The Calgary Stampede isn't worried about the people who hold angry signs and yell at the top of their lungs, nor the ones who dress up in chained cow costumes and decry the horrors and atrocities at the grounds.

No, it's not the protesters that keep Stampede organizers awake at night.

They are more concerned about the average city dweller. The born and raised urban resident who buys their food at the grocery store and their closest encounter with animals is their pet cat or dog, or maybe the zoo.

In an increasingly urban world, it's the average city folk the Stampede cares about — and needs.

Stampede facts

8,000 plus animals participate in the 10-day Stampede.

600 plus horses used in the chuckwagon races.

That's the focus of a lengthy, frank discussion I had with Paul Rosenberg, VP of programming for the Stampede.

"We've given it a lot of thought," says Rosenberg.

"It's fair to say we don't have all the answers. Certainly, we absolutely want to engage our community in more of a two-way dialogue," he adds.

Community engagement begins

To capture that community, the Stampede launched two initiatives this year. The first is a so-called community engagement group. More than a dozen Calgarians were provided an all access pass to the grounds this year, in exchange for feedback on all aspects of the operation.

Secondly, the Stampede followed in the footsteps of McDonald's and other companies, setting up a website for people to ask any question they have.

Not surprisingly, the majority of questions are about animals. 

Expect more community outreach in the future including new school programs at the Stampede's historic OH Ranch and at the Agrium Western Event Centre, opening next year.

On the path of pipelines

If you don't think the Stampede is at risk of losing public support, look at what happened to the pipeline industry. For decades, pipes were sewn into the ground without any hesitation.

Slowly, opposition grew because of spills and industry failed to counteract the uprising by getting into communities with facts and science.

Some argue the pipeline industry lost the public relations war.

To hear industry leaders now, you know how regretful companies are they didn't act sooner.

At a conference in Calgary in May, companies explained how trust has eroded.

"If we don't restore public confidence, we won't be able to keep our social licence to be able to continue to operate. And simply that means as companies, we're out of business," said TransCanada Corporation CEO Russ Girling.

"When I'm talking publicly and in communities about market access issues and concerns, the first subject every time is the safety of the asset," said Kinder Morgan Canada Operations CEO Ian Anderson. 

The comparison of pipelines to the Stampede, is an intriguing notion. No one really cared when an animal died decades ago. Now, there is widespread attention when even one steer or horse is euthanized.

The video gets featured prominently on TV news and lives forever online on sites like YouTube.

"If we fail to evolve, then we will be at risk," admits the Stampede’s Rosenberg.

"Our goal is to evolve, to listen, to communicate, to continuously improve and that keeps us in step with our community and preserves our social licence."

Lack of rodeo science

Rosenberg says that openness starts with collecting science and data.

"We have to talk about it and communicate it in a way that people can understand it as the gap widens between rural and urban — and people's understandings of large animals is more reflective of their family pet — so it's a big job."

A significant amount of science is available when it comes to animal care and safety.

But that focuses more on livestock operations, not sport.

At the rodeo grounds and chuckwagon track, research is limited in terms of how animals are affected.

"For everyone in rodeo, the challenge is absolutely to engage science for safety and welfare," says Rosenberg.

"We would love to have some data, we would love to have some learning, we would love to apply that against what we do and then as we learn, we'd like to share that with others across all industries, equine or large animals."

The Stampede promised this week, in fact, to investigate the recent steer death.

Changes to Stampede events

The Stampede has made changes to some events in the past, including to steer wrestling three years ago.

Outright elimination, however, of certain rodeo events is another question. 

The organization would only consider such a notion on one condition — if it's core supporters are the ones pushing the idea.

"It's difficult to make decisions from people who don't support you to begin with," says Rosenberg.

"We'll continue to talk to our supporters. If they want change, I'm sure we'd be responsive. That's how we have to approach it."

To do otherwise is to concede the battle and put the future in doubt.