The rodeo is violent but does that make it wrong?
At a week-long festival that advertises itself as the greatest outdoor show on earth, the rodeo is the main event. There are other things at the Calgary Stampede too—possibly safe carnival rides, fried foods stuffed will other fried foods, games in which you spend $40 to win something worth $4, fireworks—but I think people are probably more interested to watch a 160-pound cowboy climb atop a 1800-pound animal. In any case I was.
I don’t know very much about rodeo. Before I went for the first time last year I had a vague interest in bull riding but knew little more than a few random bits of trivia. Like for example, I heard that the rope the cowboy holds onto is fastened to the bull’s genitals. The harder the bull bucks, the harder the cowboy has to hang on which, in turn, tightens the rope, causing the bull greater discomfort so he bucks even harder. Makes sense right? Turns out this is a myth.
My university roommate, who we’ll call Tuf (after Tuf Cooper, a real cowboy whose real name was spelled with a single “f”), had transferred to the city earlier in the year to work as a manager for a company that shall remain nameless. He offered to host. I got in late one night in the middle of the week at which point we headed straight to a pub around the corner from his apartment. We caught up on the basic stuff—his soon-to-be-ex but now-current girlfriend, the zoo that was the American presidential race—while the highlights from the day’s rodeo played in the background.
“How do they get them to buck like that?” he asked, not really expecting an answer. I told him about the testicle rope so I could then tell him it was untrue and went on to explain the rules: The rider climbs atop a bull, which locked in a tiny enclosure, and lashes his hand to the bull such that the hand doesn’t always come out when he gets bucked off. When the gate opens the rider has to stay on for at least eight seconds to be eligible for a score. Half the score is awarded based on how well he has ridden (posture, poise, etc.), the other half is based on how “rank” the bull gets. The harder he is to ride, the more points awarded.
In the top tier of this sport, the bulls are bred to be nearly impossible to ride, and I have seen them do things that should be impossible for a creature of that size. There is no testicle rope or other cruel methods of man that can make these animals do what they do.
I went to my first rodeo expecting to be emotionally shaken by what I saw. I thought it would be a sort of self-reckoning, motivated by the same forces that drove me—someone who can barely stomach the prospect of gutting a deer but gets unnaturally excited to eat it—to go hunting for the first time. I wasn’t about to go drinking for four days straight in a cowboy hat and more denim than any human being should ever wear at once without witnessing the games at the heart of the city-wide bacchanal.
But I also knew that many people do not like the rodeo. Even the description of several events sound inhumane. Calf-roping, for example, requires a cowboy to chase down a young calf on horseback, sling a rope around its neck while it’s still at a dead sprint, and then slam it into the ground to tie its four legs together. Steer wrestling is similar except the cowboy jumps off a moving horse onto the young bull’s horns and twists it into the ground (see photo supra). The chuckwagon events, which are basically modern chariot races, are also famously dangerous though not as objectively bothersome to watch as the other two.
But I saw all of these things and, to be totally honest, they didn’t trouble me the way I thought they would. I became sort of obsessed with trying to understand why.
On day of the rodeo the rain was coming down hard and cold—like a bone-deep cold, which was particularly upsetting because it was July. We asked someone assembling hamburgers at a deserted stretch of food stands whether there was any chance the rodeo might get cancelled today. She said she doubted it.
“Cowboys are tough,” she said.
“What about the animals?” I asked.
“That’s the only reason they might. If it’s too slippery for them to run, they could break their legs. I don’t think it’s that bad though,” she said in complete earnestness while staring through a curtain of rain. Tuf tried to light about three cigarettes under his poncho which was tucked up under his cowboy hat. Each one was sopping wet by the time he fished his lighter out of his pocket. But she was right, the events were not cancelled. So we sat shivering in the open-air stadium through the whole goddamn thing, clutching beers in our numb fingers like idiots.
The show began with some lighthearted banter between the two commentators and the rodeo clown. Then the calf roping started. The very first cowboy caught his calf less than five steps out of the gate, dismounted, dropped the animal in the mud and tied him up, all less than six seconds. It was, in complete sincerity, one of the most impressive athletic displays I’ve ever seen. After a few seconds in the mud, the calf was untied and it popped up and trotted off to the gate on the far side of the arena.
Even when the cowboys struggled, twisting the calves into all manner of unnatural positions, the animals always seemed to react the same way. That is, they didn’t react very much at all. They were smaller than the cowboys, but they were hardy little fuckers and they seemed fully capable of withstanding even the clumsiest attempts to pull them down.
One of the primary arguments against these events is that you’d never choke slam a kitten or sling a rope around a puppy’s neck so why on earth would you do it to a baby bull? This is a dumb thing to say. Setting aside the physical differences, rodeo animals occupy a totally different space in our cultural imagination. If the day ever comes when a butcher in this part of the world can sell kitten chops without parades of people hitting the street with placards and megaphones, we can revisit this argument.
Still, I understand that my personal feelings after attending a single day of rodeo is not necessarily the best barometer of the ethical implications of these activities.
