Group wants charges in horse deaths during Calgary Stampede chuckwagon races

CALGARY — An animal welfare group is renewing its call for cruelty charges following the deaths of six horses at this year’s Calgary Stampede.

“Law enforcement — including the Calgary police, Calgary Humane Society and Alberta SPCA — urgently need to investigate and bring these animal welfare concerns before the courts,” Camille Labchuck, executive director of Animal Justice, said Monday.

“Rodeo events are not above the law and should no longer be given a free pass to kill animals.”

Animal Justice is a national organization that works to improve legal protections for animals.

Chuckwagon races are a nightly spectacle during the Stampede, a 10-day annual celebration of western life. Crowds watch as horse-drawn wagons thunder around a dirt track accompanied by outriders.

Three horses belonging to driver Evan Salmond had to be put down on Sunday, the last night of this year’s Stampede, because they were seriously hurt.

On Thursday, Salmond was involved in a collision that resulted in one of his horses being euthanized due to a severe leg injury. Another driver, Chad Harden, was fined $10,000 and barred indefinitely from competing at the Stampede after officials determined he accidentally impeded fellow driver Danny Ringuette and caused Salmond’s rig to veer into the track’s inner rail.

On Wednesday, a horse was put down after it broke a leg during a race. Another animal collapsed and died July 8 from what the Stampede called a medical condition.

The Calgary Humane Society is among the groups urging an end to rodeo and chuckwagon events.

The society consulted with Crown prosecutors after Thursday’s collision because it involved driver wrongdoing, said Brad Nichols, who manages the society’s animal cruelty investigations.

It was decided no charges would be laid.

“We don’t like seeing these animals die any more than anyone else does, but … if there’s no offence to be enforced, then we’re not going … to be pressured by public sentiment into laying a charge that ultimately won’t proceed,” Nichols said Monday.

The Stampede said it will do a thorough review of chuckwagon safety.

“If adjustments need to be made, we’ll make them,” said spokeswoman Kristina Barnes.

Barnes said the deaths are devastating for all involved, especially the drivers who consider their horses family.

“They invest so much time, so much care into those animals. From morning to night, they’re with them,” she said.

“No one would ever go onto that track wanting one of those animals to be injured.”

The chuckwagon races provide a second act to thoroughbreds reaching the end of their racing careers. Many compete well into their teens.

“The amount of time and care that goes into ensuring that they’re at the top of their game fitness-wise is really important to note,” said Barnes.

Under Alberta’s Animal Protection Act, it’s illegal to cause or allow an animal to be in distress. That can include denying it adequate food, shelter or water, or causing it pain and suffering.

The legislation has exemptions for husbandry, hunting, fishing, pest control and slaughter, among other things. Nichols said the law, which has not been amended since 2005, leaves much open to interpretation.

The discussions with the Crown led to the opinion that Stampede events fall within the act’s exemptions. Harden’s punishment also played into the decision not to prosecute, said Nichols.

“Between the fine and the prohibition in participating in the future Stampedes, it’s a significant penalty,” he said.

“If this were to have been charged and gone towards the courts, it would have played into any ultimate decision.”

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