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Episode S3E2
What you need to know about calf roping in rodeos, and why it needs to end

What you need to know about calf roping in rodeos, and why it needs to end. With Di Evans.
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  • RSPCA Australia
  • Thursday, 16 November 2023
Brian Daly interviews RSPCA Australia’s Senior Scientific Officer Di Evans, to explore the issues associated with calf roping in rodeos.


Di: ... the windpipe is a really sensitive area, so you can imagine the pain these little calves are experiencing by being pulled back. You know, their whole body weight is literally concentrated on that part of the neck. It's brutal.

Brian: Hello and welcome to RSPCA Australia's Great and Small Talk where we discuss the pressing welfare issues animals face in Australia today. My name is Brian Daly and today our spotlight is on rodeos, with a particular focus on one of the most contentious events held at Australian rodeos: calf roping. And joining us to give us all the information about this issue is Dr. Di Evans, veterinarian, RSPCA Australia's Senior Scientific Officer and co-author of a recent joint study into calf roping by the University of Sydney and RSPCA Australia. Welcome to the podcast, Di.

Di: Thank you, Brian.

Brian: And now I'd imagine Australians are pretty familiar with rodeos with the bull riding and bucking broncos and so forth, that also present their own welfare issues, but they may not be so familiar with calf roping. Can you tell us exactly what happens in this event?

Di: Yes, so essentially a calf who could be as young as four months of age is put into a chute or a stall, and then that's opened and the calf is released. They literally run for their life as they're being chased by a rider on horseback, who then lassoes the calf using a rope around their neck. And this can pull them off their feet, sometimes so violently that they somersault backwards. And this is because the calf is actually running, you know, full pelt in one direction, and then they're suddenly halted abruptly and have to, I guess, succumb to the rope. And, and it is quite a stressful and impactful event. Once the calf is lassoed, the rider will get off the horse, they then grab the calf and restrain them and force them to the ground, tie up three legs, and then once that happens, and the ropes remain in place, it's deemed to be an effective catch and restrain and roping, and the ropes are released and the calf will leave the arena. And the aim is to do this as quickly as possible.

Brian: Sounds like a very violent event.

Di: It's brutal.

Brian: It's really brutal. I understand it's effectively banned in South Australia and Victoria and the ACT, is that, is that correct?

Di: Yes. Well, firstly, the ACT prohibit rodeos altogether. So you won't see a rodeo in the ACT, and in South Australia and Victoria, they've implemented a minimum body weight requirement of 200 kilograms for cattle. So this essentially prohibits the use of calves for any event at a rodeo. Because under rodeo rules, they have a maximum of 135 kilograms. So by having that in place, they can't use calves.

Brian: So how old are these calves when they're subjected to this?

Di: They can be as young as four months of age and in a normal beef production system, they'd still be with their moms. So that means that they weaned very young, and that's a very stressful experience for young animals to go through. At the rodeo, they're separated from their buddies, when they're forced into the races and into the chutes. It's quite a terrifying experience for these little guys.

Brian: Yeah, very startling. So the animal welfare issues here, obviously, are both physical and emotional. Could you tell us first about those physical dangers that you were alluding to, firstly, with that rope, yanking them right back?

Di: Yeah, so the lassoing is obviously the most problematic element of this whole event. And the windpipe is a really sensitive area, you only have to gently touch your windpipe yourself to know how uncomfortable that is. So you can imagine the pain that these little calves are experiencing by being pulled back, you know, their whole body weight is literally concentrated on that part of the neck. You've got your thyroid gland, you've got other glands and tissues in that neck area as well. The other risk comes when they're being forced to the ground sometimes quite strongly, you know, they really, they can be thrown almost. And the biggest risks there is damage to the ribs, and even possibly fractures. And we have to remember that calves and cattle and horses are prey species. And they'll often mask signs of pain and fear, and this is an instinct for them to basically survive, because by expressing any signs of fear or pain, they're likely to attract a predator. And so when we see signs of fear and pain being expressed, we know there's really significant negative impacts happening.

Brian: Yeah, and how do you go about observing and documenting this? I mean, you've just done the study with the University of Sydney, how can an animal tell us when there's something wrong?

