Do rodeos portray the nation's proud Western heritage fairly or do they betray that history by abusing animals?
Many national animal protection groups have opposed rodeos since the early 1970s, saying most events are injurious to animals and bear little resemblance to what really occurs on ranches and farms.But professional rodeo cowboy groups say that just isn't true and that statistics prove their position.
The Humane Society of Utah recently issued a policy condemning "rodeo cruelties."
"Rodeos are neither an accurate nor harmless portrayal of ranching skills; rather, they represent a display of insensitivity to, and acceptance of brutal treatment of animals in the name of sport," the society's statement says.
Katharine Brant, director of development for the Humane Society of Utah, has initiated an educational campaign against abuses she believes occur in most, if not all, rodeos.
"It is our business to ask questions and demand answers, to get material that will strip away the smoke screen that the rodeo people are putting up," says Brant, who just published an anti-rodeo article in the society's quarterly newsletter.
The criticism has put rodeo promoters on the defensive.
Pro rodeo people dismiss allegations of abuse as nonsense and say statistics show injuries to rodeo stock are rare. Representatives of the nation's biggest professional organization, the Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association, acknowledge that amateur events may be rough on animals, but say special efforts are made to ensure association contestants and stock handlers are not abusive.
D.A. "Swanny" Kerby, whose Bar T Rodeo Co. supplies the livestock for the association-sanctioned Days of '47 Rodeo at the Salt Palace, says the association makes every attempt to eliminate animal cruelty and would welcome on-site monitoring by the Humane Society.
The association contends the animal protection groups are sensationalizing the issue.
"A lot of what they're saying is based not upon fact, but upon emotion and misinformation," says Steve Fleming, director of media relations for the rodeo association.
Kerby agrees, and says most humane society claims are "fairy tales."
One thing's clear though: The rodeo abuse debate is one that's highly charged with emotion.
On one side, there are the cowboys, the cowgirls, the fancy outfits, the strong and beautiful horses, the music, the clowns, the fierce-looking Brahma bulls, the announcer who is never short of jokes - and prize money.
Money awarded in Pro Rodeo Cowboy Association contests has grown from $6.9 million in 1977 to $16 million in 1986. Corporate sponsorship of these rodeos increased from $900,000 in 1977 to $11.5 million in 1987, according to an association fact sheet.
Standing on the other side of the corral are hundreds of thousands of people belonging to animal rights groups that formally opposed rodeo.
They say animals' rights are violated when animals are forced to be ridden, roped, tied and tackled in front of thousands of spectators. And they view the rodeo as a crude rite that exploits defenseless creatures for profit and entertainment.
Paramount to the debate is the issue of how hard rodeo events are on an animal's well being.
Calves and cowboys
Even rodeo fans worry about the animals in calf roping.
"Everyone seems concerned about calf roping. The animals are just babies for one thing, which hardly presents much of a challenge, I'm sure," said Brant.
According to a 1985 Pro Rodeo Cowboy Association study, most animal injuries occurred during calf roping, although the number was low. Out of 834 calf roping runs, only nine calves were injured, slightly more than a 1 percent injury rate.
In calf roping, an animal weighing 200 to 350 pounds is set loose in the arena, sometimes after having been jolted with an electric prod. A contestant on horseback chases the calf, ropes it, jumps from the horse then tackles the calf and ties three of its feet together.
Many times, the calf is jerked to the ground by the rope around its neck. That jerking can cause injury.
According to the Humane Society of the United States, calf roping can result in bruising and hemorrhaging of neck tissue, trachea and the thymus gland. The same is true of steer wrestling.
Kurt Lapham, a field investigator based in Sacramento, Calif., said he has witnessed calf roping cruelties at the national rodeo finals in San Francisco.
"I'd sit above the catwalks and very often I'd hear wavered breathing. I've seen calves get compound fractures. I saw a calf get its neck snapped and die in the area."
Lapham believes people are generally becoming more aware of the cruelty, and as a result the event is losing popularity.
"If there is any cruelty, that would be it," says Kerby of the jerking technique, in which a contestant ropes the calf around the neck and then steers the horse away at a 45-degree angle, causing the calf's neck to snap around.
Association rules prohibit a contestant from jerking the calves. But the rules don't penalize a contestant when the calf "jerks itself," which occurs when the bolting calf reaches the end of the rope and jerks its neck.
"Regardless of the injuries to the ribs or back from falling down, just the rope jerking around the calf's neck is going to cause tremendous stress to the neck," said Brant.
Some animal rights advocates also say the association's rule doesn't prevent injuries to calves.
John Barnes, a veterinarian who is also president of the Wisconsin Alliance For Animals, says most calf injuries occur in the innumerable practice sessions. "The calf death is not a small factor here," said Barnes, who bases his findings upon interviews with former rodeo cowboys. "There's a considerable amount of death and injury among calves during these practices."
Banned in Utah
Next to calf roping, the rodeo event that animal rights groups love to hate is steer roping.
Steer roping, or "busting," is similar to calf roping, only the animal weighs 600 to 750 pounds. As the animal runs full speed in the arena, the cowboy throws the lariat over the steer's neck and guides the rope around the rear end of the animal. The cowboy's horse is then turned away at about a 45-degree angle and the steer is flipped to the ground by having its legs pulled out from under it with the rope.
Animal rights groups are consoled by the fact that the event is found in only 10 states. Utah is not among them.
"We've never had it in Utah," says Flip Harmon, coordinator of the Days of '47 Rodeo. "It's not a very good spectator sport. I like calf roping and team roping because those are done on ranches. But the steer jerk is not. We don't think it's too fair."
