More than a million people will visit the Calgary Stampede this week, and it’s a safe bet that few of them are real cowboys. In the century since the Stampede was founded, Canada has become an urban place. Yet part rodeo, part agricultural fair, part summer festival, the Stampede succeeds in bringing rural and urban together, and stands as a glorious piece of Canadian heritage.
From the start, the Stampede has always mixed showbiz hoopla with genuine ranch culture. It began in 1912 when Guy Weadick, an American who performed rope tricks on the vaudeville circuit, organized a cowboy championship in Calgary with the backing of local ranchers. He returned for a second show in 1919 and, in 1923, merged with the Calgary agricultural fair that dated to 1886. To this day, the event combines traditions of the real West with some theatre from the imagined one.
It has also had to face up to some citified concerns. Six equine deaths in 2010 outraged animal rights advocates. Retired TV game-show host and animal defender Bob Barker has now surfaced to label the Stampede “one of the most despicable of all rodeos in the world.”
In fact, the Stampede is highly aware of sensitivities about animal welfare. Organizers have responded to criticism with detailed rules: Every horse is checked by a veterinarian before and after any competition, injured steers and calves are immediately taken out of competition, and some more harmful rope techniques are disqualified.
Most people who work with live domestic animals – whether they are milking a cow, hunting with a dog or racing a horse – are attached to their charges. But what separates them from some squeamish urbanites is that they are unsentimental about animals. They will breed them for their economic usefulness and euthanize them if need be.
That is a reality of an agricultural society and, while the venerable Stampede serves mainly as entertainment, it also offers a rare encounter with rural realities for a culture increasingly out of touch with those roots. It should be celebrated for what it is. The Stampede lives up to its billing as the greatest outdoor show on earth.