What’s wrong with the country show?

Normalisation of animal exploitation is engrained in the country show and perpetuates speciesism under the guise of wholesome country living

The animals on display are little more than objects of entertainment in the eyes of many attendees. Photo by Suzanne Tucker

Country shows take place in nearly every country town (and even major cities) in Australia. From the Royal Easter show to your small town hoedown, traditional pastoralist activities are wrapped up as benign and innocuous “good wholesome fun” but almost every attraction is exploitative or downright cruel to the non human-animals involved.

These events are predicated on “tradition” and “history”, and in doing so highlight the worst aspects of each. Their use of non-human animals celebrates human dominance over the most vulnerable, and masks our continued exploitation by showing a glamorised version of reality.

Along with the more obvious cruel events, these events place animals in a crowded, noisy (fireworks anyone?) environment which is distressing for most animals, let alone prey animals who have extra anxiety towards these scenarios, especially when they are isolated from their social structures.

Some of the animal-based events that typically occur at country shows are:

  • Farmyard nursery (i.e. petting zoos)
  • Bull riding and “bucking broncos”
  • Livestock best in show competitions
  • Show jumping and other equestrian events
  • Pig racing
  • Yard dog trials

Below is a brief outline of how these activities harm animals.

Petting zoos:
Petting zoos takes infant animals from their mothers well before they are weaned. Often these enclosures have insufficient shade, water and feed. These animals are excessively handled from a young age resulting in learned helplessness— a psychological phenomenon where animals (and humans!) are continually unable to engage in neither fight nor flight, and so in turn respond by shutting down psychologically as a protective mechanism.

Most of these animals will end up in the slaughterhouse when they are no longer cute, or they are continuously bred to produce new babies for display. People who enjoy petting zoos would be horrified to know their actions are contributing to animal harm.

The other issue, of course, is that the interactions with the animals in these petting zoos masks the cruelty and suffering of those exploited for food production. Our natural empathy towards these animals is used to ensure we continue believing in the imagery of kindly farmers and idyllic pastures.

Pig racing:
An extension of the petting zoo, young piglets are forced to race each other for food rewards. They are still far too young to be away from their mothers, and often they will be underfed to encourage them to race.

As many people are still thinking about following the horrible death of Thecliffsofmoher in the Melbourne Cup, they should also take note that other equestrian “sports” also carry substantial risks to the horses involved. In a 2007 x-ray study of horses ridden for pleasure by Holmer and colleagues, 91.5% had spinal alterations predisposing them to injury yet no riders, trainers or owners were able to determine this from the horse’s behaviour alone. Show jumping and other equestrian events also run the risk of catastrophic injuries from falls and collisions.

Bull Riding and ‘bronco’ riding:
Both involve terrorising the animals to make them buck. This involves not only a tight flank strap to agitate the bull or horse, but prior to being released into the arena, the animals are prodded and provoked. There is documented footage from Australian shows and rodeos of bulls and steers having their tails broken, being shocked with a cattle prod, or otherwise harmed while in the pen prior to the gates opening.

There is also substantial risk of injury and death to these panicked animals. Even without injury in the arena, it is well recognised that the animals suffer from their participation — in fact the Yass Rodeo was cancelled this year because of the known risk to animals and the likelihood for people to lose animals in a difficult drought period. This concern, of course, is not for the animal’s wellbeing but rather the monetary value they hold for pastoralists.

Livestock competitions and goat milking:
These animals are transported from all over the region, kept in confinement for the day and in all likelihood, will be sent to slaughter shortly or impregnated to continue milk supply. They also perpetuate the idea that farming is a wholesome family pursuit with glossy, happy animals when nothing could be further from the truth.

Yard dog trials:
These events involve a working dog herding sheep through a course, a dog completing an obstacle course or scaling a high podium. Sheep may be herded multiple times by different dogs and being prey animals, are subject to substantial stress.These events are frequently held in the warmer months increasing risk of heat stress for not only the sheep, but also the dogs themselves.

We do not argue for the demise of country shows— they provide an opportunity for community building and for people to come together and celebrate their town. We do, however, believe that the show needs to move into the 21st century, and not keep perpetuating this normalisation of animal cruelty as a component of the narrative surrounding country life. The narrative need not include acts of dominance over non-human animals.