July 12, 2019

A day in the life of a Calgary Stampede bucking bull

UCalgary researchers explore possible animal handling changes to improve welfare of bulls
UCalgary researchers are tracking the behaviour, movements, and handling of bucking bulls. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

What’s it like being one of the bulls trying to unseat a rodeo cowboy in under eight seconds?  That’s what a renowned animal welfare and behaviour expert at the University of Calgary wants to find out during the 10-day-long Calgary Stampede.    

“We want to identify if there are any management practices before and after bucking events that could be modified at the Stampede to minimize the risk of injury and any stress the bulls might be experiencing,” says Dr. Ed Pajor, PhD, professor, University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM), and Anderson-Chisholm Chair in Animal Care and Welfare. 

Ed Pajor has been conducting research at the Calgary Stampede for the past seven years.

Photos by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

“We’ll start off in the morning when the animals arrive. We will be setting up cameras to record their behaviour during the course of the day. Then we’ll be tracking the bulls throughout their time at the Stampede, and that includes when they move from the holding pens to the loading chutes, to the bucking events, to the arena, and after the event." 

Evaluating bull behaviour and animal handling

Pajor and his research team — Anice Thomas, a PhD student, Dr. Jennifer Pearson, a veterinarian studying for her PhD, and Zeanna Janmohamed, a second-year veterinary medicine student — will start by looking at bull behaviour in the holding pens. To see, for instance, if the animals are agitated, how they interact with one another, and noting any aggressiveness between animals in the same pen.

They’ll also track what’s known as a daily time budget, to see how the animals spend their days — how often they’re standing, lying down, drinking water, and ruminating. They will evaluate the animal handlers, as well, to see how they handle the bulls as they move through different handling chutes.

The research team tracks a daily time budget for each bull to see how the animals spend their days.

“We'll be looking for any time when handlers or bulls, whether it's the handler or whether it's the bull itself, makes contact with various pieces of the equipment and whether that can result in injury or bruising,” Pajor says.

The researchers will analyze the data they collect, post-Stampede, looking to make recommendations based on their findings.

"There's such polarized opinions about the Stampede and there's a lack of scientific data that has backing on either side," says Janmohamed. "This research, in particular, is really important because it can help with easier loading and it can help with easier movements. And that helps both with the performance of these animals and the welfare of them from start to finish."

Calgary Stampede opens its rodeo grounds to UCVM animal welfare research

For the past seven years, Pajor, in co-operation with the Calgary Stampede, has been conducting research aimed at improving the care and welfare of rodeo animals.  He’s also served for nine years on the Stampede’s Animal Care Advisory Panel, bringing data collected and results of his research to the Stampede executive through his involvement with the committee.

Second-year vet med student Zeanna Janmohamed adjusts a camera set up to monitor the bulls.

“While we recognize there’s a wide range of perspectives on the use of animals in society, we are strongly committed to protecting and improving animal welfare,” says Pajor. “The Calgary Stampede is a part of our community and when they come asking for direction, advice, guidance around how animals should be treated at their events, we have a responsibility to provide science-based information to make sure an animal’s welfare is considered and appropriate care is provided. 

"When we have completed this year’s research, we’ll write up a report for the Stampede to let them know any potential improvements. It's information that was requested by the Stampede themselves.”

“We believe in constant evolution and improvement when it comes to the care and safety of animals at the Calgary Stampede, and it’s extremely valuable to be able to make science-based decisions,” says Kristina Barnes, communications manager at the Calgary Stampede. "We’ve had the opportunity to make adjustments thanks to research carried out by the University of Calgary in the past, and if there are learnings that can be applied in the future, we would certainly look to do so."