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Stampede safety review shows improvement

CALGARY - An annual safety review of rodeo and chuckwagon events at the Calgary Stampede suggests the sports are becoming safer.

An independent livestock handling specialist says new chutes installed on the rodeo grounds last year helped reduce the risk of injury to animals and people.

Jennifer Woods, who advises the Stampede on animal safety, has conducted safety audits for the last four years. She says there will still be issues with the stock-handling facilities because the ground is uneven. That means gates don't always work correctly and the movement of livestock can be affected, but there's nothing serious at this point, she says.

"I wouldn't say there's things I'm worried about. There's still areas of improvement and we still need to work with facilities," Woods said Monday.

"It's the outreach. It's getting everyone on the same page. It's getting all the stock contractors buying in to fitness to compete, fitness to exhibit ...."

Closer monitoring of the health of chuckwagon horses seems to have made a difference as well, Woods said. Full examinations now required before a race saw 16 horses scratched from performing last year.

The number of animals that died due to physical breakdowns or heart conditions was down to zero last year from 75 per cent in 2010.

"I think it's a combination of the fitness to compete and the exams going on," Woods said.

"I think it also is the mandatory days off ... and the drivers themselves have become engaged like they weren't before. They've really bought into it."

The rodeo has been the target of animal rights groups for decades. They say it is cruel and endangers innocent animals. Similar criticism has been levelled at the chuckwagon races where a crash can result in horses having to be destroyed.

An official with the Vancouver Humane Society said Monday that the announcement from the Stampede is part of an annual public relations exercise.

"The measures that they're talking about still do not address the fundamental concerns that we in the public have about the treatment of the animals in the rodeo," said Peter Fricker.

"You're still going to see calves thrown to a sudden halt and thrown to the ground. You're still going to see steers twisted to the ground. You're still going to see bucking animals having cinch straps tied around their hind quarters.

"All of those things are what we're concerned about."

Fricker said he would like to see an independent panel of experts review chuckwagon racing to see if there are any fundamental changes that could make it acceptably safe.

He said until such a panel reports, the event should be suspended.

The release of the safety review isn't a pre-emptive strike against critics, said Stampede spokeswoman Bonni Clark. She said four audits in recent years show clear progress being made.

"The things ... implemented are making a difference in slips, falls and incidents and injuries and animal handling," Clark said.

"It's wonderful at this point with four years of audits behind us to be able to say here is what the numbers are showing in a very scientific way."

This year's Calgary Stampede runs from July 4-13.

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