Peter Fricker: Celebrities, principles, and animals

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      Animal lovers around the world have applauded the many music industry artists who have cancelled appearances at SeaWorld after the documentary Blackfish exposed the inhumane captivity of orca whales at the Florida marine park.

      Acts like the Barenaked Ladies (who led the way by cancelling first) have received high praise for taking a principled stand on animal welfare. Those that followed have received considerable positive publicity for their apparent high ethical standards.

      One of those acts, the veteran rock band Heart, recently explained their compassion for animals in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, in which the band’s Nancy Wilson states: “…when you look at the underbelly of rodeos and carnivals, these animals are tortured and neglected and forced to do things that are highly unnatural for their breeds for our entertainment. It’s really not fair.”

      It would be an inspiring expression of compassion if it weren’t for the fact that Heart is booked to appear at one of the biggest rodeos in North America, the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo, in February.

      Nancy Wilson apparently believes animals are “tortured” at rodeos yet she is going to be part of the entertainment featured at one. But she won’t appear at SeaWorld because of concerns about the orca whales.

      The reason for Wilson’s inconsistent application of principle is unknown. Is it because orca whales have more charisma than calves and steers? Or is it because there hasn’t been a Blackfish-style, blockbuster documentary putting the spotlight on rodeo cruelty? If there were, would we see artists from the music industry rushing to cancel rodeo appearances?

      Could the shocking truth be that celebrities’ business decisions are driven by profit, not principles?

      Which brings us to the recent announcement by Canadian icon Shania Twain that she will appear at this year’s Calgary Stampede.

      Twain is a vegetarian (reportedly for ethical reasons) and a well-known animal lover, with a passion for horses. Last December, she promoted her Las Vegas show with a video titled “The Love of Horses” in which she describes the “confidence and trust” that can exist between horses and humans.

      That same month, she appeared at the National Finals Rodeo (NFR), riding a horse into the rodeo arena. Videos released by a U.S. animal rights group have shown horses at the NFR being subjected to electric shocks on several occasions, including the December during which Twain was appearing at the rodeo.

      The use of electric shocks is in addition to the routine use of flank straps (tied around the horse’s hindquarters) and spurs that are used to make the horses buck.

      The Calgary Stampede, where Twain is scheduled to appear in July, is noted for its controversial chuckwagon race, in which more than 50 horses have died since 1986. In 2012, it emerged that the Stampede sends young, unwanted bucking horses to slaughter. Videos have also been released online showing horses at the Stampede being rammed with rods, slapped, and goaded to make them perform.

      Stampede events like calf-roping and steer-wrestling have also attracted criticism. Three-month-old calves are routinely chased, roped to a sudden halt, and thrown to the ground. Last year, a steer had its neck broken and had to be euthanized.

      Mainstream animal welfare groups, including the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies and the national SPCAs of the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom are opposed to rodeo because they have determined that it is inhumane. Even the Calgary Humane Society says it “fundamentally opposes high risk rodeo events like chuckwagon racing, calf-roping, and steer wrestling.”

      Apparently, none of this has convinced Twain that rodeo might be at odds with her own values, ethics, and professed love of animals. An online petition has been launched in an attempt to change her mind.

      Perhaps it is too much to expect that celebrities should set moral examples. They are, after all, just entertainers. But it would be nice if, when they espouse a set of values, they lived by them.



      Becky G

      Feb 6, 2014 at 11:24am

      “It’s a personal thing. I would never preach vegetarianism,” she said. This is a quote from Shania. I am sure she has personal experience with Rodeo as well. Dressage riders and show jumpers wear spurs as well, where are the protests for those sports? A sheep skin covered flank strap, much more comfortable than the girth my horse wears 5 days a week. These horses are trained just as my horse is trained. I wish VHS would stop with the sensationalism and rodeo. Don’t like it, don’t go. These animals unlike seaworld animals are bred for this sport, they aren’t ripped out of the wild, they are trained athletes.


      Feb 6, 2014 at 6:20pm

      Geez Peter, you seemed shocked that "celebrities' (people like you and me who have money and exposure) would be so crass as to make their decisions based on what's good for their bottom line. "Celebrities" are actually just businesses. Why people worship them and listen to what they have to say is beyond me.

      Mary Finelli

      Feb 6, 2014 at 9:28pm

      Anyone who thinks there is anything humane about rodeos should visit SharkOnline dot org. There isn't. The Stampede is even worse. Ms. Twain should know better - and probably does. Please sign the petition.

      Mr. Sane

      Feb 7, 2014 at 12:42am

      Actually, if you do some research, the Stampede is better than most rodeos. It does come down to a choice. Many of us choose to eat meat. Many meat-eaters choose farms or ranches where the animals have a life worth living. Check out what Temple Grandin said here:

      Eric Mills

      Feb 7, 2014 at 3:46pm

      Thanks for a provocative column, Mr. Fricker. Plenty of hypocrisy to go around.

      As you note, it's high time that the animal protection community underwrite a documentary to expose the horrors of the rodeo arena such as the film "BLACKFISH" did to expose the horrors of orcas and dolphins in captivity. Lord knows there's plenty of documentation available.

      Heartfelt thanks for your ongoing efforts to improve the plight of animals, both wild and domestic.

      Eric Mills, coordinator
      Oakland, CA


      Feb 7, 2014 at 6:15pm

      Glaring inconsistencies of some celebrities aside, none of us is pure. None of us, no matter how committed, moves through this world without eventually colliding with one reality or another that runs counter to the utmost welfare of animals. If Twain is an ethical vegetarian, but somehow hasn't made the connection with rodeo and cruelty, then so be it for now. She's at least moving in the right direction. I get tired of vegans one-upping vegetarians and animal rights one-upping animal welfare on the purity scale. One of the most brilliant strategists in the animal protection movement today, who is as close to "pure" as it gets in the real world, once told me that it takes "all comers" to help animals, regardless of where they are on the "rights" Richter scale. Animals need all the friends they can get. So ease up.