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.