Rodeo fight goes to court as animal rights groups sue government

A group of animal rights lawyers, along with the animal rights organization SAFE, have sued the government for failing to ban the rodeo. And, based on their recent track record, they may well be successful in ending the sport in this country. Mirjam Guesgen reports.

The New Zealand Animal Law Association and SAFE have taken the Minister of Agriculture and the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC) to court.

The two organizations hope to put an end to the association calls “The unnecessary and illegal practice of rodeo in New Zealand”.

The legal code that describes what can and cannot happen when it comes to rodeo (Code of Well-being: Rodeos 2018) contradicts the general law on the protection of animals, groups say. In addition, the government did not take the appropriate steps when re-issuing the code in 2018 and the public was not consulted on this matter.

“As lawyers, we are concerned that rodeo activities such as steer wrestling or calf lassoing may be allowed to continue despite being incompatible with the law,” said the association president. animal law (NZALA), Saar Cohen, in a statement. The organization declined to comment further as the case is currently in court.

“There is simply no possible way that these activities are necessary or reasonable when it comes to dealing with animals for entertainment purposes,” says Marcelo Rodriguez Ferrere, an expert in animal law. “So if you want to include them, you have to use your regulatory power under the law, not a welfare code.”

It’s a technical legal argument, but it boils down to the fact that the Animal Welfare Act defines animals as being sentient, meaning they can have a range of positive and negative emotions and physical experiences, and people who care for animals should make sure they’re reducing the negatives and increasing the positives. The code, by allowing certain events that animals find negative, therefore goes against this objective.

The calf lasso is one of the rodeos that animal welfare groups say causes ‘substantial negative impacts’ on the calf (Photo: Getty Images)

NZALA also declared that when the code was reissued in 2018, it was “materially identical” to the 2014 version.

The latest version of the code seemed to ignore a report earlier that same year by animal rights commentator Catriona MacLennan, who raised major animal welfare issues and concluded that “rodeos are contrary to the fundamental purposes of the Animal Welfare Act 1999 and violate the basic protections granted to animals by legislation. Rodeo practices such as calf lassoing, steer wrestling, or bull riding are at odds with the criminal prohibition of mistreatment. “

According to Rodriguez Ferrere: “This report was a pretty damning indictment on the rodeo in general and although the minister said she was going to look at specific events and whether the government was going to regulate them, nothing happened. “

The rodeo is actually a series of events, some more problematic than others when it comes to animal welfare.

An event like the barrel race, where the horses are guided around the barrels quickly and sharply, is of minor concern according to a 2018 animal welfare report, although the amount of stress or pain experienced by an animal will depend on the type of equipment used by the rider, how the horse is trained (positive or negative reinforcement) and the skill of the rider.

Other events, such as steer wrestling, where a person jumps off a horse onto a running bull and forces them to the ground by grabbing the steer’s horns and twisting its neck; and rope and tie, where calves are grabbed with a lasso and then thrown and tied up by the legs, are a major concern and “regularly cause significant negative impacts”.

These negative impacts include the feeling of pain that persists after the event is over, stress and social isolation, or injuries such as torn ligaments, fractures, bruises and windings or chronic arthritis.

Rodeos held in New Zealand also include bareback riding, where a person tries to stay on a bucking horse without a saddle; saddle bronc, which is as bareback except with a saddle; team rope, similar to rope and tie but in teams; escaped with a lasso, a rider catches a calf with a lasso but does not pull it to the ground; and bull riding.

NAWAC did recommendations in the past on how to try and minimize these negatives, like using a bungee cord to minimize whiplash when a calf is caught or changing some events to the rodeo equivalent of rugby rippa (pulling a ribbon over the calf’s tail). It’s not clear, based on publicly available information reports, if the New Zealand Rodeo Cowboys Association adopted these recommendations.

The Cowboys Association declined to comment on the ongoing legal proceedings, as they were directed against the government and not against them.

Legal challenges appear to be an effective way to get things done when it comes to the way animals are treated in New Zealand.

Last year, the legal association and SAFE succeeded in banning the use of farrowing cages and mating stalls, metal cages in which pigs are kept at different stages of their lives. In this case, they adopted a similar argument, stating that the guidelines for how crates are used (such as their size or when) did not match the intent of the act. The funds are now being phased out and industry and government are looking for alternatives.

Later in 2020, the Lawyers Association won a private lawsuit against a Northland farmer who used an electric needle on two cattle in distress. He was remanded in custody.

When asked why the bands might have gone the legal route, Rodriguez Ferrere said they were not left with many options. “The political path did not seem to be the one that made much progress and satisfaction,” he said.

The government appears to be making or considering making big changes in animal welfare. In April of this year, he ad it would phase out exports of live cattle and sheep by sea over the next two years. Later that same month, he opened an investigation into greyhound racing.

Although he sees it as a willingness to tackle animal welfare issues, Rodriguez Ferrere says the government is taking a reactionary approach.

“If they took a little more from a systems perspective and a little broader about how our animal welfare system works, then they would see that it requires a fundamental change. [It requires] real reform rather than just tackling the symptoms.