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This Actually WAS My First Rodeo
It would have been a perfect opportunity to use the aphorism "this ain't my first rodeo," but that would not have been accurate, because it was actually was my first rodeo.
Last week, while enjoying the wonder and beauty of Wyoming with my wife's family, one of the items on the agenda was a rodeo. I didn't have a very clear idea of what a rodeo is; they weren't so common in Manchester, where I grew up. But I knew that it was vaguely something to do with cowboys and horses and cattle, and it didn't sound very appealing. So instead, I begged off joining and instead drove out with a friend to Moose Wyoming, to look for a moose in Wyoming.
We found a moose, a big bull with enormous antlers, and it was magical. There were about twenty of us watching this magnificent animal grazing the vegetation by the river. As the sun set, I got a text that the rodeo was already well under way and my family really wanted me to join them. So I reluctantly paid farewell to the marvelous moose and set out for the rodeo.
Now, there are some people who say that rodeos are appalling places of cruelty, in which animals are tortured in order to make them act abnormally, and where they suffer terrible stress and injury. There are other people who say that rodeos do not involve any animal cruelty at all, and are simply demonstrations of great skills. After seeing this rodeo, my impression is that both these extremes are incorrect, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle - but I'm not sure exactly where.
Because I arrived very late, I missed many of the competitions, such as the calf-lassoing. As I arrived, there was an extraordinarily skilled horse-riding competition taking place, in which young girls (some looked no older than 12) would ride their horses in a complex route which involved tight turns around a barrel, in the fastest time possible. It was breathtaking so see this maneuvers, and I quickly got caught up in the cheering and excitement of the event.
Then came the bull riding.
I hadn't been following the announcements and I wasn't prepared for what was coming. Several cowboys were waiting by a gate in the arena. Suddenly one of them yanked open the gate with a rope. About a ton of snorting, rampaging fury came hurtling out, bucking up and down furiously. The cowboy on his back was clutching on valiantly, but was being tossed around like a puppet. After a few seconds, the inevitable happened, and the cowboy was hurled off, sailing gracefully through the air before crashing into the ground. I caught it all on video, and you can watch it here: (those reading this blog via email subscription will have to open it in their web browser)
This happened again and again, sometimes with young teenagers riding smaller bulls. I was a little confused as to what was actually exactly going on, in terms of animal behavior. So afterwards, I re-watched my videos carefully, and did a little research.
The first thing that struck me as odd was that the bulls appeared to be in a frenzy of rage, the kind of thing that is normally provoked by extreme pain. Highly stressed animals like that take a while to calm down. But as soon as the bulls threw off the rider, they were almost instantly calm. They posed no threat to other cowboys in the ring, and they were easily led back to their stalls, sometime calmly walking back by themselves.
Online, there were lots of claims that the bulls are incited by electric shocks, and placed in a state of maddening pain by a rope tied tightly around their testicles. The former is illegal and I really don't think that it happened. I did see a rope tied around their nether quarters - but it wasn't around their testicles. Furthermore, if that rope was causing them pain, then why were they so relaxed once the rider was off? There was no change with the rope.
It seems that the basic dynamics of what happens is as follows. Large animals such as cattle were historically preyed upon by animals such as lions. The lion's mode of attack is to leap onto the animal's back, grasping with its claws, while biting its neck. So a bull's instinctive response to feeling something on its back is to buck wildly and attempt to throw it off.
Rodeo riders are causing the bulls to express this deeply-embedded instinct. But is it a case of the bull truly feeling terrified that there is a predator on its back, or is it merely drawing out a behavioral pattern without the associated trauma? And is all stress the same? (I once took a training course in a zoo in which we learned about deliberately giving some animals a degree of occasional stress in order to give them a more naturalistic and ultimately healthier environment.) I don't know the answer. I did find the following fascinating discussion in a book called Veterinary Ethics, edited by Giles Legood, a member of the University of London Ethics and Law Subject Panel and chaplain of the Royal Veterinary College:
"Bucking horses and bulls used for riding and spurring events are used again and again. A systematic study of their behavior would reveal just how aversive this activity was (or was not) for different individuals. My own limited experience would suggest that most broncs stand quietly in the shute before release and leave the arena quietly with other horses after parting company with their rider. Bulls frequently attack their dismounted rider and have to be distracted by the rodeo clowns. What one does not see are signs of reluctance to enter the arena, or learned helplessness. I am satisfied that these animals are stressed during the events but do not suffer. Moreover, they are maintained in a state of high fitness. The rodeo bull, in my opinion, receives a fairer deal from humans than the dairy bull which spends its entire life withing the confines of a bullpen."
My friend Yadidya Greenberg also pointed me to this fascinating interview with renowned animal behavior expert Temple Grandin, in which she demonstrates that the bulls do not feel fear and are simply demonstrating a trained response.
What is the Torah perspective on this? The Gemara condemns attending a circus, stating as follows:
"Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai expounded: “Happy is the man who does not go in the counsel of the wicked... (Ps. 1:1)” – this refers to one who does not go to the theaters and circuses of heathens. “And in the path of sinners does not stand” – this refers to the one who does not participate in their hunts. (Avodah Zarah 18b)
Etz Yosef elaborates as follows:
"It is customary among the nations to pit animals in fighting against each other by way of fun and entertainment. And it is forbidden for a Jew to witness such things, as it is written, “Do not rejoice O Israel as the other nations rejoice” (Hoshea 9:1). It also involves [the sin of participating in] a gathering of scoffers, wasting time of Torah study, and cruelty to animals."
If the Talmud is condemning circuses, then surely that would equally apply to rodeos. But matters are actually not so simple. The "circus" mentioned in the Gemara is not a modern Barnum & Bailey. It's the Roman circus. These were appalling events in which spectators would cheer as animals were torn to pieces in front of them. Different types of animals were starved and pitted against each other. Emperor Commodus would travel around the arena, killing literally hundreds of animals.
Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef (Yabiya Omer 4 Orach Chaim 2) notes that the Gemara's condemnation of circuses does not apply to modern zoos. The Roman circus served to stimulate bloodlust; the modern zoo serves to inspire people with an appreciation of nature.
Into which category does a rodeo fall? The animals do not seem to be tortured or physically harmed. On the other hand, I do think that there may be some stress involved. Now there is a principle of צער בעלי חיים הותר לצורך, that pain to animals can be justified by human need. However, the "need" must be something with genuine positive value. Is a rodeo about seeing a demonstration of great human skill, and an appreciation of the power of animals? Or is it a crass form of entertainment which stresses out animals for no real benefit? And if that's true of bull-riding, is it ultimately also true for horse-racing?
I think that answering these questions will turn out to be an academic exercise. Rodeos are not going to be around for long. Circuses with animals, even relatively good ones, are already a thing of the past. The same will happen with rodeos. If I ever go to a rodeo again, I'll be able to say that "this ain't my first rodeo" - but it will almost certainly be my last.