A soon to be launched Hollywood reality show called Kids' Wildest Games will feature several teenage boys tying tin cans to dogs' tails to see how long it takes them to shake the cans off. The dogs, obviously in great distress, run wildly, twisting and turning in an effort to be free of the can. The owner of the dog that gets rid of the can first wins a cash prize. The show's promoters say the event lasts only a few seconds and the dogs are not injured.
OK, I made that up. I assume (and hope) readers would be outraged and appalled at the idea of tormenting an animal just for the sake of entertainment.
Yet that is exactly what happens to three-month-old calves at the Calgary Stampede and other rodeos across Canada, as they are goaded, chased, roped and slammed to the ground to amuse a cheering crowd.
Some would argue there's a big difference between livestock and dogs. After all, even calves weigh upwards of 100 kilograms and have thick hides. But strength, size and a thick hide do nothing to protect calves from the fear and stress they are subjected to for the amusement of rodeo crowds. In terms of suffering there is little difference between the stress felt by a rodeo animal and that of the tormented dogs in my fictional reality show. In fact, they are likely to suffer more.
All cattle are "prey" animals. That is, they retain the survival instincts of evolutionary ancestors who were at the mercy of predators who hunted them for food. Hence, they have an acute sense of fear, which motivates the hyper-vigilance necessary to flee from danger instantly. But acute fear can mean acute distress.
The renowned animal behaviourist, Temple Grandin, has led the scientific research into the effect of fear on livestock. She says: "The single worst thing you can do to an animal emotionally is to make it feel afraid. Fear is so bad for animals I think it's worse than pain."
If Grandin is correct then imagine what torment young calves must be suffering. Rodeos are all about coercing animals through fear and stress -- that's what makes them perform.
Rodeo's defenders often use the apparent passive reaction of some animals to rough treatment as evidence they are not suffering. Calves and steers can appear unaffected after being chased, roped or thrown to the ground.
But the science is clear on this too, as Grandin says: "Prey species animals such as cattle and sheep hide their pain when they know they are being watched so that predators cannot detect their weakness. When nobody is around they may be lying down and moaning."
Grandin also makes a distinction between calf-roping as genuine ranch practice and the sensationalized rodeo event. At a recent speaking engagement in Vancouver she said: "That's not the way it's done on the ranch. On the ranch it's done quietly and calmly, not like at the rodeo."
She is not alone among academics in this view. Dr. Bernard Rollin, a professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University, has written: "Even ranchers are uncomfortable with such an event because the immature animal surely experiences fear and physical pain when jerked at the end of a rope."
The work of animal behaviourists such as Grandin has led to the development of "low-stress livestock handling" on ranches across North America. These more humane approaches avoid using fear or force as a motivator -- the complete opposite of practices celebrated by rodeos.
Some will say, big deal, so what if a few rodeo animals get stressed? First, it's not just a few animals -- thousands are used in countless unobserved practice sessions, aside from the performances. Second, it poses a serious moral question: What kind of society condones the deliberate and unnecessary tormenting of animals for entertainment?
Most people would not tolerate cats or dogs being treated this way. Livestock, perhaps because they are destined to be slaughtered for food, somehow don't evoke the same compassion. But why should the certainty of death at the abattoir justify inhumane treatment beforehand?
To paraphrase philosopher Jeremy Bentham, the question is not what purpose do animals serve, but rather, can they suffer? There is no doubt rodeo animals do -- and it demeans all of us that it is allowed to continue.
Peter Fricker is projects and communications director for the Vancouver Humane Society.