Rodeo in New Zealand

When I was about 7 years old and living in Whitianga (Coromandel Peninsula, North Island of New Zealand), my parents took my brother and I to the local rodeo event. It was a big day out for the (then) small town and the surrounding area. There were food stalls, craft markets, and bulls and stallions were being ridden. Teenagers could ride calves and young children could have a go at riding a ‘wild’ sheep. Rodeo events like this have been going on every year for decades. It is just what you do. The area has sheep and beef farms and rodeo is a natural accompaniment. Everyone got into the spirit of the day – fun and laughter followed. The champion stallion rider was venerated.

I rode a sheep that day. My parents (mostly mum – she is from a farming background) convinced me to give it a go. I remember it being fun. But I also remember asking my mum afterwards if she thought the sheep enjoyed it as well. That was the first and last rodeo event we attended.

Rodeo events are most popular in countries or regions with historical ties to rural agriculture. The USA is well-known for its rodeo – particularly in Southern States such as Texas, and the mid-west; ‘cowboy states’. Australia also has a penchant for rodeo.

In New Zealand, rodeo events are held up and down the country during the summer months. These events are advertised as ‘family friendly’ and an entertaining day out. Most are run by the New Zealand Rodeo Cowboys Association (NZRCA), which overseas 35 rodeos annually (Report to Accompany the code of welfare: Rodeos).

So, what is the problem?

Rodeo is unacceptable to a growing number of people. Anti-rodeo Facebook groups (e.g. Anti Rodeo Action NZ and New Zealand Anti-Rodeo Coalition) have a large number of followers. These groups host anti-rodeo demonstrations across New Zealand. Many of those who are opposed to rodeo cite animal welfare grounds – rodeo events are seen as “legalised animal cruelty” (SPCA New Zealand). It has been argued that the events at rodeos are unnecessary displays of ‘archaic’ stockperson skills. This includes: calf roping; horse and/or bull bucking; and steer wrestling.

“Is putting animals in a stressful situation like this justified? If you look at the cost benefit analysis, the benefit is sport for the participants and entertainment for a crowd. I don’t see that putting animals through this kind of fear and stress is justified by the benefits.”

(Virginia Williams, animal welfare consultant vet) [1]

Several groups publicly oppose rodeo events or aspects of them: SPCA New Zealand, the New Zealand Veterinary Association (NZVA), Lions Clubs New Zealand, and The Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand (to name a few).

Researchers from The University of Queensland’s Centre for Animal Welfare and Ethics and School of Agriculture and Food Sciences, along with those from Toulouse University, conducted a study on the effects of calf roping [2]. Their findings conclude that calf roping causes stress to the animals. However, only stress hormones and limited behavioural data were assessed. Detailed behavioural assessments may have been more informative – and potentially indicated extreme negative welfare states experienced by the calves. Interestingly, the study was funded by a rodeo body: the Australian Professional Rodeo Association (APRA).

The other side of rodeo

Other than the obvious entertainment value for people attending the events, and sporting value for the competitors, it could be argued that the animals used would not exist but for rodeo. It is also important to consider the animal’s entire life, not just the time it is performing, or entertaining. When not competing, many of these animals are lavishly fed and allowed to do as they please. If their whole life is ‘better’ in rodeo than it may otherwise be, this may change our assessment [1].

The Code of Welfare for Rodeos

The use of animals for entertainment purposes is ethically divisive. On one side are those who see it as ‘just a bit of fun’ or important to rural agriculture; on the other side are those who maintain that the use of animals for entertainment is abhorrent. Occupying the middle ground are those who support some aspects of rodeo and not others, and those whose issue is not with using animals for entertainment, but with the welfare consequences of this particular entertainment event on the animals involved.

