Update, December 13: The National Western Stock Show sent us a response, which is at the end of our story.
One of the more popular events at the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo, an 111-year-old celebration of all things Western in Denver, is mutton bustin', a race in which children ages five through seven slingshot out of a chute into the arena on the backs of sheep.
If Samantha Francis, a resident of the United Kingdom gets her way, mutton bustin' would be eliminated from the event entirely. This summer Francis and her husband, Joshua, founded Lambenations, a "sheep-protection group," that has called for three sheep-related racing events in the U.K. to end. Now their campaign has hopped the ocean.
Samantha's sheep-saving crusade began when she was driving in eastern England and saw a sign advertising sheep racing that involved sheep being chased around a grass track "with stuffed teddy bear 'jockeys' on their backs," according to the Cambridge News. "I didn't even know that such a thing existed, but I was horrified that sheep were exploited in this way," she tells Westword in an email. "So I set up a petition the next day and it was successful. A week later the organizers cancelled the race."
She and her husband have since organized two more successful petitions, in Scotland and Wales, and are now set on ending mutton bustin' at the National Western Stock Show.
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"During my research, I discovered 'mutton bustin,'' and knew that we had to get involved in trying to get this heinous 'sport' cancelled," Francis writes. "We don't have such an event over here in the UK."
A Lambenations online petition to end mutton bustin' at the Stock Show had collected 72,173 signatures as of Tuesday, December 14. "Sheep are prey animals, which means that they are sought, captured, and eaten by a predator," the petition states. "Sheep are not used to having anything on their backs, let alone a small child. They perceive the child as a predator and are petrified. This is all done in front of huge, noisy crowds in a very unnatural environment. The children grab hold of anything to stay on, often grabbing hold of the sheep's sensitive tails and ears."
The spokeswoman for the Stock Show, which begins on January 6, emailed Westword a statement on Wednesday:
The sheep come from a certified working ranch in Deer Trail CO and they have been providing the mutton bustin’ ewes for stock show for over 40 years. They provide registration papers verifying animal wellness, strength and size appropriate for the events. The owners of the ewes assist at each mutton bustin’ events to provide hands on support and wellness to their herd.
We take animal welfare very seriously and that is why we implement rules that kids who participate must be between the ages of 5-7 and not weigh more than 55 lbs. Each registered mutton buster must wear a safety vest and helmet. Each mutton bustin’ event is staffed with experienced personnel from Justin Sports Medicine team, comprised of an Orthopedic and ER doctor to tend to the children if a need for medical assistance.