the arena.

"We observed that all the calves that were picked up and dropped displayed an eye roll, where the eye rolls backwards and they can't see," he said.

"This is believed to be a stress response. Indeed, we think the dropping of the calf actually stuns the calf so it makes it easier for the cowboy to tie the legs."

A chute that is used for calf roping

A chute that is used for calf roping Photo: RNZ/Paloma Migone

The findings contrast with another study in 2003, for the then-Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, which used different measures. That study concluded there were no adverse effects as a result of calf roping.

Dr Dale said evidence-based decision making was important, but the animals could not be put through further stress until more research was done.

"In this specific case of rodeos, I think it goes beyond research. It goes to what we as a society accept and whether or not we are able to provide animals with a life worth living."

NAWAC is reviewing the use of animals in entertainment, including rodeo events, but a decision has not been made on whether calf roping will be part of that.

Nathan Guy has already ruled out completely banning rodeos, but said there may be changes in calf roping with time.

"That's something where there might be a change in due course. That would obviously come through NAWAC with other evidence when they have another look at it," he said.

Labour's animal welfare spokesman, Trevor Mallard, is keen to ban electric prods, flank straps and the use of animals under 12 months old.

"When someone gets what is effectively a baby animal and causes them an enormous amount of stress, it is clearly wrong and cruel," he said.

"I mean, 120kg versus a man of similar weight and a horse, to me, doesn't seem like fair sport."

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