Between 1986 and 2012 nearly 90 animals have died at the Calgary Stampede, mostly as a direct result of injuries sustained during the chuckwagon and the steer/calf events. And there are thousands of rodeos that happen regularly throughout the Americas. I also think the anti-rodeo crowd—many members of which have been all too eager to rush to the defense of rodeo animals, using cuddlier pets as rhetorical stand-ins—does deserve some credit. It’s because of them that many basic animal safety regulations are now enforced at sanctioned rodeos.
All this to say: I understand the inclination to want to protect these innocent animals. I understand the events they are put through are violent and dangerous. The question I’m interested in here is whether something that is violent and dangerous is necessarily bad and ought to be stamped out of existence. I think that’s a more complicated question.
Tuf and I have been friends for over a decade. We went to high school together, played football together, roomed together through all four years in university. I remember one year, at a Halloween party, I challenged a person dressed like a wrestler to a wrestling match in the living room only to find out that his costume was actually a uniform, and that he was a regionally ranked amateur.
Following that beating, Tuf wanted a piece of the action, and in the ensuing tussle I was hit in the face until I bled all over the living room. Inconsiderate though it was to our host—a former-friend who, as far as I know, never forgave us for ruining her carpet—we agreed it was one of the best parties we ever went to.
Ordinarily, Tuf and I go out of our way to avoid confrontations with strangers (good-sporting wrestlers at parties excluded). And yet between us, even well into our adult years, there’s always been a rather vicious sense of competitiveness. We always get into these fights with one another, friendly and yet, in a lot of ways, not. I don’t have that relationship with anyone else and I don’t think I could. There’s an unspoken understanding that whatever reason or injury, these bouts end with a beer and a cigarette. It’s a primal way to measure and affirm our sense of ourselves.
To put it another way: the violence is something I cherish. I think Tuf does too.
I know this sounds like some macho psychobabble but you don’t exactly have to be Freud to see that this sort of thing: a) happens all the time, particularly in sports, and b) usually underscores a rather strong relationship. It is also, I think, the closest most of us will ever personally ever come to understanding the relationship between a cowboy and a rodeo animal.
There are a few key differences. One of the easy ones is that the animals can’t consent (refer to FN 4 for all I’m going to say on this). The other is that stakes are much higher. People and animals do die at the rodeo, but I also think that heightened risk generates a heightened form of respect—love, even. It is not a simple business transaction, where the animal is bred, fed, and turned loose. They have personalities, professional records, people whose job it is to stroke their flanks while they eat wheat. Even the humble calf is not just some prop to be used in the show.
There’s a reason “cowboys love their animals” has become a cliché. The rodeo is an evolution of ranching practices; it remains a way of life in which humans rely on their animals and their continued well-being. To forget that seems to demonstrate a willful ignorance of the spirit of the event.
Most of our stereotypes of cowboys portray them as tough, laconic, and even-handed. They have a steel grip on their values. They’re independent, apprehensive of strangers, polite, and fiercely loyal. These people—and by extension, their animals—are not to be fucked with.
I met a few people like this in Calgary. One of them was an older gentleman who castigated Tuf for flicking his cigarette on the cobblestone street, getting up from his huevos rancheros on a nearby patio to explain that that, buddy, is how forest fires start. Another was a police officer in a truck who—clearly sensing we were hungover—encouraged us to “get it in ya” while we were slurping Gatorades at a crosswalk. Another was a very bored bouncer me and Tuf were talking to about hockey and politics one night in what seemed to be the one of the few empty parts of town.
Tuf has long been in the habit of calling kind and good-hearted individuals “good people.” That bouncer was good people. Earlier that night we had met up with our friend’s mom, who was also in town for the Stampede. She was good people. But then Tuf said that by way of comparison my mom—who was sometimes known to be a little abrasive and mean—was not good people.
I did not accept this. I told him my mother was one of the goodest people I knew and, basically, where the hell does he get off making that kind of deep and cutting judgment about her?
He shrugged it off. Neither of us talked about it after that, but it brought out a strange contrast between us and the people I had come to associate with the culture here. It seemed totally obvious that someone like the bouncer, or the police officer in the truck, or even the old man talking about the forest fires would never make a passing judgment like that about someone who was not from here. They would not question their character or something they held dear. We who were not from here did that sort of thing all the time. We do it to stake out that moral high-ground.
And when I was writing this, I thought about that a lot, and all the judgments I would inevitably pass.
 This usually results in but one of a variety of truly difficult-to-watch injuries that bull riders suffer.
 Leashes are not the same thing…
 Though I do think that “innocence” and “consent” and similar concepts invoked to defend animals end up being inapplicable here. Rodeo animals are no more or less innocent than bull that seems hell-bent on goring you, or a wild steer that succumbs to sickness and hungry coyotes out in the prairies. No more or less capable of consenting than some free-range beef that was raised with the utmost tenderness before it was painlessly slaughtered. These concepts are projections, useful only insofar as they make us feel guilty or gracious.
 My favourite example is Bodacious, the bull who to this day is viewed as the most dangerous in rodeo. He had a reputation for the way he bucked, where he would force the cowboy forward just as he whipped his head back. On one famous occasion he nearly killed a rider, crushing most of the bones in his face. Bodacious was never disqualified or retired because of this, and yet it was widely seen as a purposeful and malicious act, even though the perpetrator was an animal. You see, formidable as he was, in rodeo circles, Bodacious was an asshole.