Saturday, April 07, 2012

Acting the goat

I had a near miss at the Roma goat races today. I was in front of a big crowd on the racing side of the barrier in order to get a good photo. When the goats set off I trained my camera on the leaders and started clicking. They passed me halfway down the course and I turned around to watch the finish. However one stray goat came loose from the field and bore down on me. I was unaware of the threat until I turned around at the last second. I saw a rider with arms outstretched as he attempted to regain control of the goat while avoiding clattering into me with his billycart.

I just had time to lean back out of the way and the wheels went over my foot. It also went over my camera bag but somehow did not smash the lens. A little surprised ut otherwise unhurt, I turned towards the goat and rider which trundled its way back on track. The goat was feisty but hardly distressed and there was no other damage done. Yet this tale could easily be another nail in the coffin of the races, the signature event of Roma’s Easter in the Country.

Easter in the Country is a rolling four day festival with something on in town each day of the weekend. There is an Easter parade, markets, thoroughbred racing, a rodeo, drag racing, speedway, motocross, an art show, bush poets and many other events dotted through town. Easter in the Country has been going for 35 years and over time the Easter Saturday goat races have become the iconic event attracting the biggest crowd. Today the main street was closed to traffic and packed with pedestrians finding the best vantage point for the two races. There are five goats in each race and the atmosphere is good-natured and friendly.

But it may be the last of its kind in Roma. Goat racing is legal but Animal Liberation wants it stopped on grounds of cruelty. Animal Lib has been concentrating on northern NSW and has been successful in closing down three goat races. Bundarra had to end its goat race due to the adverse publicity. Lightning Ridge has also replaced its Easter goat race with a big dig for opals in the main street.

The last straw was a Today Tonight report of 21 October 2011 which was a grab of selected crashes at a NSW country meet in Woolbrook. The Channel Seven report typically appealed to “think of the children” mentality while also making itself the story. The footage showed safety and wellbeing could be improved at Woolbrook (there was no examples of pulling goats by the horns in Roma). But the report did not prove Animal Liberation’s claim it was “barbaric and cruel”.

Cruel practices to goats remain unproven in law. However the mere taint of such publicity is now affecting Roma. One of the major Easter in the Country sponsors is threatening to pull out because of the goats. This is a big deal because Easter in the Country is as a not for profit organisation. Unpaid volunteers spend 12 months getting ready for the next event and rely almost totally on sponsorship. They get little financial support from Council (mostly in kind) but bring a lot of tourist dollars to Roma and the region.

The Easter in the Country committee knows the goat races are a drawcard and believes its goats are treated safely and humanely. I saw no evidence to the contrary today (my careless moment aside). Yet they cannot deliver a festival without sponsorship and unless a generous patron can be found that does not believe goat racing is cruel, the practice is unlikely to continue in 2013.

The sponsors who don't condone goat racing are hypocrites. Animal welfare is not their primary concern. If it was they would also have objected to other Easter in the Country events such as horse racing, bull ride and rodeo. The real reason is possible negative public relations coming from the association between the company and a national media outlet story about cruelty.

Perhaps the future will prove me wrong and goat racing will go the way of bear baiting and fox hunting, despite our collective atavistic appetite for animal sports. Seeking a halfway house, Roma could perhaps take its solution from overseas. London has its annual Oxford versus Cambridge goat race, but these goats fly solo, unencumbered with carts or riders. Oxford lost last year due to its goat slowing down to do a poo. Oxford apparently gained such revenge when it won the inaugural stoat race. I hope no-one tells Animal Liberation.

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