Science, animals, and profit-making in the American rodeo arena




Vaught, Jeannette Marie

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The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) has grown in scope and popularity since the mid-1970s, cultivating large rodeo audiences with spectacles of human and animal athleticism, speed, and skill. While the sport is popularly understood as an outgrowth of “traditional” western culture and ranching practices, this dissertation argues that its modern iteration depends on scientific advancements pioneered in animal nutrition, reproduction, and injury treatment in industrial beef production and on the creation of new narratives about animals in the past and present. Through analysis of industry documents, oral history interviews, and popular western lifestyle publications, this dissertation shows how rodeo and its partners in the beef industry responded to changing consumer perceptions of animal welfare in food and entertainment. After charting the emergence of a network comprised of agricultural scientists, businessmen, and rodeo participants from the 1950s to the 1970s who successfully nationalized the sport, this dissertation investigates how reproductive transformations of cattle in response to declining beef demand in the 1980s emphasized the virility and power of bulls, and shows how rodeo used these technologies to make bull riding the centerpiece of its popular appeal. From there, the dissertation argues that the cultural redefinition of wild horses from 1950 to the present created new understandings of pain and animal welfare that played out in the rodeo arena’s dramatization of wildness against a backdrop of a growing horse crisis in contemporary America. Finally, an analysis of contemporary efforts to reconcile the growing practice of rodeo and agricultural animal cloning with rodeo tradition shows how rodeo continually reinvents its history to incorporate new scientific technologies while still marketing identification with the past. Taken together, these episodes show how professional rodeo, industrial beef, and veterinary science responded to changing public attitudes about nonhuman animals, continually producing both new animals and new histories that obscured the modern technologies fueling these transformations. In the process, the rodeo and its allies promoted conservative gender ideologies and political alignments, further enfolding innovation with tradition.


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