Animal rights groups are pushing for a national rodeo code to ensure greater transparency and safeguards to protect livestock used in the sport.
Tens of thousands flock to outback towns across Australia to watch or compete in rodeo circuits. There are more than 1000 rodeo events nationwide each year, which operate subject to animal welfare laws that vary across state borders.
One of the most well-known rodeos happens every October in Warwick, southern Queensland. The almost century-old meet is one of the largest in the country.
One 19-year-old patron, who said he had attended hundreds of rodeos in Queensland since the age of two, told Guardian Australia the event was “the holy grail of rodeo”.
“Without this, Warwick would be a ghost town. It’s so important,” he said.
Also in the stands at the recent Warwick rodeo were members of Animal Liberation Queensland, which is leading the charge in lobbying against rodeos.
ALQ activist Gayle D’Arcy has sat in the bleachers of rodeo arenas for nearly a decade, discreetly filming the events.
D’Arcy and a dozen other volunteers have recorded hundreds of hours of rodeo footage in an effort to document what they allege are instances of animals under stress or in pain. The aim is to make the case for more rigorous regulation in Queensland, with the ultimate goal of seeing rodeos banned entirely.
Their footage includes alleged instances of bucking horses being prodded with electric jiggers, despite the practice being banned in Queensland from 2020.
“It’s a sport that’s had such a good run of publicity,” D’Arcy said. “But if you did what they do at rodeos in your local paddock, people would look at you and say: ‘What the hell are you doing?’”
Biosecurity Queensland said they had received seven reports alleging the use of electric prodders on horses since the ban. There have been no prosecutions but “regulatory outcomes were applied in some instances,” a spokesperson said.
Greg Frewin, president of the Australian Rodeo Federation, the country’s peak rodeo association, said electric prodders should not be used to make horses buck under any circumstances.
Regulation, selective breeding and better safety standards have made the sport less harmful for animals, according to Frewin.
“The animal welfare side of it thinks we make them [horses and bulls] buck – we cannot make them buck,” Frewin said. “We breed the ones who want to buck, the ones that enjoy it.”
Frewin said making sure all rodeo organisations were “operating at a high level” in relation to animal welfare was a challenge due to differing rules in each state and territory.
“What is happening in a little outback town should be the same as what’s happening in a major city,” Frewin said.
Frewin claimed the federation was working with government departments to legislate a national code. But the federal department of agriculture told Guardian Australia they were not aware of any approach by the federation or any rodeo other associations for at least the last two years.
The 2023-2024 federal budget includes $5m to renew the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy. The department said it welcomes the input of rodeo associations in developing policy.
The NSW Department of Primary Industries and Agriculture Victoria also said they had not had any contact with any rodeo associations.
Biosecurity Queensland said it “regularly engages” with the rodeo associations that oversee events in that state, including the Australian Professional Rodeo Association (Apra). It also carries out compliance monitoring at rodeos.
RSPCA’s senior scientific officer, Di Evans, who opposes rodeos, said more monitoring and regulation was needed.
The RSPCA is particularly focused on calf roping, where a competitor on horseback chases a calf into the arena, throws a lasso around its neck, dismounts, and then ties the calf’s legs together. Calf roping has been effectively banned in South Australia and Victoria, because those states require that cattle used in rodeo events have a minimum weight of 200kg. All rodeos are prohibited in the ACT.
Polling commissioned this year by the RSPCA found 61% of Australians would support a ban on calf roping, while a 2022 survey found 67% were concerned about the welfare of horses and cattle used at rodeos – an increase on previous years.
“Having spent 20 years in the agricultural sector as a vet, where there is such a big effort from the industry to promote low-stress stock handling, rodeo totally contradicts all those principles,” Evans said.
“As a first step we would at least like to see calf roping banned, and then very stringent national welfare standards.”
In July, the Australian Veterinary Association ratified a statement outlining their opposition towards rodeo events, including calf roping, and support for a national code. The AVA’s statement refers to research which has found calves used in rodeo events experience fear and distress.
“The welfare of the animals involved in the sport must be carefully considered and any negative animal welfare implications must be assessed on a risk-reward basis,” the AVA said.
The Australian Professional Rodeo Association was contacted for comment.