The western tradition of rodeo attracts tens of millions of fans – and curious tourists – in states like Texas, California, Colorado, Florida, Oklahoma and Wyoming, among others. But animal rights groups argue that this part of US heritage belongs in the past.

To say that animal welfare organizations and rodeos do not see eye-to-eye is an understatement. For one side, it is a cruel act of animal abuse. For the other, it is an entertaining and competitive sports event that is part of their culture

There is next to nothing upon which the two sides agree – except perhaps, they would both say they care for animals.

“We have 60 rules that cover the care and handling of the animals,” said Cindy Schonholtz, director of industry outreach for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA), which sanctions about 600 rodeos each year in the United States and Canada, a small percentage of the estimated 10,000 rodeos held each year in the US. PRCA instituted its first animal protection rules in 1947, and today regulations include having a veterinarian on site at all events, removing animals from competition that are not healthy or are injured, wrapping the horns on steers to protect their heads and using spurs that are not sharp.

Lindsay Rajt, associate director of campaigns and outreach at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), couldn’t disagree more. “All the rules that are in the rodeo really exist to protect the rider and not the animal,” she said. “Their rules are like a manual on how to abuse animals.”

PETA objects to the use of electric prods and devices such as bucking straps, which go around an animal’s abdomen. With these devices, Rajt said, the rodeos are “taking animals that are normally tame, docile animals and then provoking them … to be fierce and aggressive”. Other animal welfare groups, including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), also object to rodeos. The ASPCA calls them “a cruel form of entertainment that involves the painful, stressful and potentially harmful treatment of livestock”.

The rodeo association’s Schonholtz countered that prods are used sparingly to move livestock in open areas. Once an animal is in a chute, the small space where an animal is held just before it enters the ring, she said, a prod can only be used on the shoulder of a horse if the judge, contestant and owner of the animal all agree that it is needed because a horse will not leave the chute. “It can be very dangerous in the chute… our goal is to get that animal safely out.” The PRCA would, obviously, like to keep having rodeos – it estimates about 30 million people attend them annually in the United States. PETA, however, wants a complete ban on rodeos. Period. “I think anytime animals are being used for profit, you’re going to see [their] welfare suffer,” Rajt said.

PETA said that Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has “a de facto ban” on rodeos, because it prohibits several devices, including prods and bucking straps. Napa County, California, doesn't allow rodeos in unincorporated areas of the county. Other jurisdictions prohibit certain devices or events, such as horse-tripping, which is just as it sounds, tripping a galloping horse by roping its legs. Six states prohibit horse-tripping, and the PRCA does not have that event at its rodeos.

Schonholtz said complete bans on rodeos are generally in places that “don’t have rodeos and haven’t seen them and don’t understand them”. She acknowledged that the industry has a challenge in reaching out to the general public, which is more and more urbanized and less and less familiar with steers, broncos and how to tie a lasso. “But that’s also the attraction of the sport – people don’t get to see bulls and horses every day, so people want to come see them,” she said

The Catalonia region of Spain banned its long-held tradition of bullfighting in September 2011, but, as to be expected, PETA and the PRCA disagree on whether there are any parallels to be drawn between bullfighting and rodeos.

“In both cases, you’re taking an animal and you’re tormenting that animal to make him look fierce and aggressive in the ring,” Rajt said. Plus, people advocate for both bullfighting and rodeos on a cultural basis, she said.

 But Schonholtz has a different take: “Bullfighting and rodeo are so far removed,” she said. “Their goal is to kill the animal; our goal is to keep our animals healthy.”

Lori Robertson writes the Ethical Traveller column for BBC Travel. You can send ethical dilemmas to

Correction: A previous version of this article included an incorrect listing from PETA, which said that St Petersburg, Florida; Fort Wayne, Indiana; San Francisco and Napa County, California ban rodeos. This has been corrected above. Napa doesn't allow rodeos in unincorporated areas of the county. San Francisco requires a permit, and Fort Wayne has regulations on rodeos and requires a permit on every animal event. The police legal staff of St Petersburg was unable to find any ordinance on the books pertaining to rodeos.