Friday, August 12, 2011

Something's Rotten in the State of Colorado?

This is a topic that is both touchy and one that has understandably not received much coverage, and I have waffled on what, if anything, to say about it; hard facts are in short supply, rumors are rampant, and the fall-out has very unpleasant possible ramifications. I am going to avoid the rumors and innuendo as much as possible, but this is a topic that is central to the continuance of our sport.

What is indisputable is that in 2007/2008, the PBR brass loudly trumpeted their new drug testing committee, and proceeded to test bulls over the season for performance enhancing drugs. This historic testing all yielded negative results. Whether this testing continued in any significant way is unclear, but there certainly was a lot less PR about it. Then came Pueblo in 2011.

I will defer to Don and Janelle Kish here, who have posted a letter on their website regarding this matter. And I quote:

As a PRCA and a PBR Stock Contractor and an ABBI Share holder and past president I am embarrassed of the recent findings from the drug testing during the PBR/ABBI Pueblo, Colorado event.

Money and notoriety has led some to a “new way of thinking” they have no regard for the safety, well being and future of the animal athlete. To think a person will cheat or try to win at any cost is alarming to say the least. That makes it a sad time to be a Stock Contractor...

We are very disappointed with the individuals that have enabled the drug use, with no regard for the time, money, effort and wisdom put towards the Bucking Bull Industry.

(See the full letter linked on the page here.)

I will also defer to the UBBI, which has unveiled a new rules in response to the unfolding drama:
UBBI Headquarters (June 15, 2011)–Due to recent developments within the bucking bull competition industry regarding the suspected use of drugs, substances and other agents believed to enhance the performance of bucking bulls, the United Bucking Bulls, Inc has added specific policy and enforcement guidelines to it’s 2011 Rule Book.

(See the full press release here).

To say that this is alarming is an understatement, for any number of reasons. I guess it was naive for any of us to expect that this could never happen, even if the "cowboy way" is supposed to be above cheating. As with any sport in which money is involved and one part of the equation is an animal who can't speak out, someone, somewhere will find a way to take shortcuts, no matter the potential harm to the animal or the industry at large. (This is why we have thoroughbreds who run very fast and have exceptionally poor feet, and the sad racking horses that have been "sored" to get a gross, exaggerated parody of what their natural gait should be.) I don't think that this is a model that any true fan of bull riding would like to see the sport follow. There are of course legitimate veterinarian-recommended reasons to use steroids and other drugs classified as "performance enhancing" on animals, but if any of the rumors are remotely true, the scale means this was not solely legitimate veterinarian-endorsed, health-related use.

The potential harm to the bucking bulls is obvious. To drug a bull into performing beyond its natural capabilities is a short-term strategy at best. And for all those dedicated to improving the genetics of bucking bulls, this can only be seen as a nightmare. Not only are there potential fertility issues with animals who have been doped regularly, there is also the issue that perhaps some of the bulls people chose to use in their breeding programs simply would not have made the cut if performance enhancing drugs had not been used. Now, obviously drugs can't make any bull into a top bull, but for any contractor trying to find the magic blend of genetics to get a good set of bulls, having to worry that a bull might have poor reproductive qualities and not be as great as advertised without performance enhancing drugs? Let the headaches begin.

Part of the reason this has been kept so quiet, I suspect, is of course that the "no publicity is bad publicity" creed doesn't pan out here. This is, quite simply, terribly bad from every possible angle. It is simply appalling that some stock contractors would basically hand extreme activists the ammunition that has the potential to take them, and the entire sport, down. And if that thought is frightening, just consider what could happen if the USDA/FDA became involved. As far as I am aware, these federal bodies make absolutely no distinction between "rodeo" cattle and food cattle. Non-food-grade drugs making their way into the food stream is a gigantic potential problem that could have far-ranging and unpleasant implications.

