James Cheng / msnbc.com
Veterinarian Dr. Garth Lamb surveys the stock pens behind the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas on Monday, Dec. 6, 2010.
LAS VEGAS – There are those who say the sport of rodeo is cruel to animals, that the competition takes normally docile animals and forces them to act in an unnatural manner against their will, enraging simply to put on a good show.
Those involved in rodeo, however, tell a different story. From the competitors to the stock contractors to the veterinarians, the message is clear and consistent: The animals involved in rodeo are treated well, and that to do otherwise wouldn’t make sense economically.
“These animals are treated as well, if not better, than private ownership of horses,” says Dr. Garth Lamb, a native of Las Vegas who heads a team of veterinarians at the National Finals Rodeo. “It’s hard to find horses of this caliber who do what they want ‘em to do. They’re hard to replace, and the last thing they want to do is abuse them. That’s their livelihood and they take great care of them.”
Lamb says that he doesn’t see any more injuries than he would come across on a regular basis in his private practice, and that while catastrophic injuries can happen, they can also happen in the normal life of a livestock animal.
Lamb has worked the NFR since it moved to Las Vegas in 1985. Part of his job is to survey the animals in the stock pens to make sure they are healthy and treat them for a wide range of ailments, from stomach aches and minor lacerations, to more serious injuries like broken legs. He also has a team ready to go on a moment’s notice if an animal is hurt in the arena during competition.
Lamp says major injuries don’t occur often. “Last year, in all 10 performances, we did not have to do anything,” he said.
Still, improvements can be made. Stock contractor John Growney said he would like to see tougher rules in the tie-down roping competition that would prevent the calves from being jerked to the ground after they are roped. He cited a rule in Canada that disqualifies a cowboy if the calf’s feet leave the ground, a rule he says U.S. cowboys adjust to just fine when competing north of the border.
“Calf roping can be the best marketed event in rodeo,” Growney said. “But we’ve got to clean it up.”
He’s not worried about the bulls and bucking horses.
“The best bulls, the best horses, they love to be spurred,” he said. “They love a cowboy on ‘em, because they know they want to plant the son of a gun in the ground.”
See Faces of the Rodeo: The cowboys. Get to know some of the top competitors in rodeo, and find out what they love about their sport.