Peter Fricker: CBC shouldn't celebrate inauthentic and inhumane Calgary Stampede

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      By Peter Fricker

      Late last year, Britain’s public broadcaster, the BBC, sparked a nationwide controversy when it refused to broadcast the famous Crufts dog show because of animal welfare concerns. Crufts is a hugely popular national icon, attracting several million viewers. Yet the BBC, which had televised the show for 42 years, ended its contract and gave up its exclusive rights to broadcast the program.

      The reason for the corporation’s decision was one of its own television documentaries, which revealed that pedigree dogs are plagued by genetic disease due to decades of inbreeding for shows like Crufts. The result is widespread suffering among genetically damaged dogs.

      Faced with the facts, the BBC decided it could not support an event that compromised the welfare of animals. Though welcomed by animal advocacy groups and much of the public, the decision cost the corporation one of its most popular programs.

      Here in Canada, our national public broadcaster is taking a different approach to a controversial cultural icon. Last year, the CBC signed a three-year contract with the Calgary Stampede to broadcast the rodeo, declaring: “The Calgary Stampede is a wonderful, entertaining and authentic Canadian tradition that has special meaning for millions across the country.” During the 2008 Stampede, the CBC ran 90 hours of rodeo coverage “Celebrating Canada’s Western Heritage”.

      In fact, the Stampede has almost nothing “authentic” about it and has little to do with western heritage. Its founder, Guy Weadick, was an American vaudeville and Wild West show performer. He dreamt up the chuckwagon race for the Stampede in 1923. Real cowboys did not race chuckwagons. Nor did they ride bulls (why would they?) or wrestle steers. Steer-wrestling was created in the 1930s by yet another American Wild West show entertainer. Most other events are distortions of ranching practices—no one ever timed a cowboy’s work and handed out huge sums of money for being the fastest.

      The truth is that the Stampede has always been falsely promoted as western heritage—first by vaudevillian showmen, then by marketing executives, and now by the CBC. The Calgary Stampede as western heritage is not just a myth. It’s a lie.

      But what does it matter? So what if the Stampede is just sensational entertainment masquerading as the history of the Old West. Where’s the harm?

      The harm lies in rodeo’s brutalization of animals for the sake of human amusement. Virtually every animal welfare organization in Canada opposes rodeo, including the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies and the Humane Society of Canada. So do the SPCAs of Britain, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. The very agencies empowered to protect animals from cruelty have determined that rodeo is inhumane. Unlike the CBC, they don’t think rodeo is “wonderful”.

      Yet, Canadian SPCAs are almost powerless to protect rodeo animals. Canadian law in effect exempts the treatment of farm animals from most cruelty provisions, even when they are used for mere entertainment.

      So legally little can be done to stop the inhumane treatment of rodeo animals. Only an informed public debate could generate the shift in public opinion necessary to challenge rodeo.

      It is a debate the CBC might have started if, like the BBC, it had examined its corporate conscience and questioned the morality of rodeo and its claims on our heritage. Instead, it became a public relations agency for the Stampede.

      The CBC defended its promotion of the Stampede in a letter to the Vancouver Humane Society, arguing that it is “popular with millions of Canadians”. But popularity is not a measure of morality.

      In 1906, a New York zoo put an African tribesman on public display. A crowd of 40,000 people lined up to see him. A New York Times editorial dismissed protests against the exhibition: “We do not quite understand all the emotion which others are expressing in the matter....It is absurd to make moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation Benga is suffering.”

      Sensational events, from medieval bull-baiting to19th-century freak shows, have always drawn crowds. Public executions used to be popular—the last one in the United States took place in 1936, attended by 20,000 people.

      What does change, over time, are public attitudes on morality—but only when they are informed by cultural institutions willing to scrutinize and confront the societal norms of the day.

      Like the New York Times’ blasé response in 1906 to putting a human being in a zoo, the CBC has chosen to act as a creature of its time, without the courage, imagination, or critical thinking to challenge the status quo.

      Peter Fricker is the projects and communications director for the Vancouver Humane Society.




