Rodeos: Cultural Heritage Or Animal Abuse?

Jul 3, 2019

The Reno Rodeo wrapped up its centennial anniversary last weekend. Though the cultural history of the event is alive and 100 years strong, animal rights groups question if this sport is abusive to animals and if it's still acceptable in today’s society. Holly Hutchings has this report.

Cindy Rosser grinds up an anti-inflammatory pill for her 15-year-old horse, Commanchero. She mixes the dusty residue into a bowl of senior feed, which has been carefully dialed in by a nutritionist.

“We test our feed at home that we mix at home to make sure we get the right protein and, you know, all the nutrients they need,” she said.

Rosser’s family has been coming to the Reno Rodeo since about the late '50s as participants. They’ve been bringing livestock with their company, The Flying U, for nearly the same length of time. They’re one of the stock contractors that provide the big animals, such as broncos and bulls. This year, they brought six truckloads.

She says she loves these animals and that the care they give in feeding them well shows her level of concern. According to Rosser, this is a side of the rodeo that naysayers don’t see.

“They think that these animals are abused to buck," Rosser said. "If an animal's hurt, the instinct is to flight, to run. so they aren't being hurt. They're bred to buck. We breed the best mares to the best bucking stud, and that's what they're bred for. Nobody else would really want to ride them.”

When it is time to go to work, Rosser says many of these animals work mere minutes a year professionally. She says if they’ve worked one rodeo, they’ll sit the next one out. At the Reno Rodeo, animal athletes are cared for by two veterinarians on site. Dr. Kristi Stone is one of them. She says they see some injuries that occur during the transport between rodeos but not a lot from the performances themselves.

“There's always little things, these horses that are on the road all the time," Stone said. "So, lacerations that they may get on their way here or they might slip on the concrete. And then during the performances we're very lucky. We try and minimize as much as we can any risks to the animals that are out there.”

Dr. Stone says it goes back to cultural heritage. “You know, we don't rope calves just because we can see if we hurt them," Stone said. "That's not the point of it at all. It comes back to doctoring them in the field, treating them when you're out on pasture, that kind of thing. And, yes, we are doing it for sport now, but we really try and mitigate those things by making sure the calves are appropriately sized and that, that they're healthy before we go out there.”

The PRCA, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, that puts on the Reno Rodeo, has over 60 rules in place, they say, to ‘ensure the proper care and treatment of rodeo animals.’ They include things like making sure safe transport for the animals is provided and prohibiting the use of prods. Also, athletes are not permitted to “jerk down” on the rope when calf roping.

“Implementing rules about how you're supposed to jerk on the rope or anything like that is really just a small bandaid on a bigger problem," said Chris Berry, a senior staff attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund. "It's hard to enforce those rules. And even with rules like that in place, at the end of the day, it's still fundamentally an event that requires a lot of physical contact and, and potential for trauma with animals.”

The Animal Legal Defense Fund says it files lawsuits to protect animals from harm, as well as providing free legal advice and training. The Fund has previously sued the Salinas Rodeo, but the case was dismissed on procedural grounds. KUNR also reached out to the ASPCA (The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) and the Humane Society. Both organizations provided statements saying the rodeo inflicts pain on animals for sport, and is, therefore, inhumane. 

Berry echoes those sentiments and says that rodeos cause unnecessary harm.

“While I don't doubt that they have a veterinarian on standby...the veterinarian is treating those animals for injuries that there's no reason for them to have endured in the first place," Berry said. "And sometimes proper veterinary care means euthanizing an animal, so to claim that animal well-being is the primary concern or that having a veterinarian on the ground at these events somehow justifies that, or makes everything okay for the animal, is simply preposterous.”

The Animal Legal Defense Fund has no current or planned rodeo lawsuits, and this year, there were no protesters at the Reno Rodeo.