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University of Calgary study examines emotional state of Stampede rodeo bulls

Few bulls show signs of stress or anxiety just before bucking performance, Ed Pajor finds
July 6, 2016
A cowboy gets a bumpy ride aboard a bull at the 2015 edition of the Calgary Stampede. Flickr photo courtesy of the Calgary Stampede

A cowboy gets a bumpy ride aboard a bull at the 2015 Calgary Stampede. Flickr photo courtesy of the Calgary Stampede

Ed Pajor is a professor in animal behaviour and welfare at University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.

Ed Pajor is a professor in animal behaviour and welfare at University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. 

Handlers help a rider stay clear of a leaping bull in the infield. Flickr photo courtesy of the Calgary Stampede

Handlers help a rider stay clear of a leaping bull in the infield. Flickr photo courtesy of the Calgary Stampede 

A new study by a renowned animal welfare and behaviour expert at the University of Calgary looks at the stress levels of bucking bulls at the Calgary Stampede.

The study — the first to examine the handling of bucking bulls before a rodeo performance — found that few bulls show signs of stress or anxiety.

“The major conclusion of our study was that at this specific rodeo, the majority of bulls did not show behavioural indicators of fear prior to the performance,” says Dr. Ed Pajor, professor in animal behaviour and welfare at the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM) and Anderson-Chisholm Chair in Animal Care and Welfare. “The evidence does not support concerns that bulls were agitated prior to performance.”

The behaviour of 14 bucking bulls during loading and holding in bucking chutes prior to rodeo performance at the Calgary Stampede was studied over a two-year period.

“We looked at seven different types of behaviours associated with fear, aggression and escape — such as pawing at the ground, tail flicking and head tossing,” explains Pajor. “Nearly 85 per cent of the bulls did not perform six of the seven behaviours.”

“The more experienced a bull was at the specific rodeo, the less activity it showed in the bucking chute,” Pajor adds.

The study, published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, was co-authored by Pajor, Dr. Christy Goldhawk, Dr. Guilherme Bond and Dr. Temple Grandin, a highly acclaimed author and animal behaviour expert at Colorado State University.  

Balking behaviour also studied

The study also found that 75 per cent of bulls balked during loading, meaning they stopped movement for more than three seconds or stopped and changed direction. The researchers found that balking was more frequent in the areas where the handling alley narrowed and just before entering the loading chutes, and that people were present in the direct line of movement during nearly 65 per cent of the balking events.

“Our findings would support that location of handlers and other people could be changed during loading and while bulls are in the bucking chute to improve the experience of the bulls without affecting the rodeo performance itself,” says Goldhawk, the study’s lead author.

Pajor says there’s a lack of scientific research in this area and a lot of discussion around how animals are treated at rodeos.

“And so I think it’s really important to have some data to get a handle on what’s happening, what the animals are actually experiencing,” Pajor says. “We need to start addressing the welfare of the animals used in rodeos. If we’re going to have rodeos we have to make sure we’re taking the animals’ experience into account before, during and after the event.”

Pajor, who has been studying rodeo animal welfare and behaviour at the Calgary Stampede and other rodeos for the past five years, says the Stampede is incredibly supportive of his research. Conducting research during a rodeo presents real challenges and limitations and Pajor is hoping to undertake additional animal welfare studies on bucking animals in more controlled situations. In future studies, he plans to combine animal behaviour with physiological data. Physiological indicators such as heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels and patterns would help understand what animals experience.

That’s not what this research is about

“People argue all the time about whether animals should be used for these types of activities,” says Pajor. “That’s not what this research is about. This research is about if we are going to use animals in rodeos, we have a responsibility to try to do it in the most humane way possible. Animals are sentient beings — they experience fear and a whole wide range of emotions and we have an obligation if we’re going to use them for anything to use them in a way that minimizes the amount of stress they experience and ensures a good quality of life. This study is a very small, but important first step in understanding the animal's perspective.”

“By applying methods for scientific study of animal welfare, we are able to give the bulls a voice in this debate, and provide empirical evidence to inform decision-making,” says Goldhawk.