“My contention is that at least some of the rodeo events are unreasonable and unnecessary and cause unreasonable and unnecessary pain and distress.” [1]

Suffice to say, rodeo is a contentious topic. For this reason, the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC) received a large number of submissions when conducting their 10-yearly review of the Code of Welfare for Rodeos . The Code has expectations for appropriate treatment of animals used in rodeos and identifies what is inappropriate. NAWAC published a report to accompany The Code, which details the reasoning behind their recommendations and these differences of opinion. It is an interesting read and shows how truly divisive this topic is. I will summarise some of the key issues here:

  • Societal views on the use of animals in rodeos, i.e. is it ethical?
    • Limited relevance to NZ culture, e.g. outdated stockperson skills
    • Not good for NZ’s reputation as animal welfare leader and its ‘clean, green’ image
    • Calf events have been banned in a number of other countries
    • Little economic value to NZ
    • Positive role of rodeo in rural cohesion
  • Stockmanship – how do we assess animal welfare at rodeos?
    • Veterinarian should be present at rodeos – last say in all welfare decisions
    • Animal welfare officer to identify issues and work with veterinarian
  • The use of spurs on bucking animals – it is necessary?
    • Prohibition of spurs called for – their use causes pain to animals
    • Spurs provide a point of contact to remain on bucking animals – removing them would make it difficult for a contestant to remain seated
  • Specific events – calf welfare in rope and tie events
    • This event is believed to be particularly stressful
    • But in the few studies performed (at the date of report), ‘detrimental physiological damage’ was not reported
    • Not all NAWAC members could agree that the event should be discontinued – there was not enough evidence for significant pain and distress
    • The Code has ‘Recommended Best Practice’ to not use calves in rodeo events
  • Children’s events
    • Effect on children exposed to ‘disrespectful’ animal treatment – animal abuse linked to abuse of people
    • Rodeos are family-orientated – children involved as part of family unit
    • Sheep disallowed for this purpose – too small to handle being ridden
  • Health, injury, and disease – should fireworks be used?
    • Add interest to the event
    • Unexpected noise and movement causes fight or flight response in horses and cattle
    • Fireworks, pyrotechnics and gas fired explosions not to be used at rodeos

The Code itself is a longer read (28 pages). It also references the NZ Rodeo Association on page 7:

“The New Zealand Rodeo Association holds a number of training days for new contestants and for those wishing to learn more about rodeo events.”

This makes the reader nervous about the potential for bias and collusion. A legal document has a responsibility to be impartial and exclude vested interests. The Code is seen by some “as a shield to protect a defendant in the face of prosecution”. It may well be less than 10 years before it is updated to reflect ethical concerns.

In summary

Society’s expectations of animal welfare standards are constantly evolving – practices that were once acceptable no longer are or may become unacceptable in the future. Therefore, it is vital that we continue to discuss and debate these issues and respond to public concerns.

References
  1. Flagler, B., Blazing saddles, in VetScript. 2016.
  2. Sinclair, M., et al., Behavioral and Physiological Responses of Calves to Marshalling and Roping in a Simulated Rodeo Event. Animals, 2016. 6(5).
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The problem of brachycephalic dogs in New Zealand: Why has Trade Me banned some of them?

As of the 1 March 2018 ‘Trade Me’ New Zealand, our biggest online trading website, will no longer allow three brachycephalic dog breeds to be sold through their platform: Pugs, French Bulldogs, and British Bulldogs. This is a huge win for the welfare of these animals.

What are brachycephalic dogs?

The word brachycephalic literally breaks down to ‘short’ ‘head’. It refers to animals (it’s not just a dog problem!) with short faces/snouts. The classic example is the Pug – with its squishy face and big eyes. The Persian cat is another example. The muzzle, or snout, of these animals has essentially been reduced in length over time via breeding. It has become a desirable characteristic.

post 15 pug
The Pug is a good example of a brachycephalic dog breed

For many people, the attraction of these dogs is in their resemblance to babies or children. A small, round face makes them ‘cute’ and ‘adorable’. This factor is becoming even more important as many people are choosing not to have children, or delaying until later in life. Instead, their pet may play the role of this family member in their life.

What is wrong with these dogs?