Di: So when an animal experiences stress, which could be due to fear, pain or another negative impact, there's three responses that they will display: the flight response, the fight response, or the freeze response. Now, in the case of calf roping, we're seeing the flight response. So these young calves are doing all they can to escape, they don't obviously have the capacity to fight, so their only avenue is to avoid what these negative experiences are forcing upon them. So when we look at trying to unravel if you like how they're feeling, we can use facial expressions, we can look at body language, and we can look at specific behaviors. And the best way to do that is through video footage.

Brian: And this study that you've just done with the University of Sydney and RSPCA used quite a bit of video footage, I understand.

Di: Yes, we had video footage from two rodeos in Queensland of calf roping. And that video footage, what really happened was we scored or just noted the absence or presence of 10 specific behaviors that are indicative of fear and stress. And so through that process, we were able to identify what the most common behaviors were that these animals were displaying for each of the five phases of the event. So we broke it down into the chase phase, the lasso phase, being caught and restrained, and then legs being tied and then being released when they can exit the arena.

Brian: So we talked about the physical dangers with this, what about the mental or emotional impact? It must be, as you said, so frightening and stressful for these young animals.

Di: Indeed, so the main indicators, I guess, were behaviors, including things like bellowing, obvious escape attempts, both just the way they leave the chute and try to get away, when they're caught and restrained, they also are trying to get away. And when they legs are tied, they're trying to get up. So they were very common behaviors that were expressed. When the calves were caught and restrained, and sometimes during the leg tie as well, they would bellow. And when a calf bellows that's a very significant indicator that they are quite distressed. There's another sign called eye white, where they literally roll the eye to reveal 50% of the white of the eye. And that's through other research that's been shown to indicate a negative mental state.

Brian: You've been involved in raising concerns about this for quite some time. Do you think it is something that people involved in the rodeos are aware of?

Di: Look, we believe there are some who do acknowledge that the calf roping is problematic because of the negative welfare impacts. But probably the vast majority seem to be focused on other aspects, you know, things like tradition, a sense of identity, the social sort of connections that are made at rodeos. And so these seem to become a priority and lead to a lack of acknowledgement or consideration of the welfare of the calf. And sometimes they will only focus on say things like, we look after them, and they look good, so you know, that's, it's coming back to that physical state, and not really understanding the mental impacts that are going on. The other problem with spectators is that often they don't see what's happening because they'll usually be focused on the competitor. It's a very noisy atmosphere, quite often they won't hear the bellowing, for example. They're seated some distance from what's really going on, and they don't know what signs to look for. So you package all that together. And so people are missing seeing what's really happening to these calves.

Brian: And this treatment goes right against the general idea of welfare in agriculture at the moment that you'd see on a farm?

Di: Completely. You don't see this on a farm and not just for welfare reasons, but for health and safety reasons and for productivity reasons. The other problem with rodeo is that these calves are subjected to this treatment time and time again, at the same rodeo, at the next rodeo, at rodeo training schools, it just goes on and on. And so on a farm when you are yarding calves to do procedures or whatever, it only happens once or twice. So, and we know that a lot of farmers have seen the benefits in actually creating a positive experience, particularly for young animals that are being yarded for the first time so that they don't get stressed. The other element, if you like, that is really telling in this whole space is that rodeo contradicts low stress stock handling principles. And the livestock industry have gone to great lengths, particularly in the last couple of decades, to promote the handling of livestock and farm animals, to be calm, to be gentle, to minimize the risks of stress and injury. And rodeo contradicts it.

Brian: And I'd imagine community attitudes as well, like we've seen a lot of movement in community attitudes to other areas of animal welfare and, you know, higher-welfare food and all these things. Have you seen any changes in your time working on this issue in the community attitudes?

Di: Yes, well, we're seeing a rise in the level of concern. So surveys that the RSPCA have commissioned independently have shown an increase of 15%, from 2015 to 2022, in the number of respondents across Australia, who are concerned or very concerned about the welfare of rodeos, of animals used in rodeos, and that's a significant increase, particularly when you consider that there hasn't been a huge amount of focus in the media. So as this issue becomes more and more talked about, I think that percentage is going to rise. And a recent poll just on calf roping, showed that 61% were concerned about the welfare of the calves, and an equal number, were supportive of a ban in their jurisdiction. And on top of that, 45% indicated that they would not support businesses who promoted or gave money to rodeos that had calf roping. And that's, that's almost half of the potential market, if you like, out there. So that's another piece of evidence, I guess, that there's definitely significant community concern on these issues.

