Historian Looks at the Role of Animals in Entertainment

Susan Nance writes about rodeo and circus elephants as celebrities

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History professor Susan Nance

If you’re looking for a little entertainment today, you have hundreds of options: TV, movie theatres, the Internet, video games, radio and more. But in the 19th century, entertainment was created much closer to home and often as an extension of everyday life. History professor Susan Nance says rodeo is a good example.

“In western North America, it seems that animals often provided entertainment because they offered the raw energy of the unexpected,” says Nance. “Cowboys would come back tired after a long day, have a few drinks and decide to see if any of them could ride the bull. It was a low-technology way of creating excitement.”

Over time, those informal activities became sports and part of the rodeo events we know today.

“A lot of other animal entertainments that we have now similarly developed through early forms of live animal use,” she adds. “Circus elephants were some of the first entertainment celebrities, while early horse and dog racing established the gaming industry.”

In that time, animals didn’t carry the same moral weight that they do today. There wasn’t the same understanding of how other species experience the world, says Nance, and few people had the luxury of being able to prevent animal suffering. “The past 20 or 30 years has really transformed our understanding of animals,” she says. “So, I try to talk about historical animal entertainment from an animal welfare perspective and ask about the costs and benefits to people and animals, then and now.”

Today rodeo’s star animals ─ the bulls and horses that are best at bucking off riders while putting on a good show ─ tend to be treated well because they represent a substantial investment of money and future profits. “That doesn’t mean that bucking in the arena is fun for them,” says Nance, “but the rest of the time they are well cared for, and they usually get plenty of time out in paddocks with their friends. They’re not confined to tiny stalls like racehorses.” But, she adds, that is overshadowed by the many anonymous horses and cattle used in the lower levels of rodeo, whose welfare is often problematic.

In 2007 at the Cloverdale Rodeo in British Columbia, a calf died in the arena during a tie-down roping event. People were upset, says Nance, but the rodeo staff responded by dropping that event and several others, forfeiting their accreditation by the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association. At the same time, rodeo people often resent criticism that seems to attack the traditional labour they perform for the public, asking critics: “Where do you think your food comes from? Animals die so you can eat, so why are you complaining when you see it?”

“Public attitudes are changing, and rodeos will adapt,” says Nance. “I don’t see a quick end in sight for bull riding, because it’s become an extreme sport on its own, and because people don’t feel the same level of sympathy for a bull as for a calf.”

The larger framework to this, as rodeo people note, she adds, is that we are all dependent on animals as consumers. “Most people eat animals, wear animal skins, use drugs tested on animals, have pets, watch animals on TV or see them in zoos,” she says. “Most of us don’t use animals to make our livings these days, but we are consumers of animals. However, our dependence on them is mostly hidden from us.”

And most people want it to be hidden. Nance recalls being out for lunch with a friend and ordering salad; she asked the server to hold the chicken listed on the menu. When her friend asked her why she didn’t want the chicken, Nance responded: “I’ve seen how chicken is produced and now I don’t want to eat chicken.” Her friend started to ask about it, then said: “Don’t tell me, I don’t want to know.”

Nance explains: “We are afraid that knowing will mean we have to change, and that change will make us miserable. Products and services are usually marketed with a reassuring message of ‘don’t worry; just buy this item and never mind what’s going on behind the scenes.’”

Consumers are also immersed in old traditions of “dominionism,” the idea that God gave us animals and plants to use as we see fit, or more colloquially, that humans belong at the “top” of the food chain. But Nance argues these may be dangerous ideas in a time of global mass extinctions, many caused by human activity.

Nance is now researching the rise and fall of another form of animal entertainment: dog racing.

“Dog tracks have been around for about 80 years,” she says. “They started off as a more humane alternative to 19th-century lure coursing where dogs chased a live rabbit and eventually tore it to shreds. Many thus viewed commercial dog tracks as more respectable because they had mechanical lures.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, there was actually considerable growth in dog racing. “The opening sequence of Miami Vice showed greyhounds racing,” says Nance, “and it became quite fashionable.” That notoriety backfired though, and soon various activist groups began to protest, while journalists began documenting the suffering and deaths of racing dogs.

While those efforts did sway public opinion, Nance suggests that the legalization of tribal casinos in the United States and online gaming have probably had a greater influence on the steadily decreasing popularity of dog racing. “I do think the greyhound rescue groups helped, though,” she says. “People used to think of greyhounds as livestock, the way they do cows, not like other dogs. Now people see families out walking their greyhounds as pets, not racing machines. The dog hasn’t changed, but people’s perceptions have.”