The testing apparently is continuing, so we will see what this means (will some bulls disappear, or buck/appear differently than before?). But it is just all so monumentally stupid, it blows my mind. I don't know if the PBR dropped the ball on testing, but it seems clear that some contractors decided to take shortcuts. Once one person starts cheating and winning, there is more incentive for others to start cheating to attempt to level the playing field. We have seen this play out in other sports, and it is horrifying to see it start in ours. Drugs are layered upon drugs to fool the testing, and each time the testing is updated, the drugs are updated. I hope the PBR manages to police this in a fair way that protects the stock contractors who want to do things the right way, and of course the bulls, who are half the equation of our sport and should be treated exceptionally well. If not, we, and the sport at large, are in big trouble.

Something is indeed rotten in the state of Colorado. Let us hope that sanity will prevail, for the sake of the bulls, contractors, cowboys, and fans of this sport.


Stockyard Queen said...

There you have it, folks. Pearl and I have been mulling this over for months now, and made the decision early on that we would not say a word about it until we could find independent, and public, verification that something bad had gone down. We have that now, from two unimpeachable sources.

But confirming you're right about something and feeling good about it are two different things. We can only assume this situation is true, and the idea makes me physically ill.

shannon said...

Good Lord, if this turns out to be a commonly used thing, then the fall out could be massive. What were the people already using drugs thinking?! Wait...they obviously weren't.

All of those things you mentioned are a big deal. Let's also not forget that any one of these bulls that have been on performance enhancing drugs could kill any one of the riders. I've thought that in just my few years of watching the bull power was getting too dangerous. Just a normal bull could kill someone, but to put a rider on the back of one whose been enhanced? That's obscene. If I were any of the riders seriously injured on a bull that I found out was drugged, I'd look into suing the stock contractor.

Shawk said...

I have been seeing snippets of chatter about this here and there, and I agree that it is very disturbing. I have to assume that the PBR is taking this very seriously, and will manage to get organized to deal with it. At least, I really, really hope so.

Pearl de Vere said...

Shannon, I agree. But if we look at any equestrian sport, I guess it shouldn't have been as surprising-- there are plenty of "cowboy" way types out there taking shortcuts with Quarter Horses. It's still disappointing and horrifying.

I have to imagine that all the cowboys sign a very lengthy waiver that prevents them from suing pretty much anyone involved in the sport. I do think it it irresponsible to drug bulls from that perspective too, but then there are some bulls, like bulls that spend a significant amount of their formative years unhandled, who are simply mean without any kind of "enhancement." I don't think the PBR wants anyone to be held responsible for the unpredictable actions of animals, drugged or not. But, if I were a cowboy, it might make me pause!

It's just messy, messy, messy, and a shame.

Anonymous said...

I have felt for a long time that the bulls have been getting so much stronger. The cowboys are little guys. No athlete should be given performance drugs. What the breeders have bred are super bulls ON STEROIDS. What is it going to take? A death of a cowboy? Maybe someone should contact PETA?

Stockyard Queen said...

Welcome, Anonymous. First off, there is some doubt among reputable bull breeders about whether giving bulls steroids actually improves their performance. The last time this issue raised its ugly head, Josh Peters, who wrote Fried Twinkies, published an article on the subject that you may find interesting:

I really don't think the improvement in bull power has come from giving them drugs--I think the breeding programs are getting better and more scientific, and since the life cycle and working life of a bull is shorter than that of a rider, incremental improvements with the bulls result in much more dramatic differences in a shorter period of time.

And I would never tell any of my readers how they should respond to something like this, but I, for one, will not be calling PETA. I have no tolerance for zealots of any stripe, and PETA, with its take-no-prisoners attitude, is among the worst. That organization is at least as bad as CREDO or the NRA.

saraht said...

To follow up on this blog entry, here is the link to a recent story published in the Stephensville, TX Newspaper on August 20, 2011. (It was posted on the Breeder's Connection website)

I've heard that they not only discovered steroids in the Pueblo bull pen but they also found at least one bull that had ketamine in his system. (A sedative)

Pearl de Vere said...

SaraT, thanks. I saw that article earlier and I found it very curious. I wonder if Ty Murray and the vet quoted represent the official PR stance on the issue. It is good (maybe not the right word) to see this reported. I will be interested to see what the other two parts will cover.

I find it interesting that the UBBI seems to be very proactive on this. ABBI, not so much.