And a Warning, Some Viewers May Find These Scenes Disturbing........
The tv presenter's face is serious and frowning.
We believe this story must be told in the public interest.
A bull has been savagely kicked and punched at a rodeo after having its back broken while being made to buck its rider in the bull riding event… It was chased from the ring, forced to helplessly drag its back legs….forced to lie in agony for almost two hours before being cruelly herded onto a truck…should have been anaesthetized immediately….gross disgusting acts of cruelty typical of all rodeos.
I'm shocked as I watch the images repeated on my television. As the camera flicks back to the show's presenter she winces painfully, shakes her head and almost cries as she says, “How cruel!”
And so the hunt begins...
I know that it is impossible for me to argue anything in defence of those involved in that incident, not because there is nothing to defend but because the damage done in those few early reports has already blown everything out of all proportion. Judge, jury and executioner have already done their work
I am disturbed alright, as the presenter had warned I might be. But not for the reasons she might think.
I realize that for me to proceed beyond this point means placing myself well and truly in the firing line for accusations of being heartless, cruel, abusive, sick. I do not know how to avoid that, other than by choosing to say nothing. I can't do that so into the fire I go….
How to explain to a predominantly urban audience that what they saw was not a cruel cowboy, viciously punching and kicking a poor defenceless bull? It was obvious that the bull's injuries were potentially disastrous. I say potentially because no one at that stage could say for certain. (And now, with the bull destroyed prematurely, no one will ever know). Time was needed. Outraged protesters made more time an impossibility. But who really wants to know that?
A few months ago, while loading a quiet milking cow and her new calf onto a horse float, the cow swung around suddenly to run and fell to the ground. After trying unsuccessfully to get her up I thought her back was broken, or at the very least her hip dislocated. I called the vet who fortunately was unable to come immediately because an hour or so later, as I waited impatiently for her arrival, the cow stood up and moved off as though nothing had happened. Anyone who works with cattle can tell you this is not a rare occurrence.
How to explain that no one with the tiniest understanding of the sheer size, bulk, strength, toughness of a one-tonne bull would even consider hoeing the boots into a bull's head, let alone punching it? That would be like attacking a rock with one's bare fists.
How to explain the difference between cruelly and brutally forcing, and coaxing to a point that is necessary, a bull like that which, even as injured as it was, could still inflict enormous damage on a human, with a simple flick of the head.
We have a bull that bends strong steel farm gates, breaks out whole branches of trees, snaps off fence posts simply by rubbing an itchy spot on his head or his rump. He is an ordinary, typical bull.
How to explain to those who wanted the bull humanely injected, the ineffectiveness that a supposedly humane injection would have on a bull that size?
How to explain so many other realities of farm and rural life to people who have never dealt with chooks and goats, let alone anything larger?
While I don't claim to know everything, I can state with some certainty that my understanding of large animals is greater than that of the majority of Australians. How do I know? Because I am, and always have been a member of that quickly declining minority group - farming, rural Australia.
I was born into a farming and rodeoing family. I grew up living, working and playing with large animals. I can look at a cow and know where I must stand to make it run where I want. I can do the same for a horse or a sheep. The difference between each is subtle but distinct to one who knows.
I have felt through the violent sting in my own hand, the toughness of a cow's hide. I know that to slap my quiet milking cows on the rump with my bare hand in an attempt to move them is a stupid thing to do. It will hurt me terribly but will not convince them to move one step if they feel otherwise inclined. I know that to simply hold a piece of poly pipe in my hand and look bigger will make all the difference.
I know that it is too dangerous, as a rule, to treat a large animal as a pet, in the same way as I might a dog or a cat. Calves are cute when babies, but they grow up. One playful flick with a full-grown head could kill or seriously injure me or my children. For the safety and well-being of humans who live and work around animals, we must have mutual respect and understanding. There must be distance and there must be one in control. My children had to learn young that in order to avoid physical hurt and repeated emotional anguish, they must teach an animal its place, know their own place, show and expect great respect at all times. This applies as much to a rooster in the henhouse as a huge bull in the paddock. Would your six year old know how to stand up to a one-tonne bull if need be? Mine would. And it's not about being cruel. For anyone to attempt to match a bull on physical grounds would be suicide.
And they must learn how to let go. Learn to say goodbye on a regular basis to animals they've grown too fond of. That is their reality.
In recent weeks I have watched and listened in despair and disbelief as my life, my livelihood, my personality and character and that of my family, friends and colleagues has been assessed, ripped and torn to shreds by people who know nothing about me. I have heard story after inaccurate story, mistruth upon ignorant mistruth piled neatly one on top of the other, claiming to inform and educate the public as to the cruel, barbaric truth about rodeos. The inaccuracies are too numerous for anyone to give us the time or space to correct them. They range from blatant lack of knowledge about rodeo rules and regulations to emotive, distorted twists and reinterpretations of events, to unforgivable misreporting and sensationalizing in order to stir an audience that wants to be comfortably outraged.
