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Stampede may be legally ‘humane’, but that doesn’t mean animals are protected

Vancouver Sun by Maneesha Deckha 16 July 2017

The death of Cowboy, a horse “put down” last week at the Calgary Stampede after being injured in a chuckwagon race, is a tragedy, one deserving of our attention and grief. The incident has rightly shone a spotlight on the treatment of animals at the Stampede, sparking debate about whether the Stampede meets provincial animal welfare standards.

But if we are serious about protecting animals from abuse, this is the wrong question to ask. That’s because animal welfare laws like Alberta’s Animal Protection Act permit humans to use animals for our own purposes even when this means animals are maimed, brutalized or killed. Animal welfare laws do not prohibit violence against animals.

We see this easily in the case of the Stampede, a spectacle that is allowed to to go on year after year despite the recurring phenomenon of animal deaths and the routinized barbaric violence animals endure in various events.

Some may balk at the suggestion that what happens to animals in rodeos is violent or barbaric. But how else in 2017 can we characterize events like calf-roping, steer-wrestling and chuckwagon racing that place vulnerable animals in risky and terrifying situations where their physical and emotional well-being are assaulted simply for human entertainment?

Of course, the events are dangerous for the human participants too. But humans can choose to participate in the Stampede. The animals can’t.

Why don’t animal welfare laws do more to protect rodeo animals? How can the Stampede and all the brutalities animals experience coexist with Alberta’s Animal Protection Act, which states that it is an offence to “cause an animal to be in distress”? The Act further specifies that “distress” occurs where, among other things, an animal is “injured, sick in pain or suffering” or “abused…”?

The historical purposes of animal welfare laws, still legally germane today, provide an answer. These laws denounced animal abuse and cruelty. But as legal terms, “abuse” and “cruelty” were not meant to include socially sanctioned uses of animals even where animals were brutalized.

Alberta’s Animal Protection Act and other laws like it still only protect against “undue hardship” or “unnecessary suffering.” It is therefore legal for animals to suffer as long as the law sees the suffering as necessary.

But what type of suffering is legally “necessary”? When is suffering instead “undue” or “unnecessary”? Animal welfare laws rarely delineate these or other similar terms.

Left up to courts to interpret in the relatively rare instance a prosecution goes forward, dated but still leading case law tells us that humans are allowed to subjugate animals and cause them harm whenever the underlying activity or purpose (say, research, farming, entertainment) is socially acceptable and meets internal industry standards.

This interpretation may change in a future case with persuasive legal argumentation and a court sensitive to changing social views about how animals should be treated, but so far it hasn’t.

In fact, many animal welfare laws now explicitly include exemptions for standard industry practices or let the industry specify their own voluntary codes of practice for animal welfare standards — a situation of the fox guarding the henhouse.

For example, Alberta’s Animal Protection Act states there is no cruelty offence “if the distress results from an activity carried on … in accordance with reasonable and generally accepted practices of animal care, management, husbandry, hunting, fishing, trapping, pest control or slaughter.”

Notably, rodeos and the intense distress they cause animals aren’t on this list. But, arguably, they don’t need to be given the underlying logic of “unnecessary suffering” that underpins animal welfare laws. As the above list of exempted human activities makes clear, how much animals suffer is not legally relevant — the underlying social acceptability of the human activity is.

As long as the Stampede and other rodeos are seen to be socially acceptable, there’s little chance their practices will attract legal scrutiny. Case in point: the Calgary Humane Society (CHS) is authorized to enforce the Animal Protection Act over the Stampede. Although the CHS website indicates that it “fundamentally opposes high risk rodeo events”, the CHS statement on the Stampede suggests it favours working with Stampede organizers towards reform rather than pursuing prosecution.

So what can be done for the animals given the culturally contingent ambit of animal welfare laws? The answer: make rodeo violence socially unacceptable.

Albertans and all Canadians who oppose rodeo violence need to register our disapproval loud and clear. Otherwise, legal consequences for Cowboy’s death and for the ongoing barbaric treatment of rodeo animals will remain elusive.

Maneesha Deckha is a professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Victoria.