      Jul 2, 2009 at 4:12pm

      There is nothing traditional about blatant animal abuse and CBC certainly should know better than to promote cruelty in the name of entertainment. Defenseless animals are kicked, punched, electrocuted, roped, injured and even killed in rodeos by grown men in front of thousands of spectators. Just because violence towards farm animals is considered "traditional" doesn't mean that CBC ought to promote violence. What if dog fighting were a tradition in Canada, would CBC choose to promote that too?

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      Pro Canada

      Jul 2, 2009 at 5:06pm

      Rodeo is not blatant animal abuse. Rodeo animals are well treated and cared for. I would look at sports like football, and inhumane treatment of young gymnasts before I would attack rodeo. They do not use stock prods, and rodeo animals are treated like the stars they are. You really don't know what your are talking about JoanneChang


      Jul 2, 2009 at 5:26pm

      Fantastic article. I've been an Old West enthusiast for years and know that there's nothing remotely traditional about rodeo. Kudos to the VHS for condemning this embarrassing spectacle of animal abuse.

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      Native Calgarian

      Jul 2, 2009 at 7:41pm

      This writer knows nothing about ranching traditions in the west. Today, calves are still roped, horses are still broken (and I don't mean hit or whipped), cowboys still race to determine who's faster or better. The animals in the Stampede are so unbelieveably pampered. I think you city folk
      should live on a ranch for a few months to see what life in the country is really like.

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      Phillip Martin

      Jul 2, 2009 at 7:42pm

      Alberta has sustained remote negative comments on its energy resource, the oilsands, and now is receiving more dumb comments about an event that is well controlled and humane by distant "experts" who have their own agendas.
      Sorry folks, in Alberta we wear steel toe caps to church, not TOO-TOOS like you lefties.


      Jul 2, 2009 at 9:19pm

      We here in Alberta love to watch horses get killed every year in wagon racing. We like the snap of the rope that upends the calf. We like our girls to smile and not think. We here in Alberta think children must have a mother at home, working, unpaid. We think it's ok to shoot anyone who steals our property. We are proud to give away our resources with very little in return for our children. We Albertans think we know the difference between what ought to be taught to our children and what not to teach. We live in one of the richest places in the world and we still can't understand why those 40,000+ homeless people just can't get a job. We love our $80,000 pickups that cost $150.00 to fill. We do hate organized labour (unless it's police, fire or military). We think it's ok for those who have to get medical help before those who don't. We think long term sustainability is socialist thinking, and gas rebate are just common sense. We fought long and hard to keep homosexuals from working with kids or matrimony. We think Quebec, and anything east of our province can go sit on it.

      Alberta, the intellectual armpit of Canada.
      Now shoot, shovel and shut up.

      Pro Albertan

      Jul 2, 2009 at 9:25pm

      Go Fricker yourself!


      Jul 2, 2009 at 10:07pm

      This is a brilliant article that expresses what I've felt for decades growing up in Calgary being forced to experience the Stampede. As a child, I knew something wasn't right about watching these animals being whipped, prodded, slammed against the ground, and cinched to the point where they can barely breathe. It took me years to understand that the concept of the rodeo as entertainment is simply a prepackaged marketing ploy which has fooled many.
      I don't think this is a "left" or "right" argument. It is the simple question of: would you trade places with these animals?

      To the advocates of the rodeo who claim the animals are well-treated: would you choose a lifetime of confinement in which your only release is being used (roughly - to the point where you may become injured and die)?
      If you find yourselves thinking: "well, I'd rather not," then consider that the animals may feel just like you.

      Roger Clarke

      Jul 2, 2009 at 10:33pm

      I guess "pampered" means something else in Alberta-ese. Something along the lines of "terrorized & abused into performing". Remind me how they get the bulls & broncos to buck? And why they stop bucking as soon as the strap is removed? Oh, and why animals keep dying in rodeos--I'm sure they're actually just exploding with joy.

      Come to the stampede, where our new slogan is: "No, really, those baby cows *like* being violently jerked to a halt by a rope around their neck & then slammed to the ground."

      Alison C.

      Jul 3, 2009 at 3:04am

      The rodeo is a disgusting form of "entertainment", as the CBC calls it. Shame on them, and thank you, Peter, for writing a logical commentary on the subject. If all of these world SPCAs and Humane Societies deem the rodeo as being cruel to animals, then that's something to be duly noted.