I could argue each point, offer an alternative way of seeing, provide explanations on details that people obviously do not understand but who really wants to know anyway? It's far easier to be shocked and horrified in ignorance than to patiently seek truth and balance.
I don't exaggerate when I say our entire lives have been attacked because such ill-informed, one-sided attacks have consequences and implications not just for rodeo and rodeo people but for anyone in the rural industry, working with animals. For many of us, that is our life, that is who we are and what we do.
Sadly, it is a reality with which most Australians have lost touch. If I, like a very large number of my compatriots, were to trace my family history, I would discover that the further I went back, the more farmers and farming families I would find. There was a time when we all knew where our milk and eggs came from, where our pork, mutton and veal originated. There was a time when animals took us to town, ploughed our fields, helped plant and harvest our crops. There was a time when our dogs did not grow fat and lazy in front of the tv but were outside working alongside us in the paddock.
As a nation we still like to think of ourselves as strongly and closely connected to ‘the bush'. Such a quaint, romantic term, the meaning of which still perplexes me.
Nowadays, the closest that too many of us will ever come to seeing a farm animal will be on our television and film screens. As we have become more and more comfortable with our sterile, sanitized, urban worlds of cut lawns and concrete, super safe playgrounds and high tech entertainment, we see the reality of rural life increasingly from a distance. We are taught through popular films such as Babe that animals think, talk, act and experience emotions like humans. They are even more intelligent than humans. This may, in fact, be the case but in the feel-good films that constantly splash across our screens we can't even credit an animal with having its own intelligence. The super intelligence we give it is super-human intelligence. Still, we can't understand or accept that it may be intelligent in its own right and that someone other than us may be able to see that. It doesn't seem right to us that an animal should buck or kick so we believe protesters who say rodeo people are cruel and forcing animals to buck.
I recently took my children to see Racing Stripes and saw the zebra galloping full-speed along the inside of the fence, racing a vehicle. The audience roared with laughter as it suddenly crashed headlong into a tree and fell like a rock to the ground. Of course it got up, shook its head and walked away, feeling silly. I cringed uncomfortably at that same scene because I have seen accidents like that and I know that they can bring instant death. One of Tasmania's best ever bucking bulls, the Grey Ghost, died that way (and he wasn't even being spurred, goaded or prodded by a ‘cruel cowboy' at the time). It wasn't funny. It made us sick to the stomach. That was the reality. And yet it is my way of life, my way of seeing that has been attacked and criticized as ignorant and out of touch with reality.
In our safe, comfortable, armchairs we are happy to laugh uproariously at our pets being placed in all manner of humiliating, degrading positions on shows such as Funniest Home Videos. We can laugh until we cry, at near misses, stupid stunts and crazy accidents. So long as nothing is visibly injured - or worse, killed. We know it's okay because we know our pets, we understand the way they think and feel - just like us, of course.
Isn't it strange that we can choose to overfeed our pets and put them at serious risk of dibetes, heart disease and therefore death, or we can place them in an environment where they are so bored out of their brains that they totally destroy the house and must be taken to a pet psychiatrist for treatment, and yet we can criticize others who work with different animals in a different context for making a choice about their animals' lives that may put them at a different risk.
I know almost nothing about cats so I will not presume to make any judgements as to how they should or should not be over-fed, but here's something I do know. Somes horse love to buck. When they will not or cannot be induced to give it up, their life prospects in the real world are very bleak. Racing trainers don't want them. Pony club children can't ride them. Polo-crossers, eventers, showjumpers, hunters, trail riders can't use them. Struggling farmers and landowners can't afford to keep them out of the goodness of their heart. Rodeo can save their lives. I know this and much, much more about the world of a bucking horse because I grew up with them, worked with them, handled them, knew them by name, cheered their victories and mourned their occasional passing.
And yet an audience poll, taken in the light of a series of one-sided “reports” and interviews would happily see them all destroyed without even wanting to know the reality. With their minds already made up, why would they want or need to know that even the hardest working bucking horse in this country would not work more than forty minutes in a year, the least as few as thirty seconds? So what if it spends the rest of its time grazing in the paddock with its mates, eating grass that could feed valuable beef cattle?
Why would they want to know the real details surrounding the sheepskin-lined flank strap? Why, when they prefer to believe its purpose must be for cruelty, would they care that it is a physical impossibility for it to be tied around an animal's genitals? (Who ever saw a flank strap tied under a mare's tail?) Why, if their mind is made up, would they care to discover that a flank strap can be pulled up to a certain point and no further? That to pull it tight would mean preventing an animal from bucking? Why would they want to understand that a flank strap is no more inconvenient to a bucking horse than a whip to a race horse or a sharp, pointed spur to a pony club horse?
What difference would it make knowing that the rowels on a rodeo spur are free-moving and painless? That for a competitor to have any equipment that causes pain can prevent an animal from performing, decrease one's chances of a good score and bring instant disqualification?
