2012 Calgary Stampede: Animal care a hot issue


Dr. Greg Evans treats retired champion Grated Coconut and other animals on the Calgary Stampede Ranch. (Julia Pelish/

Story by Adrian Brijbassi Managing Editor

HANNA, ALBERTA — Dr. Greg Evans pats Grated Coconut on the neck and nods. “This is the Wayne Gretzky of rodeo,” says the veterinarian who works at the Calgary Stampede Ranch, a 22,000-acre property that sprawls across the golden fields of southern Alberta and is home to 500 of the finest horses on the continent. Evans is in charge of taking care of Grated Coconut, a six-time world champion bucking stallion, and the other animals on the ranch, which sends the bulls, bucking broncos, chuckwagon-race thoroughbreds and other animals to the rodeo each year.

As Evans pets Grated Coconut, he marvels at the horse’s disposition. “You can’t go up to most bucking horses like this, especially ones that compete at the level that Grated Coconut did. But this one is special.”

Grated Coconut was retired in 2010 at a special ceremony. At 15, he will spend the rest of his life roaming the pasture near Drumheller in Alberta’s Badlands, breeding with several mares on the ranch and being spoiled with some of the best animal healthcare around. It’s star treatment that is well deserved for the thrills the horse brought to rodeo fans.

“I’m not exaggerating when I say the animals here get better care than many people’s children,” says Evans.

Whether it’s top-of-the-line medicine or even therapeutic massages, the horses and bulls receive it if the vets think they need it. Some even find a home away from the ranch. Champion bull rider Scott Schiffner now keeps two of the animals that he once rode to big paydays on his property. They’re so docile in retirement, he says, that his four-year-old daughter feeds them.

Despite such examples of adoration, the Stampede attracts heavy scrutiny each year from animal-rights groups. Last year, two horses died despite rules changes implemented to reduce risk of catastrophic injuries. In 2010, six horses were put down and more than 50 have perished since 1986, mostly in the chuckwagon races, which feature teams of horses leading conestoga-style wagons around the track at Stampede Park in a mayhem of hoofs, reins, and “yahs.” Tie-down roping, also known as calf roping, has fallen under even greater criticism because of what opponents say is the torment imposed on the animals.

“In the case of calf roping, you have a three-month-old animal goaded out of a shoot, chased in an arena, roped by a cowboy, and thrown to the ground. It’s obvious in our view that that animal is being subjected to fear and purely for entertainment purposes,” says Peter Fricker, the Vancouver Humane Society’s communications officer. “Fear is as much a problem as pain to those animals. Science has shown that prey animals feel fear acutely.”


As the Stampede gears up for its 100th year, the criticism is more fierce than usual and has started early, with the first salvo coming from Bob Barker. The former “Price Is Right” host shot out harsh comments in February about what he says is animal cruelty practiced at the rodeo. In return, rodeo participants said Barker and other critics don’t understand the sport or the nature of the events.

“I see injuries happen all the time that have nothing to do with rodeo. These animals are athletes. They will run fast, it’s in their nature, and sometimes they will fall,” Evans says. “Those injuries can occur in an arena or they can happen out on the open range with no one around.”

Evans grew up wanting to be a vet and now spends many days on the stunning ranch nearly three hours outside of Calgary. His concern for the animals and reverence for them is clear in the manner in which he interacts with Grated Coconut and others. Schiffner, too, insists the animals he works with enjoy participating and the competition.

“I think if the people who are critics would visit the ranch and spend time with the animals and see the care they receive then they would understand more about the sport,” says the former Professional Bull Riders Canadian champion who has suffered two broken legs in competition and other injuries he calls minor.

Fricker, who hasn’t visited a rodeo ranch, says he is confident the animals do receive substantial care and are well treated in retirement. The concern of animal-rights groups is the action that takes place inside a stadium.

“Our issue is with the performance itself. Of course, they’ll often say they will treat the animals like they do family. Not to be facetious, but unless I see a cowboy chase his grandmother across an arena and rope her I don’t think it’s the same as family,” Fricker says. “You just wouldn’t do that to something or someone you cared about in terms of their welfare.”


The Stampede features six primary rodeo events — tie-down/calf roping, steer wrestling, bareback riding, saddle bronc riding, bull riding, and ladies barrel racing — as well as novice events. (The chuckwagon races are part of the nightly grandstand attraction at Stampede Park.) With $2 million in prize money at stake, it’s one of the richest rodeos in the world.

“The analogy I’d make is that a race car driver wouldn’t put his expensive race car at risk if he truly loved the car, but of course they do and they do it because it’s worthwhile, it’s money. They put these animals at risk because it is lucrative business,” Fricker says.

With a showcase of rodeo attractions and mainstream entertainment that quite possibly will make it the hottest draw in North America this summer, the 100th Calgary Stampede is expected to draw more than 1.2 million visitors. The rodeo will go on despite the criticism and it will be introduced to new spectators. Some will be turned off. Others may simply shrug at the sight of animals under stress.

Whether some aspects of the rodeo are barbaric or brutal will continue to be debated until the event starts on July 6 and afterwards, too. It’s to the credit of the organizers and the city that the Stampede has managed to flourish despite negative press. Long ago, the Stampede turned into a spectacle that was much more than just a rodeo. From headline entertainment to fun fashion and a party atmosphere that has become legendary, the Stampede can be enjoyed without ever watching a chuckwagon circle a track.

However, the stars of the show, as everyone agrees, have been the animals. The Stampede has reached the century mark in part because it has made it a mandate to protect the four-legged performers involved and arguably does more for animal care than any other rodeo.

“The last thing anyone wants to see is an animal get injured or worse,” Evans says. “We do everything in our power to make sure that doesn’t happen. When people come to the ranch, I think they realize that these are athletes. They’re animals that want to compete.”

Dates: July 6-15, 2012
Rodeo tickets: Prices range from $12 for standing room to $389.25 for lounge access that includes a three-course dinner. Visit the Calgary Stampede’s website for details.
Other event tickets: Brad Paisley and Johnny Reid are among the headline concert acts announced for the 2012 Stampede. You can find concert tickets and tickets to other events, including the nightly “Century” show featuring Paul Brandt & the Young Canadians, at the Stampede’s website.
Free breakfast: Visit for all the free breakfast spots throughout the Stampede.


Got something to say about the Stampede? Want to share some of your great travel photos and stories about the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth? Email ( and we’ll publish your thoughts and your photos — and those who really impress us will win a travel prize!

View Larger Map

Adrian is the editor of and Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing, travel photography, and fiction, and has visited more than 55 countries. He is a former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, and was the social media and advocacy manager for Destination Canada. His articles have frequently appeared in the Huffington Post, Globe & Mail, and other major publications. He has appeared on national and local broadcasts, talking about travel, sports, creative writing and journalism. In 2019, he launched Trippzy, a travel-trivia app developed to educate consumers about destinations around the world. He also edited "Inspired Cooking", a nutrition-focused cookbook featuring 20 of Canada's leading chefs and in support of the cancer-fighting charity, InspireHealth. "Inspired Cooking" was created in honour of Adrian's late wife and co-founder, Julia Pelish, who passed away of brain cancer in 2016.

One Comment

Leave a Reply