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Political Roundup: Should rodeos be banned in New Zealand?

by Dr Bryce Edwards

The Summer rodeo season is in full swing. And so protesters are, once again, drawing attention to what they regard as the cruel and archaic nature of this “entertainment sport”. This is leading to clashes between rodeo supporters and protesters.

Rodeo, steer wrestling. Image sourced from Wikimedia.org.

A few days ago, the group Save Animals from Exploitation (SAFE) revealed that two animals had recently died at a rodeo in Gisborne. Rodeo organisers had already acknowledged that a bull had been killed, but a whistle-blower alerted the animal rights group to the fact that a horse had also been killed at the event – see Karoline Tuckey’s Second animal death at Gisborne rodeo ‘freakish’.

SAFE accused the rodeo of a cover-up over the death and claimed that, in general, it “highlighted a lack of transparency” in rodeos. But the president of the New Zealand Rodeo and Cowboys’ Association (NZRCA), Lyal Cocks, explained the silence over the death, saying that his organisation “has understandably become cautious [about] speaking out in an environment of extreme negativity towards rodeos, which appears to be promoted by most media organisations.”

Cocks also explained the horse’s death at the rodeo: “After it competed it went out into the yards out the back, and for some inexplicable reason it went into a post and died, it was instantaneous – it was very strange, freakish.” Similarly, when another bull died at a Martinborough rodeo last year, after breaking its leg, at the time Cocks described this as “freak accident”.

Latest rodeo protests

Tensions are rising between supporters and protesters of rodeos, with an altercation taking place a few days ago at a Whangarei event – see Esther Taunton’s Protesters ‘assaulted like the animals’ at rodeo, animal rights group says. Some of this tension revolves around animal welfare activists attending rodeos and filming events, with organisers trying to ban the use of cameras.

One of the organisers of the Northland rodeo, Dianna Bradshaw, explained: “The camera ban was due to the possibility of footage being used out of context”. She added: “These people have an agenda, they’re not coming to these events with an open mind.”

According to one of the activists, Josh Howell, “There was particular emphasis on not being able to film the roping event – the calf roping event – because they acknowledge that it’s particularly controversial… They said we don’t want you filming at all even on your phones the calf-roping because one image can be taken out of context” – see RNZ’s Rodeo protesters consider police action after supporters confront them at event.

A number of other rodeos and protests have occurred in recent weeks. For example, about 24 people from the Queenstown Animal Activist group picketed outside a Wanaka event at the start of the month, calling for an end to “legalised animal abuse” – see Michael Hayward’s About 5000 attend Wanaka Rodeo despite protests.

Call for a rodeo ban

Animal rights activists are demanding that rodeos be outlawed in New Zealand. However, this demand has already been considered by the current Government and rejected. Until she was sacked for alleged mistreatment of staff, Meka Whaitiri was the minister responsible for animal welfare (as the associate Minister of Agriculture), and she made a decision not to introduce a ban on rodeos.

The decision was announced in March of last year, with Tess Nichol reporting that “Whaitiri didn’t believe rodeos were harmful enough to justify a ban” – see: Government won’t ban rodeo, animal welfare Minister says. According to this report: “She acknowledged public concern, but said rodeos were popular in many communities. The Ikaroa-Rāwhiti Māori electorate MP grew up on the East Coast of the North Island and said rodeos were common there – she had attended several herself.”

In lieu of a ban, the minister announced that she would work to strengthen regulations, and said she had asked the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee “to fast track further advice on rodeos this year”. It’s unclear, however, if this came to anything, and after Whaitiri was dismissed as a minister the Prime Minister decided to leave the ministerial portfolio of animal welfare unfilled.

Animal welfare organisations have been unimpressed with the Government’s lack of action on rodeos. The SPCA has responded by saying that “more needs to be done” and reiterated its support for a rodeo ban. The SPCA has also reminded the Government that it promised to do more: “They need to take this very seriously and uphold their election promise, which was to ban the use of animals under 12 months, flank straps, rope burning and the use of electronic prods” – see Newshub’s Govt won’t ban rodeos but will look into improving animal welfare.

The Government and then-minister, Whaitiri, were also criticised for allowing rodeo organisers to attend a hui that was supposedly “described as solely for animal advocates” to discuss how to improve animal welfare – see Nicole Lawton’s Animal welfare meeting ends in walkout after rodeo boss attends.