I don't know much about pet mice so I will hold my tongue as to the merits of keeping them locked in a tiny cage, but I do know that, despite claims to the contrary, skills such as roping and tying of animals, catching and throwing of beasts are time-honoured ones among bushmen and women throughout this land. They are skills that my family and I have needed and called into practice on our own farm on many occasions. Yes, I'll confess that they are used by fewer and fewer people these days, but they are not dead. In certain situations they are even essential. These skills are invisible and unknown to people whose lives revolve around different spheres. But surely society's ignorance of their existence and importance is not a good reason to remove them. Rather, I would argue that it is all the more reason why they should be preserved and demonstrated, in the safest, most humane way possible, before they are completely lost.
Our bullockies have all but gone, our high country riders are being pushed further and further down the slopes, our drovers and stockmen have been virtually superceded by helicopters and road trains. Such people and their animals are the very ones who have contributed so strongly to the growth of this country. Oh, we like to have them preserved safely and romantically in our poetry and quaint bush ballads but we're too far removed from them to have any real appreciation for their unique, distinctive contributions and worth. Increasingly, all we have left to remind us of our past, our diminishing bush culture and our rural heritage are sanitized, cut and edited television shows and comfortable, safe tourist destinations such as theme parks, Halls of Fame, museums.
As each remaining aspect of our rural existence is culled, banned, removed, forgotten, dismissed, it takes in its passing yet another part of our life, our soul, our understanding of who we are and where we have come from. An individual stripped of his or her identity experiences the pain and emptiness in every part of their being that is left behind. By the time a nation as a whole realises what it has allowed to be destroyed, those who could have saved it are too old, too defeated, too long gone.
So what is the real problem with rodeo? I would argue that it is much the same as our problem with rural and farming life in general. To accept an invitation by a rodeoing community to step into their world for just a few hours at a time is about as close as our cosy, comfortable urban counterparts will ever get to rural life in the raw. And for many, that is too close, too uncomfortable, too confronting. It's tough, fast, dirty and full of risk, (although by far the most casualties are among the competitors, not the animals) and sometimes its very rawness makes us squirm. It's a sport, like mountaineering, rock climbing, abseiling, that states clearly: I dare to live and I dare to take the risks that come with that choice. In today's world of safe and comfortable workplaces, of armchair sport, armchair politics and armchair entertainment such a bold statement is all too often misunderstood. How can anyone possibly defend their choice to pit their 70kg body and skills for eight seconds against a huge defenceless bull that could crush them in a second? Maybe the critics are right. Maybe it is a far more pleasant and acceptable society that gets its kicks in a safe manner by abusing drugs and alcohol, by spending and losing millions upon millions of dollars each year in safe, animal-friendly social pursuits such as popping speed, binge drinking and gambling to excess.
So why can we successfully fight the ugliness of rodeo but shy away from ugliness of deliberately inflicted human suffering such as a Tampa or a Villawood? The difference is that protesting about rodeos is safe. It does not have the weight of the government behind it. We don't have to get out of our chairs to do it. While we have a phone or a computer at our disposal we can add our angry, offended voice to the cause. Rodeo is a relatively small, little understood industry, much like the rural communities around which it revolves and from which it evolved. When harsh reality does rear its ugly head, such as the accident at Carrick, the public can see it- though not necessarily understand it - close up. Accidents, injury and death are disturbing. But for those of us who work with animals on a daily basis, they are a reality. If the rodeoing community doesn't cry and show outrage and distress then we are told we are out of touch, callous, heartless and desensitized to the reality of an animal's suffering.
I would argue that we are no more out of touch than anyone who sits and watches the news each evening, watching intently and from a safe distance as the presenter warns “the following scenes may be disturbing.” This time, not a bull with a possible broken back, but bodies blown up and spattered around walls in full colour in our very own lounge rooms; war zones riddled with dead and dying bodies; refugee camps with starving, pot-bellied children, mass graves lined with row upon row of bullet-ridden corpses. All of course, toned down and sanitized for television to prevent us from squirming too much.
I would argue that those of us who live and work with our animals, and who use our animals in sport are fully in tune with life's realities, both animal and human. Death and injury are a part of life and are accepted as such. This does not mean we should be blasé about them but nor does it mean that we should shy away from giving and taking opportunities for living - and living life to the full - when they arise. It does mean that when something does go wrong, we must place it in its proper perspective and move on if we are going to fully embrace the risk that is life itself.
(Rodeo Tasmania Media Representative, BA Hons, Dip Ed, farmer, teacher, student, foster carer, 26 years member of Harveydale Rodeo Association, former rodeo competitor, former Island Rodeo Circuit President, 2005 recipient of Island Rodeo Circuit Perpetual Award for Exceptional Service to Tasmanian Rodeo, 2006 Finalist RIRDC Tasmanian Rural Womens Award).