Brian: Yeah, no doubt. And so from that is the only solution here to ban calf roping in all states and territories? And what's the process? How difficult would that be?

Di: Look, legislative reform can be a slow and arduous process. But it's an important one. So, we need to see other jurisdictions follow suit, in terms of what South Australia and Victoria have done, whether it's an outright ban, or it's a minimum body weight, that's yet to be determined. There has been an opportunity in Queensland in the last couple of years when they were developing some standards through a code of practice. And unfortunately, the pleas and the evidence provided by animal welfare groups and the Australian Veterinary Association were ignored, and calf roping continues in Queensland. We're hoping that that may be revisited. In WA, they're reviewing their Animal Welfare Act. So we may see some progress there. But there are other mechanisms, including alerting sponsors, and we have had some success with that, and we will continue to raise that because sponsors don't want to have their brand and reputation linked with animal cruelty. So, as I was mentioning earlier, most people are completely unaware, the majority of people will never go to a rodeo, so it's a hidden welfare issue. There's no doubt about that. But once people realize what's going on, they certainly are quite outraged and distressed about the whole thing. The other thing that we're seeing is local councils. So, in New South Wales, some of the councils are taking on this issue, which is really encouraging as well, with one council recently not approving a permit for a local rodeo. I've never heard that happen in Australia before, so we may be seeing a new trend coming through, which would be fantastic.

Brian: Yes, sounds like there's some movement on it at least there, and it's interesting, because, you know, as you said before, rodeos are a big part of country life. They've been that tradition, the social gatherings, the community events. So it sounds like it needs a multi-pronged approach to bring people along who've grown up loving rodeos in order to get them to be a part of this change.

Di: Definitely. The other thing, Brian, that we are really concerned about is that these events are promoted as family fun entertainment, and it is, it is really disappointing to see children not only attending but even being encouraged to participate in events. And just from personal experience attending rodeos myself, to witness what's happening, and also hearing children's comments on on some of the audio with the video footage that I've seen, it's almost like they're being encouraged to just disregard the welfare of those animals. And a big part of it is ignorance. And so we do need to educate. The RSPCA acknowledges that rodeos play an important part in terms of social networking, bringing financial benefits to local rural communities, but we would really urge those rural communities to reconsider the form of entertainment, that they're, they're hosting, supporting and promoting, and to do it in a manner that doesn't involve animal cruelty.

Brian: Because the world has moved on, it seems like something that is well beyond its time and needs to change. And if the stock handling and every other aspect of country life and working with animals has moved on and has improved, it's just very obvious that this needs to move on as well.

Di: Absolutely. And, you know, if you look at the tourism sector, we've seen big shifts in terms of consumers, tourists acknowledging that they don't want to see animals harmed for the sake of selfie, etc. And the use of animals in sport, for example, has been under the spotlight for some time as well. So you, you pull all those threads together. And there is a groundswell of people saying "This is not good enough, and it needs to stop."

Brian: So, like in other aspects, we need people to, to vote with their feet, and to make a stand and say, "I might not go to a rodeo now."

Di: Absolutely. We'd like those who have been to never go again, and for those who might have thought about it, to make a commitment that this isn't what they want to be supporting. Because once you go through that gate, that is a measure of support, and so we urge the community to really think about the animals and not some of the other aspects that go with rodeo and choose to spend their dollars doing something that doesn't involve animal cruelty.

Brian: I couldn't support that idea more, Di. Thank you for your time today, it's been great talking with you. I think we'd be hard pressed to get anyone more qualified to talk about on this issue of calf roping than then yourself, you've been working on it for some time now and I do wish you every success in bringing about an end to this unnecessary practice that must be so frightening and dangerous for these young animals. Thanks again for your time, Di.

Di: Thanks, Brian.

Brian: We've been talking today with Dr. Di Evans, Senior Scientific Officer at RSPCA Australia, and thank you for listening. If you'd like any more information on calf roping, visit the RSPCA Australia website at rspca.org.au. You can also subscribe to the podcast series at the same website, or at all the usual podcast suspects. I'm Brian Daly, and I look forward to your company next time on RSPCA Australia's Great and Small Talk.

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