A partner of steer roping is team roping, in which one cowboy ropes the steer around its horns and another cowboy ropes its hind legs. The Humane Society condemns this event, too, citing concerns it could result in the same type of injuries that occur in calf roping.
Strapping, zapping and spurring
Some of the most exciting moments of rodeo come during the bucking events, in which horses and Brahma bulls contort wildly in an all-out effort to rid themselves of their riders.
However, rodeo opponents say, the horses and bulls buck because they are tormented by flank straps, spurs and electric prods.
A flank strap is a piece of leather that is cinched around the animal's pelvic region.
According to the association, the strap cinching does not cause the horse or bull to buck but augments the animal's natural tendency to buck by making it kick its back feet higher.
Does it hurt the animal?
The Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association says no. Rodeo opponents say yes. "Again and again, (rodeos) take a mild-mannered horse, strap these bucking straps around him and cinch it tightly. It hurts, plus it could cause abrasions," says Brant.
The Humane Society of the United States calls the flank strap a form of torment. Horses and bulls buck, the society says, because the "heavy leather strap is cinched tightly around the flanks, applying pressure to sensitive lumbar nerves, to the inguinal canal area and, occasionally, on the prepuce of the male animal."
Barnes said the pain inflicted by the strap is probably not excruciating. But it does incite the animal to be irritated and angry, which Barnes believes is inhumane.
Pro Rodeo Cowboy Association officials say the flank straps used in sanctioned rodeos must be lined with sheepskin and cannot be placed over the animal's genitalia.
Another device used to incite the animal to buck is the electric cattle prod, also called the "hot shot."
The hot shot is a small battery-powered instrument that discharges 5,000 to 6,000 volts of electricity. The device, however, produces very little amperage and, therefore, doesn't cause burns.
Kerby said he doesn't use the electric prod because he believes it causes animals to cower rather than buck.
The cowboy association prohibits the hot shot's use in the arena, although it can be used in the chutes, and suggests it be used sparingly elsewhere.
Animal rights activists say the cattle prod is used too often in rodeo and should be outlawed because it is cruel and intimidating.
Once the horse or bull is out of the chute and bucking, the rider uses spurs to keep it bucking. The more the animal puts up a fight, the more points a contestant gets.
The association prohibits the use of sharpened spurs, saying any cowboy who uses them will be disqualified. "Thus, it's not too likely you'll find a competitor in pro rodeo using sharp and dangerous spurs," according to an association statement. Instead, cowboys must use spurs that have blunt rowels, which are the star-shaped wheels with the points on them.
In the saddle-bronc and bareback-bronc riding events, the rowels must turn. Bull riding spurs have rowels that lock. But, the association points out, a bull's skin is about 7mm thick, more than three times that of a human's.
"Whether the spurs are blunt or not, the animal still feels quite a force," Brant contends.
Animal life on the road
Rodeo critics say the animals must endure severe abuses while on the road. "Packed into overcrowded trucks and holding areas, often unsheltered and sparsely fed, they are hauled around the rodeo circuit like pieces of unfeeling machinery," a Humane Society pamphlet reads. "Continuous stress is more than just upsetting to an animal _ it is life-threatening."
Rodeo promoters deny the abuse and say the animals are well cared for.
Rodeo livestock are the aristocrats of the domestic animals, Kerby said. Every animal, he said, receives regular veterinarian care and is kept in top condition.
"We paid $12,000 for a horse out of Canada not long ago. There is no way we are going to treat that horse poorly and abuse it," he said. "It wouldn't make sense."
Kerby said the association rodeo animals are paced to ensure they do not become fatigued. During the Days of '47 Rodeo, most animals will be used no more than twice for a total of about 16 seconds each.
Are rules enforced?
The Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association, which sanctions about 650 rodeos a year involving 10,000 contestants, loathes to be lumped into the same category as amateur, non-sanctioned rodeos.
And most animals rights groups acknowledge that the association attempts to take measures to prevent animal abuse. The association has a strict rule book and its rodeo judges are responsible not only for tallying points, but for enforcing the rules as well.
"Naturally there will be cases where the rules are violated, but the (association) is serious about upholding its laws," an association booklet states. "Judges take seriously their responsibility to report any violators, and directors are equally conscientious about imposing and upholding fines."
Slightly less than 100 infractions are reported yearly. The association points at the figure with pride, saying it reflects a low number of abuses.
But Humane Society people say any number is high; that rodeo officials are always reluctant to police themselves; and that many abuses go unreported and that rodeo animals are abused by the inherent nature of the business. They also note that only about 30 percent of all rodeos are sanctioned by professional organizations such as the PRCA.
The future of rodeo
The bottom line, rodeo promoters say, is that animal rights groups are wasting their time by attacking rodeo and should concentrate their energies on other things.
"If the Humane Society is so concerned (about animals), why aren't they at (the horse races) taking care of those animals," says Danny Clegg, Coalville, who supplies livestock to amateur rodeos.
"Those horses are just babies and they're pounding them into the ground. Their legs are not set and they are crippling more horses in one month than all the rodeo suppliers experience in two or three seasons."
Rodeo is "living history" built upon the traditions of the Old West, say association pamphlets, and is not likely to go away soon as evidenced by the fact that 11 million spectators attend rodeo each year.
Anti-rodeo voices, however, say they are determined not to give up, believing rodeo is not indicative of real-life ranching or the Old West. It will eventually die as people become more sensitive to animals, the groups say.
Brant said she has no immediate plans to push local legislation against rodeo or to launch and all-out campaign in Utah. She said she plans to move slowly, writing articles and conducting research on the subject.