Wes Burdett: It’s time for the Utah State Fair to take a stand against animal cruelty

It is essential that we confront the inherent cruelty of events like calf roping.

(Photo Courtesy of Wes Burdett) A photo from Utah's Own PRCA Rodeo held at the Utah State Fairgrounds on Sept. 8, 2023.

Growing up in Utah, rodeos were an important part of my childhood and something I considered a tradition. More recently, I have been attending rodeos not as a spectator but as a cruelty investigator.

During Utah’s Own PRCA Rodeo held at the Utah State Fairgrounds on Sept. 8, 2023, I witnessed a disturbing incident that left many attendees questioning the morality of these events.

As someone who works closely with farmed animals, this is my account of the events that transpired.

In the early rounds of the calf roping, the first two calves emerged from the chutes more slowly than usual. I watched frustration grow among the cowboys who struggled to rope them successfully. When it was time for the third calf to run, a man entered the chute and began aggressively yanking and bending the calf’s tail, a seemingly blatant attempt to agitate the animal. As the chute opened, this terrified looking calf bolted out at full speed. The cowboy in pursuit lassoed the calf’s neck, violently jerking her backward, causing her legs to splay beneath her. The calf collapsed motionless on the ground, prompting horrified gasps from the audience. Someone behind me whispered, “Did they just kill that calf?”

The cowboy roughly lifted the calf off the ground, body-slamming her back onto the dirt before tying her legs together. When the time was up, they untied the calf’s legs, but she appeared to be dazed and confused, reluctant to move and headed in the wrong direction. The cowboys resorted to lassoing her again before pulling her towards the exit. Under normal circumstances, a calf in such a stressful environment would quickly rise and seek to head back to safety. But she hung her head and walked drunkenly in the direction she was being pulled. She then collapsed, and the cowboys dragged her by the neck through the dirt towards the exit. Eventually, she got to her feet and walked the final few yards out of the arena.

Later that night, I shared the photos I took at the rodeo online, expressing my deep concern for the welfare of these innocent animals. The response was overwhelming — a surge of sadness, fear, anger and genuine concern for the well-being of these young calves. In response to the public outcry, the Utah State Fair issued an apology, acknowledging the horrifying incident, stating, “This is horrible, and something we weren’t aware of happening. On behalf of everyone at the Utah State Fair, we apologize profusely and are absolutely DISGUSTED by this. I absolutely hate this, and feel sick to my stomach knowing this went on last night and none of us were informed of this situation.”

However, this apology was short-lived. The very next day, the state fair backtracked on its statement, releasing a video denying any injuries to the calf and asserting her complete health. This abrupt about-face raises serious questions about the commitment of the Utah State Fair to address and rectify the apparent mistreatment of animals at their event.

It is essential that we confront the inherent cruelty of events like calf roping. Rodeo supporters claim these events emulate traditional ranching practices and that roping calves is necessary to provide them with medical treatment. However, as a manager and volunteer coordinator at Sage Mountain Animal Sanctuary, I am familiar with handling animals for veterinary care; animals are kindly herded or coaxed into enclosures for handling and treatment and never roped at high speed.

Plenty of veterinarians agree. Former rodeo queen contestant and veterinarian Crystal Heath has spoken out against rodeo, supporting bans on tie-down roping, saying such events “reward aggression and rough handling, which are just plain bad stockmanship.” Likewise, former Bronc rider and veterinarian Peggy Larson calls for an end to animal abuse at rodeos — citing meat inspectors who describe the extensive bruising and broken bones seen in the bodies of rodeo animals who are later slaughtered.

Rodeo subjects helpless animals to unnecessary stress for commercial entertainment. It’s Western cosplay, capitalizing on our culture’s darkest impulses: aggression towards defenseless animals as a means to sell Dodge Trucks, Jeeps and Wrangler jeans. Most of all, it highlights a failure of our moral duty to protect the animals in our care. It is high time for the Utah State Fair to take a stand and stop promoting animal cruelty.

Wes Burdett

Wes Burdett is a cruelty investigator for the Utah Animal Rights Coalition (UARC) and the manager/volunteer coordinator of Sage Mountain Sanctuary.

Correction, Sept. 18, 9 a.m.: The spelling of Peggy Larson’s name was corrected.