New Zealand farmers subject calves, bulls and horses to agonising violence in rodeo events, including delivering electric shocks and slamming them on their backs and tying their legs together so they can't move, campaigners say.
Some creatures are wrenched or forced into such painful positions that they collapse, suffering broken necks, legs or backs.
As the rodeo season begins, animal-welfare activists are telling UK shoppers that buying New Zealand wool, meat and dairy “helps fund extreme violence towards animals by some of the country’s farmers”.
The campaigners claim British supermarkets “are complicit in facilitating violence” by buying New Zealand wool, meat and dairy.
Rodeo organisers say it is family entertainment since children take part, and that it brings rural communities together.
The activity was banned in Britain in 1934 but has remained controversial wherever else it is carried out.
Most clubs have banned filming but the Anti Rodeo Action NZ group says secret footage shows cowboys:
giving animals electric shocks to restrain them
using ropes that “throttle” calves so they are sent flying through the air
using ropes that burn bulls’ necks to control the animals
letting horses drag calves by neck ropes that choke them
tail twisting and pulling animals’ ears
slamming calves on their backs or sides
using ropes so tight on bulls’ chests that saliva pours from their mouths
Events include steer wrestling, team roping, rope and tie, bareback and saddle bronc, bull riding, barrel racing.
According to activists who have documented rodeo events for seven years, electric shocks are used to force unwilling steers and bulls into position in a chute before the action. “Some have gone down in the chute as they are fearful, others refuse to get into the chutes,” said Lynn Charlton, of the action group.
The New Zealand Rodeo Cowboys’ Association (NZRCA) insists that studies have found no lasting effects for the animals, and vets monitor animal welfare at all the roughly 35 rodeos a year. It says “every effort is made to ensure the standards required by the code of welfare are upheld and in many instances exceeded”.
The code sets minimum standards but campaigners point out that the standards are goals – and breaching them is not a crime.
In 2016, the country’s animal welfare advisory committee advised the government against banning rodeo.
However, two years later, a report by the country’s Animal Law Association claimed rodeos would be illegal under the Animal Welfare Act but for the welfare code.
Backed by the New Zealand Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, activists want rodeo to be banned.
“Bulls are ridden and spurred in the flank; they are wrapped with an extremely tight rope. Excessive saliva pours from their open mouths. Some cry out,” said Ms Charlton.
She said farmers throw calves to the ground or allow a horse to drag them along the ground by their necks, making them choke. “Their necks elongate frighteningly. Some get their heads trapped beneath their necks, preventing breathing while inhaling dust and dirt. Some defecate in fear.”
Some clips show cowboys hurriedly tying calves’ legs together with rope so that as they try to stand, they fall and are left struggling, sometimes with their necks bent back to their spines.
“People pull the legs out behind steers while someone else pulls the steer’s head in another direction. Some collapse to the ground,” Ms Charlton said.
Cowboys – most of whom are farmers or farm hands - were also filmed wrestling bulls so hard that their necks were twisted by 180 degrees, until pain caused them to submit and flip sideways. Sometimes the animals’ faces were smashed into the ground.
Riders are also accused of deliberately making animals panicked and afraid to induce “wild” behaviour for bucking, so they spur horses in the neck, shoulders and flanks.
“Some horses are in so much pain and terror that they have their mouths wide open in fear. You never see that anywhere else,” Ms Charlton said. The footage shows how in panic they may jump, landing on their sides or backs.
Footage in one case shows a horse apparently in such pain from its front legs that as it tries to escape it can barely stand and crashes to the ground.
Some animals die by breaking their necks, or break other bones and have to be put down. The Independent has asked the cowboys’ association how many die in a typical season, from October to March.
Animal-rights groups say rodeos also cause internal damage, particularly in the rope-and-tie and steer-wrestling events.
Anti Rodeo Action NZ has appealed to UK shoppers not to buy the country’s farm products. “Consumers have long been told the country’s animal-welfare standards are among the best in the world but behind the scenes some farmers are busy brutalising animals,” the group says.
“Top UK supermarkets and other retailers say animal welfare is important to them, but they are complicit in facilitating violence by purchasing New Zealand wool, meat and dairy from our farmers.
“None of our major exporters uses images from rodeo to showcase our animal welfare standards to the world.”
In the 2017-18 season newsletter, Lyal Cocks, president of the cowboys’ association, wrote: “New Zealand rodeo has been placed on the endangered list not because of natural attrition but because a vocal minority of bigots demand it. Under the guise of pro-animal welfare, these intolerant individuals have agitated for the demise of soft targets, such as greyhound racing, fox-hunting and animal circuses, and the consequences be damned.”
The NZRCA says it “takes animal welfare seriously and will investigate fully any infringements of the code that are reported to it”.
The Independent has asked the New Zealand Rodeo Cowboys Association to respond.