[First published on Vacay.ca]
HANNA, ALBERTA — Dr. Greg Evans pats Grated Coconut on the neck and nods. “This is the Wayne Gretzky of rodeo,” says the veterinarian who works at the Calgary Stampede Ranch, a 22,000-acre property that sprawls across the golden fields of southern Alberta and is home to 500 of the finest horses on the continent. Evans is in charge of taking care of Grated Coconut, a six-time world champion bucking stallion, and the other animals on the ranch, which sends the bulls, bucking broncos, chuckwagon-race thoroughbreds and other animals to the rodeo each year.
As Evans pets Grated Coconut, he marvels at the horse’s disposition. “You can’t go up to most bucking horses like this, especially ones that compete at the level that Grated Coconut did. But this one is special.”
Grated Coconut was retired in 2010 at a special ceremony. At 15, he will spend the rest of his life roaming the pasture near Drumheller in Alberta’s Badlands, breeding with several mares on the ranch and being spoiled with some of the best animal healthcare around. It’s star treatment that is well deserved for the thrills the horse brought to rodeo fans.
“I’m not exaggerating when I say the animals here get better care than many people’s children,” says Evans.
Whether it’s top-of-the-line medicine or even therapeutic massages, the horses and bulls receive it if the vets think they need it. Some even find a home away from the ranch. Champion bull rider Scott Schiffner now keeps two of the animals that he once rode to big paydays on his property. They’re so docile in retirement, he says, that his four-year-old daughter feeds them.
Despite such examples of adoration, the Stampede attracts heavy scrutiny each year from animal-rights groups. Last year, two horses died despite rules changes implemented to reduce risk of catastrophic injuries. In 2010, six horses were put down and more than 50 have perished since 1986, mostly in the chuckwagon races, which feature teams of horses leading conestoga-style wagons around the track at Stampede Park in a mayhem of hoofs, reins, and “yahs.” Tie-down roping, also known as calf roping, has fallen under even greater criticism because of what opponents say is the torment imposed on the animals.
“In the case of calf roping, you have a three-month-old animal goaded out of a shoot, chased in an arena, roped by a cowboy, and thrown to the ground. It’s obvious in our view that that animal is being subjected to fear and purely for entertainment purposes,” says Peter Fricker, the Vancouver Humane Society’s communications officer. “Fear is as much a problem as pain to those animals. Science has shown that prey animals feel fear acutely.”
ANIMAL RIGHTS ACTIVISTS AND THE CALGARY STAMPEDE
As the Stampede gears up for its 100th year, the criticism is more fierce than usual and has started early, with the first salvo coming from Bob Barker. The former “Price Is Right” host shot out harsh comments in February about what he says is animal cruelty practiced at the rodeo. In return, rodeo participants said Barker and other critics don’t understand the sport or the nature of the events.
“I see injuries happen all the time that have nothing to do with rodeo. These animals are athletes. They will run fast, it’s in their nature, and sometimes they will fall,” Evans says. “Those injuries can occur in an arena or they can happen out on the open range with no one around.”
Evans grew up wanting to be a vet and now spends many days on the stunning ranch nearly three hours outside of Calgary. His concern for the animals and reverence for them is clear in the manner in which he interacts with Grated Coconut and others. Schiffner, too, insists the animals he works with enjoy participating and the competition.
“I think if the people who are critics would visit the ranch and spend time with the animals and see the care they receive then they would understand more about the sport,” says the former Professional Bull Riders Canadian champion who has suffered two broken legs in competition and other injuries he calls minor.
Fricker, who hasn’t visited a rodeo ranch, says he is confident the animals do receive substantial care and are well treated in retirement. The concern of animal-rights groups is the action that takes place inside a stadium.
“Our issue is with the performance itself. Of course, they’ll often say they will treat the animals like they do family. Not to be facetious, but unless I see a cowboy chase his grandmother across an arena and rope her I don’t think it’s the same as family,” Fricker says. “You just wouldn’t do that to something or someone you cared about in terms of their welfare.”
RODEO EVENTS AT THE CALGARY STAMPEDE
The Stampede features six primary rodeo events — tie-down/calf roping, steer wrestling, bareback riding, saddle bronc riding, bull riding, and ladies barrel racing — as well as novice events. (The chuckwagon races are part of the nightly grandstand attraction at Stampede Park.) With $2 million in prize money at stake, it’s one of the richest rodeos in the world.
“The analogy I’d make is that a race car driver wouldn’t put his expensive race car at risk if he truly loved the car, but of course they do and they do it because it’s worthwhile, it’s money. They put these animals at risk because it is lucrative business,” Fricker says.
With a showcase of rodeo attractions and mainstream entertainment that quite possibly will make it the hottest draw in North America this summer, the 100th Calgary Stampede is expected to draw more than 1.2 million visitors. The rodeo will go on despite the criticism and it will be introduced to new spectators. Some will be turned off. Others may simply shrug at the sight of animals under stress.
Whether some aspects of the rodeo are barbaric or brutal will continue to be debated until the event starts on July 6 and afterwards, too. It’s to the credit of the organizers and the city that the Stampede has managed to flourish despite negative press. Long ago, the Stampede turned into a spectacle that was much more than just a rodeo. From headline entertainment to fun fashion and a party atmosphere that has become legendary, the Stampede can be enjoyed without ever watching a chuckwagon circle a track.
However, the stars of the show, as everyone agrees, have been the animals. The Stampede has reached the century mark in part because it has made it a mandate to protect the four-legged performers involved and arguably does more for animal care than any other rodeo.
“The last thing anyone wants to see is an animal get injured or worse,” Evans says. “We do everything in our power to make sure that doesn’t happen. When people come to the ranch, I think they realize that these are athletes. They’re animals that want to compete.”