Cattle industry officials were expecting to see more unofficial policing in the barns at Canadian Western Agribition this week following the death of a cow last year.
Show chief executive officer Marty Seymour said anyone who sees misconduct should report it, particularly as it relates to animal welfare.
Last year, a two-year-old Charolais cow died during the breed show after a tube was placed in its throat and it was pumped full of soda pop to make it appear fuller and improve its odds in the ring.
Agribition officials said the autopsy was inconclusive as to cause of death, but there was enough information available from witnesses to ban the owners of the cow for three years.
The incident is an example of what some exhibitors think they need to do to win, said Alberta veterinarian Roy Lewis, who serves as the show vet at Edmonton’s Farmfair.
But breeders who bring good animals to town can win without such tactics, he said, and fitters can’t likely do enough at a show to make a mediocre animal a winner.
“Everybody felt bad for the animal and bad for the breed and (it created) just a tarnished image on the whole showing thing,” Lewis said in an interview. “The good that came out of that is an increased awareness.”
Altering an animal’s appearance or disposition was a more common practice years ago and one the American
show industry has apparently grappled with more than Canadian shows.
Lewis said stories coming out of steer shows in the U.S. suggest people are injecting silicone into animals or air under the hide to fill them out. The carcasses of these animals are not edible.
“I do not see it happening here and I only hear about it in the U.S.,” he said.
Lewis said he has fewer concerns with surface alteration such as applying talc to animals to make them appear whiter, but he said the Hereford breed’s decision to ban aerosol sprays is a good one. It puts everyone on the same playing field.
“I always say the good judges will see through that anyway,” he said.
Gordon Stephenson, a former Agribition manager and president and now general manager of the Canadian Hereford Association, called last year’s incident appalling.
“I thought that we were over this kind of stuff,” he said. “I think we were all as cattle exhibitors quite embarrassed and offended that this would happen.”
The idea that people are “turning a blind eye” to this type of behaviour is concerning, he added.
The chair of the Farm Animal Council of Saskatchewan, Mark Silzer, said the industry can’t ignore that animal welfare is an issue that is here to stay.
“Most producers are responsible,” he said. “You get a couple of (incidents) and that casts an entire industry in a bad light.”
The incident prompted the Canadian Charolais Association to post updated show rules regarding ethical treatment of animals on its website.
Agribition has also highlighted its animal welfare policy on its site.
Stephenson said he expected most breeds would emphasize in their rules that this type of animal abuse will not be tolerated.
Agribition supports the national code of show ring ethics developed by the International Association of Fairs and Expositions, which calls for honesty and good sportsmanship and states any violation of the code will result in immediate expulsion of an exhibitor and additional disciplinary action.
The code deems unethical fitting to be: surgical insertion or injection of foreign material under the skin and/or into the flesh of an animal to change its natural contour, conformation or appearance; balancing an udder artificially; using dyes, spray paint or other artificial colouring; and, adding hair or hair substitutes to any part of an animal’s body.
Blood, tissue and urine samples may be obtained by Agribition to determine if an alteration has been made.
“Exhibitors who violate this code of ethics demean the integrity of all livestock exhibitors and should be prohibited from competition at all livestock shows in the United States and Canada,” states the code.
The Charolais guidelines define unethical practices to include “any treatment or operation materially altering the structure of the natural conformation of any part of the animal’s body such as the introduction of air, liquids, or other substances subcutaneously in any part of the body.”
Seymour said Agribition’s policy hasn’t changed since last year because it was always in place.
“We have zero tolerance for mistreatment,” he said. “We dealt with it.”
Both Lewis and Stephenson added that rules can be made but enforcing them is another thing.
“You can’t make rules to avoid stupidity,” Stephenson said. “In my opinion what happened last year was stupidity on behalf of the people that were looking after that animal.”
Lewis said people have been talking about the incident since it happened and those who witnessed it may be watching others more closely.
“I think surveillance would be good,” he said of measures livestock shows could take. “And I think you’re going to get policing by fellow breeders.”
Seymour added that Agribition barn bosses are watching what goes on.
“But anybody from a director to an employee who sees any misconduct … we’re all policing each other,” he said.