CALGARY - For prominent animal rights activist and TV game show legend Bob Barker, no rodeo is a good rodeo.
Despite efforts by the Calgary Stampede to make its animal events safer for both critters and cowboys, the man who signed off each episode of "The Price is Right" with a plea for people to neuter their pets would like to see an end to the display of western skills.
"I would like very much to see them celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Calgary Stampede by saying that is enough animal cruelty," Barker said recently in an interview with The Canadian Press. "Let's wind it up and close it down."
The Calgary Stampede marks it 100th birthday when it kicks off Friday and still the rodeo remains a lightning rod for controversy.
Rodeo events at the Stampede invariably sell out each year, but concerns over animal welfare have become more prevalent over the last decade and were magnified in 2010 after six horses died.
In 2011, the Stampede adopted new rules for rodeo events and chuckwagon races to try to provide more protection for both human and animal participants.
All horses are now inspected by veterinarians when the animals arrive at the Stampede and before and after every race. There is also a mandatory rest day after every four days of racing.
The number of outriders that accompany each chuckwagon as it thunders around a dirt track was reduced to two from four in an effort to reduce congestion and possible accidents. Several riders have been seriously injured over the years.
The 88-year-old Barker doesn't buy the attempt.
"I doubt seriously if they've made any great strides in making rodeo safe. I don't know how they could and I would imagine they talk about it more than they actually do."
He criticized his former game show show earlier this year for giving away trips to the Calgary Stampede as part of a prize package.
"I know that every national animal protection organization is absolutely opposed to rodeo and the Calgary Stampede is considered one of the most despicable of all rodeos in the world."
The criticism doesn't surprise Stampede organizers.
"You put it in perspective. We have to hold true to our own values and we know in our heart what outstanding treatment we provide for all of our animals in the show," said Bob Johnson, Stampede vice-chairman.
"We know we'll never escape opinions from certain elements of the public. But we hold true to ourselves and the excellent treatment we provide in that regard, but we always seek to improve."
While the Calgary Humane Society has applauded the work of the Stampede around protecting animals and works closely with organizers, the Vancouver Humane Society has been a vocal opponent. It says more than 50 chuckwagon horses have died since 1986.
The Vancouver organization is taking a more measured approach than Barker, asking only that calf roping be banned.
"We do think there are people across Canada, including in Calgary, who have concerns about animal welfare at the rodeo in particular with calf roping. That's why our campaign objective is to see an end to calf roping at the Stampede and we think that is a reasonable objective," said Peter Fricker.
"We think it is in terms of the stress and fear and pain the animal is subjected to the worst event at the Stampede and we're hoping our campaign will continue to raise the concerns about that event."
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