Canadian veterinarians should condemn the Calgary Stampede — full stop
Rodeo vets are enabling animal suffering by defending activities that clearly cause animals distress and risk
Does the Canadian veterinary profession turn a blind eye to animal abuse? Or rather, to certain kinds of animal abuse?
It's a fair question, given the relative silence from the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) on the treatment of animals at the Calgary Stampede — which kicks off Friday — as well as the active participation of some of its members who work as vets in rodeo events.
The CVMA has a commendable policy on animals being used in entertainment, which states that the association "opposes activities, contests, or events that have a high probability of causing injury, distress, or illness." It also states that "animals should not be forced to perform actions or tasks that result in physical or mental distress or discomfort."
So why doesn't the CVMA speak out about the distress, discomfort and risk of injury to rodeo animals at the Stampede, or at the more than 100 professional and semi-professional rodeos in Canada?
Calf-roping and steer-wrestling
It is self-evident that animals in certain rodeo events are forced to perform actions that result in, at the very least, distress and discomfort. In calf-roping, the animal is chased, roped to a sudden halt, picked up and thrown to the ground before being tied up. It would be preposterous to argue that calves would not feel distress or pain as a result of such treatment.
Similarly, in steer-wrestling, the animal has its neck twisted to force it to the ground. Again, it is obvious that the animal would be distressed by such action.
In 2013, when a steer's neck was broken during the event, the Calgary Stampede's chief veterinarian explained that the break was "accidental" — but how could it truly be accidental when the injury (which required the steer to be euthanized) was directly because a man deliberately twisted the animal to the ground by its neck?
In a letter sent by the Vancouver Humane Society (VHS) back in June, the VHS requested that the CVMA formally denounce such inhumane rodeo events, in accordance with the association's own animal welfare position statement. In response, the CVMA noted that is working on new position statements that will "convey that CVMA is opposed to any events and activities, in rodeo, or elsewhere, that are inhumane and deliberately cause avoidable harm and suffering."
However, this response suggests the CVMA will stop short of a necessary and explicit condemnation of rodeo events, in favour of a statement that is deliberately imprecise. But to make a real impact, the CVMA needs to condemn cruel rodeo events — full stop.
What's more, rodeo vets are clearly not honouring their veterinary oath, which requires them to swear they will strive to "promote animal health and welfare" and to "prevent and relieve animal suffering." Instead, they are enabling animal suffering by defending activities that clearly cause animals distress and risk of injury – all for the sake of mere entertainment.
Serving two masters
Veterinarians are trusted by Canadians, and strong opposition from the CVMA would have some real clout in the public debate over animal cruelty at rodeos. Many polls show veterinarians are among the most trusted professionals in Canada, which makes sense: who wouldn't admire and trust people who devote their lives to keeping our pets happy and healthy?
But the veterinary profession is not just about ensuring puppies and kittens stay bright-eyed and playful. They also help ensure Canadians have meat on their tables. Except for ethical vegetarians and vegans, most people wouldn't object to that. Farmers depend on vets to keep herds and flocks healthy and productive. But where was the profession when factory farming, with its cruel sow stalls and battery cages for laying hens, were introduced?
The problem is that the veterinary profession serves two masters: clients and animals. If the client is a factory farm or a rodeo, the animals will always come second. It can be argued that the demands of modern livestock production leave vets little choice and they do their ethical best inside a morally flawed system. But what possible excuse could there be for a vet to support the abuse of animals to amuse a crowd of rodeo fans? Vets attending rodeos should make clear they are not there to support the event, but are adhering to their oath to prevent suffering.
The CVMA has long been aware of this conflict of interest that underlies its silence on issues like animal abuse at rodeos. Writing in the Canadian Veterinary Journal in 2012, Dr. Patricia Turner, then-chair of the CVMA's animal welfare committee, stated: "Our duties to the animals we care for may often be in conflict with the desires of our clients and employers, or the realities of financial solvency. For veterinarians to become leaders in the field of animal welfare, we must recognize ongoing societal changes in how animals are valued and actively engage in discussions regarding animal use and care by society."
The CVMA needs to show the courage of its convictions and speak out against the unnecessary suffering of animals at the Calgary Stampede, as well as all the other rodeos that make a mockery of its high-minded principles.
This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.