Rodeo. The word alone is enough to ignite a firestorm of discussion and debate.
Indeed, there seems to be little middle ground when it comes to the world of bull riding and barrel racing, especially at a time when its mere existence is being questioned by a vocal animal welfare protest movement.

Passionate fans and those involved in the industry provide a stout defence of rodeo as a legitimate sport.

They maintain the welfare of the animals involved is paramount, that rodeo participants - like farmers - are animal lovers, that instances of animal injuries or deaths through rodeo are statistically extremely small, that their business is intensively, and independently, scrutinised.

In short, they think rodeo is here to stay, and its entertainment value and strong community links make it an important part of rural New Zealand.

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At the other end of the spectrum is the growing - at least in profile and impact, if not sheer numbers - number of protesters who are calling for the sport to be banned.

Led by Green Party MP Gareth Hughes, who has referred to rodeo as ''animal cruelty dressed up as entertainment'', members of the movement claim animals involved in rodeo are subject to unacceptable levels of fear and distress, and that rodeo is a relic of the past and should be consigned there alongside bear baiting and cock fighting.

Fuel is poured on the protest fire by instances of animals dying at rodeos. Such events appear to be rare, but they do happen.

At a rodeo in Gisborne earlier this year, a bull had to be euthanised, and animal welfare groups later claimed a horse was also put down, although rodeo organisers said that was from an unrelated incident.

The protesters believe rodeo has been given a ride much cushier than that experienced by riders on the backs of bulls.

In contrast, the pro-rodeo types believe their sport has been unfairly targeted. They have hammered the media, claiming the protesters get disproportional coverage, and they have painted the protest movement as an extremist sect.

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There seems to be a level of paranoia on both sides, but it is not a bad thing to be having this debate.

Rodeo aficionados do not have the right to exist in a bubble, or to have their activities and views swallowed without critical evaluation. Their sport is covered by a code of welfare, for example, but there are no requirements to report publicly on animal deaths and injuries. That lack of transparency could be seen as problematic.

Concerning, too, have been reports of peaceful protesters being manhandled by rabid rodeo fans. That does nothing for the image of the sport.

Equally short shrift must be given to the extreme fringes of the protest movement, and those who twist the facts to suit their argument.

Does rodeo have a secure future in New Zealand? That is not certain. For now, it is an activity that must be prepared to be subject to plenty of scrutiny.

- Otago Daily Times