The problem with breeding to reduce the length of these dog’s snouts/muzzles is what has happened as a result [1]. The bony structures of the head have reduced in size, but in most cases the soft tissue in the back of the mouth and throat has remained the same. This means these dogs have to breathe around this extra tissue. Other things have happened as a result of the bony changes:

  • The size of their nostrils is reduced – they are tiny! Many of these dogs’ struggle to get enough air through their nose and so resort to ‘open mouth’ breathing;
  • Their trachea, or airway, is too small for them. It is also very weak. They really have to work hard to get air into their lungs – sometimes they work TOO hard and their airway collapses. This is an emergency situation!

Overall, their breathing could be likened to trying to suck air through a thin drinking straw that has cloth over one end. Most of these dogs have to breathe with their mouth open, and snorts or snoring sounds result from the extra soft tissue in their mouth flopping into their airway.

This snoring sound may seem ‘cute’ to many people, but it actually means the dog is struggling to breathe properly! Their small airway and all that soft tissue in their mouth is making it very difficult for them.

These dogs get very hot in Summer and can often over-heat to the point of suffering from heat stroke – another emergency situation. Dogs in general cannot sweat as well as people. This means they rely on open-mouth breathing to cool them down. If a dog is not able to breathe very well, as is the case in these ‘brachy’ dogs, then this can be a problem. And again, if they work too hard breathing, their weak airways can collapse!

Other issues with these dogs include: their eyes bulge out of their skull resulting in dry eyes and sometimes ulcers; skin conditions and/or infections due to excess facial skin – all those rolls and folds are the perfect breeding ground for bacteria; and often these dogs struggle to give birth as puppies’ heads are too big for their mothers’ pelvic bones to pass through. Most British Bulldogs are delivered via caesarean section with the help of a veterinarian.

How has it got to this point?

Because so many people want these dogs, there are a lot of people breeding them. It is big business! One puppy can fetch thousands of dollars. But because dog breeding is unregulated in New Zealand, there are no rules about who can do it and how. As a result, people have kept breeding for what people want – short ‘cute’ snouts. Supply equals demand. The problem has got worse.

Not only this, but oftentimes breeding animals (the parents) are kept in poor conditions and become ‘breeding machines’. There are obviously exceptions to the rule, and voluntary members of organisations, such as Dogs NZ (formerly the New Zealand Kennel Club) are bound by self-imposed breeding regulations. However, many ‘backyard’ breeders of these dogs are less conscientious.

What can we do?

This move by Trade Me to stop these three breeds being sold on their platform has been celebrated by many animal welfare organisations and veterinarians. By stopping a major avenue for the sale of ‘backyard’ bred dogs, there is hope yet! This will stop unwitting puppy buyers from purchasing their pet ‘sight unseen’. Often these puppies are sent to them, or they collect them from a mutual meeting place, so that the breeding area and parents are not seen. These buyers have no idea what conditions the parents are in (what their purchase is supporting), or what the parents are like (a good indication of what their puppy may be like).

However, as the New Zealand Veterinary Association (NZVA) has proposed, there are still things that can be done. Their webpage has a list of additional information and their companion animal spokesperson, Rochelle Ferguson, has written a Spinoff feature with advice. To summarise, before adopting prospective owners should:

  • Consider adopting a dog from a shelter, rather than buying one that may be supporting poor breeding practise;
  • Visit the breeder and meet the parents of the puppy they are considering adopting;
  • Support breeders who screen for inherited diseases and who don’t breed puppies with these extreme features;
  • Ask about the mother’s health and whether a caesarean was needed;
  • Consider whether the mother’s (and other dogs) behavioural needs are being met by the breeder. This all affects the puppy.

In the future:

  • Regulations that require people to have a license to breed and sell puppies would be beneficial;
  • Sales on premises (and not ‘sight unseen’ or online) could be a requirement.

I will conclude by quoting Rochelle’s message:

“The fallout from puppies that have been irresponsibly bred is shouldered, not by the breeders who profit from their sale, but by the families that purchase these animals and the veterinarians that treat them.”

References
  1. Packer, R.M.A., et al., Impact of Facial Conformation on Canine Health: Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome. Plos One, 2015. 10(10).