This article also draws attention to corporate sponsors pulling out of involvement with rodeos: “Foodstuffs, LJ Hooker New Zealand, Saddlery Warehouse, Stuff, Meridian Energy, House of Travel, Bayleys, and Harcourts, all withdrew sponsorship in relation to the animal cruelty claims made by advocacy groups.”

There has, however, been some reform of the rules and regulations governing how rodeos treat animals. According to Michael Hayward, reporting in September, “The New Zealand Rodeo Cowboys Association announced four key changes to improve animal safety, which were confirmed at their recent AGM”, and he details these – see: New rodeo animal welfare rules ‘crisis management’, critics say.

Rodeo debate heating up this summer

This week Green Party MP Gareth Hughes has written an opinion piece making the moral arguments against rodeos: “Do this to a companion animal like a cat and a dog and you would be jailed. Do this on a farm and you could be investigated and prosecuted. Do it in front of a crowd at a rodeo and it is called entertainment. This summer in New Zealand, animals are being terrified, hurt and killed for fun” – see: Rodeo is animal cruelty dressed up as entertainment.

There is a growing sense of inevitability in much of the debate about rodeos being eventually consigned to history. Much of this escalation of concern started towards the end of last summer, with plenty of articles and opinion pieces forecasting a rodeo-free future. For example, the Hawkes Bay Today newspaper ran an article last February reporting on the growing activism following on from animal deaths at rodeos – see: Rodeo in the spotlight: Could Hawke’s Bay incidents be the beginning of the end?

In this, SAFE campaigns manager Marianne Macdonald is quoted saying “Year by year more and more people are speaking out strongly against rodeo. It’s really not something that New Zealand, in 2018, wants. It’s something that really needs to be consigned to the history books.” She adds: “Rodeos are banned in the UK, the Netherlands and parts of Australia, the United States and Canada. It’s time for New Zealand to make a change.”

In contrast, however, the Rodeo Association’s Lyal Cocks points out: “Judging by the increased crowd sizes this season… there are many more people who would like to see rodeo continue as a sport in NZ than those who would like it banned.”

In fact, the Rodeo Association estimates that about 100,000 people attended events last summer. And the sport has been fighting back against bad publicity, even employing former MP Michael Laws as a spokesperson, and getting Government MPs and ministers along to events – last February New Zealand First MPs Ron Mark and Mark Patterson were special guests at rodeo events.

This escalating ideological battle was well covered last year by Philip Matthews in his feature article, Cowboys and injuries: The end of rodeo? In this, he points to changing societal attitudes to the use of animals in sport, and cites survey evidence: “a Horizon Research survey commissioned by Safe and the SPCA found that 59 per cent of people wanted an end to animals in rodeo, 63 per cent wanted calf roping banned and 66 per cent wanted an end to use of flank straps, which cause animals to buck.”

Last year, newspaper editorials also weighed in on the issue – with the Dominion Post asking “Is this really how we want to have fun in a supposedly civilised country in the 21st century?” – see: Rodeos pitting humans against animals belong in the past. In contrast, the Otago Daily Times sat on the fence on the issue, pointing out the right to protest and right to participate in rodeos, and emphasising that both sides need to acknowledge the rights and concerns of the others – see: The rights of rodeos and animals.

For an indication of the turning tide on rodeos, it’s well worth reading Rachel Stewart’s mea culpa on the sport, in which she declares that “As a kid, I rode steers at my rural district sport’s day” but “we all know in our hearts that rodeo is wrong” – see: Rodeo doomed to bite the dust.

Stewart concludes: “Rodeo is on the way out. It’s on the wrong side of history, and the likes of Michael Laws won’t save it. In fact, unwittingly, he’s likely the best thing to happen to the anti-rodeo movement. Because “the truth of the matter is” that rodeo is toast. Yee-ha!”

Similarly, another columnist from the provinces, Tom O’Connor, says “In my brash youth I rode bulls at various rodeos around the country” but “I have come to question the attitude of my youth” – see: All the fun of the rodeo not worth any animal’s pain. He concludes “Like bull fighting, rodeos belong to history, as enjoyable as they might have been.”

For a counter to all this, writing a year ago, Michael Laws argued that concerns about rodeo animals are misplaced: “The science suggests animals suffer no long-term harm. And rodeo injury rates for participating animals are less than for many other animal events. Therefore, NZ Rodeo believes that animal activists are fundamentally misinformed and misguided” – see: Rodeo’s critics ignore findings that it’s not cruel.

Finally, for those wanting to enjoy the rodeo, or to protest its existence, the Rodeo and Cowboys’ Association has listed its upcoming events here: 2018/2019 Rodeo Dates.