At the Calgary Stampede, the two-step between contemporary animal-welfare sensitivities and hootin’-and-hollerin’ rodeo tradition continues in 2010. The Stampede is adopting a new animal-safety rule for this year’s competition in steer wrestling—the timed event in which a cowboy chases a castrated young bull double his own mass on horseback, leans over to get leverage on its horns, slips out of the saddle, and, in a struggle that can vary in elegance from ballet to barroom brawl, twists the beast’s neck until it topples on its side.
Last year, a steer had to be euthanized after what competitors refer to as a “dog fall.” The steer collapsed with its legs under it, instead of out to the side nearest the cowboy, and the animal’s neck was apparently broken as the wrestler continued to apply rotational force to its head in an effort to force submission. Dog falls are rare, but that there’s a name for them is a hint that they (and their consequences for the steer) are not exactly unheard of.
The Stampede, whose size and antiquity makes it a model for other rodeos, will become the first to introduce a rule awarding athletes an automatic “no time” in the event of any dog fall.
The Calgary Humane Society, which monitors and advises on animal welfare at the Stampede, favours the abolition of steer wrestling but lauded the new safety move, in which judges will be asked to signal the cowboy verbally to release the animal. “I think you and I at more risk crossing a street than a steer is being bulldogged,” says Stampede chairman David Chalack, a veterinarian, “but no one has more respect for animal life than a livestock man. Whenever we lose one we look seriously at what we can do to reduce the risk.”