What’s Wrong with Rodeo in NZ?July 8th, 2022
I filmed my first rodeo, solo, in 2013.
These events were held on beautiful sunny days, with country music playing, relaxed crowds and announcers cracking jokes.
I sat up on the bank while kids ran about, hot chips were eaten and people chatted and laughed.
Stop right there, and this was no different to many other family-oriented outdoor events.
That was until the animals began “performing”.
Despite clear distress and trying to get rid of the predator on their backs, announcers anthropomorphized the animals’ behaviour. ‘That bull wants to get even with the cowboy for showing him up last time’ or ‘That horse loves to play to the crowd.’
When a disoriented bull couldn’t work out how to exit the arena, ‘He loves all the attention and doesn’t want to leave.’ The crowd laughed along.
Sometimes the commentary was slightly amusing, and listening to the laughter, I could feel the pull to go along with it: I’m sure this is what happens for most people.
I’d heard animals loved rodeos, had great lives as performers, spent all year running over the hills etc and were saved from slaughter.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this ideal image sounds like an animal sanctuary, but it’s an image cultivated to distract from the violence committed against them in the name of entertainment, as became blatantly clear.
I moved down to the arena fence with my camera.
Panicked, riderless horses galloped and bucked a metre or so in front of me, stirrups flapping and hitting their sides. Their mouths were open and tongues visible, something that stunned me. I had not noticed this from the bank.
Racing alongside the fence, trying to get away from pick-up riders attempting to unbuckle the bucking strap to slow them down (straps send animals into a panic), their power and terror was scary to stand so close to.
I hoped they wouldn’t crash through the fence.
I’d ridden horses in my teens and had never seen anything like it.
I was right opposite the chute that held the calves and the steers for wrestling. When released, they came towards me, were sent airborne at the end of a rope, somersaulting. Others had their horns grabbed and necks twisted 180 degrees. The photos show steers in a cloud of dust.
Other steers wore fake horns and had their back legs pulled out from under them, while someone pulled their head in the opposite direction.
One of the disoriented bulls had thick blood coming from his mouth. I wondered how this had happened and whether it prevented him from eating and drinking. As it was a hot summer day, this concerned me.
Teams of animal advocates have filmed and photographed at rodeos in the North and South Islands over the last several years (mostly pre-covid).
People often ask what it’s like, how we do it.
Our team – sometimes two middle-aged women – other times four or five people, set up our chairs, tripods and cameras in the open.
Over the years rodeos realised who we were, so there was no point trying to be discrete as in the early days.
Once the events start, we’re focused, moving the cameras along the chutes, watching for signs of animal panic and distress. There are typically six or eight chutes holding horses or bulls, and we’re scanning the whole time.
When something happens, our focus is on capturing it – keeping the scene in the shot, being alert for what might happen in the next-door chute or another chute further along. We can see an animal is in distress, thrashing around trying to escape, using hooves against the handlers, or has gone down in the chute.
Pick-up riders on horseback sometimes block the scene to prevent the crowd – and us – seeing and filming it.
In the arena, say with calves flying backwards through the air or somersaulting, again we are focused on capturing the scene, anticipating which way the animal will move, making sure we’re not too close or too far away. As beginners at this, this is pretty challenging.
We don’t see details. We don’t see that their eyes are shut, or open extra wide, or that their mouths are gaping. We don’t see the grisly details of the neck twist, or how the mouths of horses and bulls are wrenched open in horror, how their limbs and backs are positioned as they buck and thrash. We don’t see the details of the falls or crashes into fences, or hear them crying out or bellowing.
All that comes later when we’re going through the footage and photographs.
That’s also when we see the tail twisting, the pinching, punching, shoving of calves, the hitting of horses in the face, the sneaky use of electric shocks, the animals that went to ground.
Seeing fear and panic in animals is particularly upsetting, and as an empathic person, I have to admit to shedding tears over their terror.
We don’t usually see the injuries, the bruising, the strained ligaments, the sore muscles, the paralysis that quickly sets in once the bulls that have broken their backs exit the arena.
We didn’t see the hoof half-torn off a horse, or the horse that exited the arena in distress and smashed into a post, breaking their neck.
There have been several examples of the public witnessing bulls break their legs, horses break their necks, calves unable to put a leg on the ground, or calves lying stunned and unwilling to move.
Some of those injuries are obvious, but most injuries are the unseen ones that will be felt by these sentient beings over the coming days and weeks, and the unseen injury of terror.
Animal advocates have documented the experience of animals used in rodeos to show what happens to them and how they respond.
They’ve told their story now, and the whole country has heard them.
Now we wait to see whether the law hears them too.
by Lynn Charlton, spokesperson for Anti Rodeo Action NZ