The rodeo event of calf roping, where a rider lassoes a calf before throwing it to the ground and tying its legs, has been banned in two states already but animal welfare groups would like to see that expanded.
LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: In the last two years animal rights campaigners have moved the issue of cruelty to the centre of Australian debate.
Last year, Animals Australia helped stop the live cattle export trade by exposing inhumane slaughter in Indonesia.
This week, they secured the release of graphic pictures of a brutal Australian sheep cull in Pakistan.
Now they have a new target in their sights: the rodeos that are so popular across rural and regional Australia.
Activists claim rodeos are cruel and outdated and should be banned, but rodeo organisers are putting up a fight.
Matt Wordsworth reports, and a warning that some of these pictures might shock you.
MATT WORDSWORTH, REPORTER: It's rodeo time in the town of Goombungee on Queensland's Darling Downs. And for a group of novice bull riders, it's their turn to be the main attraction. The young cowboys are working their way up to the open division. They'll need a combination of skill, focus, and courage.
The prize money isn't great. Competitors will be lucky to walk away with $500 for a win. Some are just lucky to walk away.
Money isn't what's driving rodeo. Many are run as charity fundraisers. But it doesn't save them from controversy. Welfare group Animals Australia has been filming calf-roping events at rodeos across the country, concerned at the impact it has on the calves.
GLENYS OOGJES, EXEC. DIR., ANIMALS AUSTRALIA: See, it's just - it's the norm.
MATT WORDSWORTH: Executive director Glenys Oogjes says it must be causing damage and distress.
GLENYS OOGJES: Calf-roping certainly is one of the worst events and that's because we've got young, vulnerable calves. They are fearful, they race at great speed and then when the lasso goes around their neck they are jolted to a halt and apart from occasional breakage of bones, I believe every time there's going to be tissues ripped, internal damage, haemorrhaging, discs rupture risks - that sort of thing. So, it's just terrible to do this to these young calves.
MATT WORDSWORTH: Calf-roping, also called rope and tie, has already been outlawed in South Australia and Victoria. The RSPCA is backing the call for an Australia-wide ban.
MARK TOWNEND, CEO, RSPCA QLD: We think it's one sport that Queensland can do without. We think those animals are at risk of injury and serious injury and we believe that we don't need as humans that type of entertainment where those animals are put at risk.
MATT WORDSWORTH: What does it do to a calf to be roped and put to the ground and tied up?
MARK TOWNEND: Well let me say I'm not a qualified vet, but certainly when it comes to a sudden stop with a rope tied around its neck and brought to the ground, we don't think that's healthy for any animal. And there's many injuries, and quite often there's not the code of practice in place that's lawful to ensure that those animals are used to something like that.
MATT WORDSWORTH: The rules of rope and tie are simple: lasso the calf, if it falls to the ground it must be brought back to its feet, then it is thrown down and three legs are tied. The fastest time wins.
Bill Urquhart is the announcer at Goombungee Rodeo. He's also chairman of the National Rodeo Association, one of a number of organising groups. He says there are very few injuries.
BILL URQUHART, NATIONAL RODEO ASSOCIATION: The injury rate of stock in rodeo is very, very limited. It's less than one per cent. It's .001 of one per cent for injuries throughout Australia and thousands upon thousands of stock are used per year. So the injury rate is relatively small. But we'd like to have none, we'd like to be zero, but I don't know that that's achievable because there are going to be little accidents that happen.
MATT WORDSWORTH: Brad Kavanagh supplies the calves, steers and bulls used for events like Goombungee's. It's a job he learned from his father and he's been coming to rodeos since he was a child.
How often do they get hurt? Does it happen very often?
BRAD KAVANAGH: Very rarely. Ya know, like, we can't say they don't get hurt, but it's like any animal sport, it's the same. Rodeos isn't the only ones that, ya know, wehere stock are gonna get injured. It's just like ...
MATT WORDSWORTH: What, like, horse racing?
BRAD KAVANAGH: Horse racin', whatever, camp draftin', circus animals get hurt, you know, so. I might go to one rodeo a year and somethin' gets hurt.
MATT WORDSWORTH: Yeah. I mean, obviously people are concerned about the welfare side of things, aren't they?
BRAD KAVANAGH: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. And we are too. Like, I'm a cattle person. I gotta look after me cattle. And that's part of our life and if we don't look after 'em, eh, you know, it's just not right.
MATT WORDSWORTH: The position of the RSPCA and Animals Australia is emphatic: an end to all rodeo events, starting with calf-roping. And Glenys Oogjes and her members have quietly assembled a catalogue of incidents they say prove it's too risky.
Last month it filmed as a bull broke its leg at Warwick Rodeo, suffering for many minutes as organisers attempted to get it out of the arena where it could be put down. Earlier this year, a horse was recorded running into the barriers at Mt Isa Rodeo. And she says a member of the public sent this vision of an animal getting its leg broken at Mount Carbine Rodeo after being wrestled to the ground by three men.
GLENYS OOGJES: And it happens because there's lights, there's lots of activity in the area, people don't even hear what's going on. So, I was just appalled that this could happen. And it's all because it's like a festive atmosphere. This is not the way animals should be treated in 2012.
MARK TOWNEND: I compare it to the circuses. We all enjoyed circuses when we were young. We didn't know any different. And when an elephant, a giraffe, a cow, a lion was carted round in (inaudible) trailer parts of Australia and we all got an entertainment under a big tent - far from their normal behaviour and not right. Very bad for animal welfare. We say the same with rodeos. Let's move on and find other forms of entertainment that is less threatening to those species.
MATT WORDSWORTH: The ACT has already banned rodeos, but organisers elsewhere aren't going down without a fight. Bill Urquhart hopes to draw a line in the sand over calf-roping in order to preserve the host of events that make up rodeo.
BILL URQUHART: Any part of it that is lost is a major gain for the people who don't want rodeo to be conducted and it's a significant defeat on our behalf. So we stick rigidly to the fact that we want to keep it in its entirety as it is. And these events have been used since time immemorial as far the mustering of stock and the branding of cattle and so on and it's a tradition that carries on.
MATT WORDSWORTH: He says the crowds are growing, not dwindling and the community needs rodeo.
What would it mean to you if something like this was taken away from ya?
BRAD KAVANAGH: Oh, it'd mean a lot. It's been me life. That's all I've done every weekend for the last 30 years. So, I mean, yeah, I don't wanna see it go and I'm doin' me best to make sure it keeps going by lookin' after the stock.
LEIGH SALES: Matt Wordsworth reporting.
By Matt Wordsworth, 7.30 Report