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Jessica Scott-Reid is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer and animal advocate.

I’ve been warned against writing this.

My cousin, a proud, born-and-raised Albertan, told me explicitly that where she comes from, speaking out against the Stampede is just not done. “People get mad!” she cautioned.

And I get it. Since 1886, the yearly exhibition showcasing and celebrating Calgary’s rich agricultural roots has helped to increase the region’s special character, its connection to the land and to animal farming – the unique northern cowboy culture.

Its history, tradition and a whole lot of fun are wrapped into one world-famous event.

And I’m in faraway Winnipeg. What could I possibly know about Calgary culture and the treasured Stampede?

I think I know, as an outsider, what some of the rest of Canada is thinking: We love and respect Calgary, but it’s time to modernize the Stampede. It’s time to celebrate without exploiting animals. We can all still play cowboys without hurting cows and horses for fun.

Calls for the Stampede to cease using animals as entertainment – particularly in the controversial calf-roping and continually deadly chuckwagon events – has been going on for years. (A horse which fell in this week’s chuckwagon race has since died.)

Jesse Popescul ropes a calf during the Calgary Stampede rodeo in on July 7, 2019.TODD KOROL/Reuters

The Vancouver Humane Society has petitioned, campaigned and published pieces begging Albertans, veterinarians and Canadians to stop, think and care about the animals being used as props in Stampede festivities and events.

The Montreal SPCA has campaigned against rodeos since 2017. The Nova Scotia Humane Society says it “opposes events that involve the throwing or catching of animals with ropes, or events involving wrestling or fighting with animals.”

Even the Calgary Humane Society states it “fundamentally opposes high-risk rodeo events,” as per their website.

But like bullfighting in Spain, bear bile farms in China and force-feeding of ducks and geese for foie gras in France, the Calgary Stampede continues to use old traditions to trump modern ethics in order to justify animal abuse and exploitation.

Calgary, you’re not like those other guys. You’re a great part of Canada and, in Canada, we are rapidly moving past the use of animals in entertainment.

Last month, the federal government passed bill S-203, banning the capture, captive breeding and importation and exportation of whales and dolphins. At the end of this year, Montreal will finally put an end to their infamous carriage horse industry. And circuses with performing animals have rapidly fallen out of public favour, with dozens of Canadian municipalities banning them over the past two decades.

And don’t worry, removing animals from these spectacles hasn’t diminished their entertainment value. Brilliant animated aquariums are about to become a huge deal. Electric carriages are an adorable alternative. And just look at Cirque du Soleil. Not only has the massively successful Canadian company defied the need for animals in circuses, it has reinvented the genre, creating something even greater, while carrying on many cherished traditions of the circus.

Let’s make the Calgary Stampede the Cirque du Soleil of rodeos. Animal-free, but still rich in history, and still a hell of a good time – the midway, the food (which now includes vegan options), the parties, the shows and, of course, the cowboy hats. That virtual-reality chuckwagon experience from a few years back was a smart way to bring old traditions into modern age, sans animals. Let’s have way more of that.

But it’s not just us outsiders asking for the Stampede to evolve. There are some Calgarians also brave enough to say it.

Kathryn Mayerson was born and raised in Calgary and has owned horses and horse teams for 20 years. “I’ve always felt sorry for horses in the chuckwagon races, since I can remember.” She’d like to see that part of the event come to an end, along with calf-roping. “Calf-roping is inhumane, look at the little calves’ eyes when they’re being thrown down and tied,” she says. “I think the whole industry has gone to the extreme and the animals are paying the price.”

Calgary-based animal rights activist Alexandra Cuc says compassion for the animals at the Stampede is increasing. “People’s minds are changing,” she says, “and every year there are more and more people who are not attending, either the Stampede at all, or are staying away from the events that use animals.”

At its core, the Calgary Stampede exists to showcase all that is best in the West. But over the past several years, as societal attitudes changed, the event has become a source of controversy and, for some, shame.

Let the best of the West now evolve to include modern thinking, technology-based alternatives and compassion for animals. Cowboy hats still included.

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