Not since Sydney Poitier was slapped “In the Heat of the Night” has there been a more controversial slap as the ones that are given at most cattle shows around the world.
Back in 1967, when the much-heralded crime drama In The Heat Of The Night debuted, Sydney Poitier was breaking down numerous doors for black actors in Hollywood. The movie came out at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, lending tons of topical subtext to the film’s white cop/black cop plot.
Poitier played the black cop, obviously, a hard-nosed lawman who didn’t take guff from anyone. And especially not from the pasty old cracker in this ground-breaking scene, in which Poitier reacts to the white guy’s facial slap with a rather pimp-like backhand to the other guy’s grill. Widely regarded as the first time a black person ever fought back against a white man in film history, it’s an important moment that’s both awesomely badass and socially pertinent.
Just like the controversy generated back in 1967 when cattle are slapped in the naming of the champions there has been much debate about the merits of it. While some “in the know” would say it is harmless and simply a way of showing off their passion and enthusiasm for showing great cows, there are certainly those, even amongst exhibitors, that feel the practice needs to come to an end. And at this year’s World Dairy Expo it will. In fact, this year’s judges have agreed to not slapping any animals in the naming of their champions.
Having had the opportunity to photograph cattle shows around the world, I can attest to how exciting the naming of a champion can be and, in most countries, this is done by slapping the champion. Having said that, the slap itself is handled differently in different regions. In Europe they love to do a full blown run-up and, often, you will find the lead person jumping high in the air. In South America, they are more like North America, and they do an enthusiastic slap. And in Australia, they are a little more reserved and do a soft slap, depending on the origins of the judge.
One thing is very certain and that is that the pictures of cows being slapped can generate a wide range of emotion. Take this picture of 2013 World Dairy Expo Holstein Grand Champion Bonaccueil Maya Goldwyn.
As someone in the dairy business, I see a judge excited to name his champion and an exhibitor excited to win their first Grand Champion honor at World Dairy Expo. I see passion at a level that few can understand. This picture may be one of my favorite of all time and is certainly one of my most popular. I love these moments. I even spent hours and thousands of dollars on equipment to capture these moments. And other photographers have tried to copies this as the popularity of these moments has greatly increased since this. But to a consumer, it may look like two guys about to beat on a helpless cow. And this is among the milder images. Take a look at this image of last years’ grand champion at the Royal Winter Fair.
While I see Air Heath taking flight to name his champion, others would see a guy in a suit jumping to hit a cow and the person leading the cow so afraid that he does not know what to do. So the big issue is the context the image is taken in. There is also the risk to the animals themselves as well as the leads people in the ring. However, last year during a show a cow reacted so much that it almost ran over another lead person who was pregnant at the time. These issues bring to light the need for change.
In fact, this could be true for many things that happen in the dairy industry. How many times have we seen PETA and other videos surface that have taken typical farm practices and framed them in an entirely different context to exploit the issue? The same is true here. To those at these events they understand that is passion and enthusiasm. Those not present in the moment don’t understand.
Over the past year, I have had conversations with many breeders and exhibitors about this and have found them to be all over the board on the issue. There are those who are of the mindset that “I am not going to let PETA and the like dictate to me how I show my enthusiasm.” And then there are those to whom these animals are like family to them and slapping them is like slapping their mother, wife, sister or daughter. There are even those who, depending on who the judge is, get afraid at the thought of them slapping their animal and then they carry resentment for how they did it for years after the show.
Ultimately, as with most things, the time has come to look at another way to show our enthusiasm. In trying to think of a solution, I thought about how is it done in other circumstances. One of the first areas I thought of was the Westminster Dog Show which is one of the highest achievements in the pedigree canine world. At that show the judge has a mike and does commentary while he hands out the ribbons to first the Reserve Champion (best in show) and then to the overall winner. This is followed by shaking the hand of the winner. Another possibility is they way winners are named in beauty contests, where the judge submits the results to the officials, and an announcer does it over the PA system. Both methods have their merits. Personally, I find the simple handshake of the lead person just as dramatic as the slap of the cow. Though this may limit some of the leads people from jumping for joy, it also allows the judge to embrace the lead person of the animal and allow for the emotion of the moment to be on display without causing issues with animal rights groups and some exhibitors.
The Bottom Line
Dairy cattle shows need to be about the animals and treating them like the beauties they are. While enthusiasm and passion are great and that helps drive our industry, the time has come to display those emotions differently than with a big old slap. A great big handshake can be just as effective and just as rewarding. So this year when you are sitting on the edge of your seating watch the champion classes at World Dairy Expo, remember you won’t see a slap, but there’s nothing stopping you from cheering and clapping as loud as you can!