Marrabel: it was a dot on a map, until it was hauled out of obscurity thanks to a horse which no one could ride. Experienced rodeo riders came from all over Australia and were defeated by that crazy mare and eight years passed before someone managed to stay on her for 10 seconds. In the meantime, a town no one had ever heard of became well known along with its annual rodeo, held in the spring and drawing riders and spectators from all over Australia.
But then one day, a storm appeared over the horizon and the town’s fame turned into notoriety and the unrideable horse became a symbol of a shameful past.
As visitors, people passing through, Anya and I knew nothing about this. With our tent pitched on the deserted rodeo ground, an icy wind blowing across the empty grounds, we convened to the pub as darkness fell with no more in mind than enjoying a warm meal and a glass of wine. It was a Tuesday and our expectation was that we were going to be back inside our tent early that evening.
But ended up staying much longer than we thought, making our way back to the rodeo ground late that night with a blaze of stars above us – and haunting, unanswerable questions trailing behind us…..
When we opened the old wooden door and entered the pub and saw empty tables and chairs and a couple of people at the bar, we weren’t surprised.
We sat down and chatted for a while with Wendy, the woman who earlier in the day had told us about the rodeo ground.
Along with her husband Robbie she managed the pub. They were originally from a suburb in Adelaide.
‘The kids have grown up and gone their own ways. We took up the lease on the pub in Marrabel for a challenge. Its hard work running a pub, you’re always busy. What makes it all worthwhile are the evenings when all sorts of people turn up ….
When we took over the pub, it was a run-down hole for pokie-addicts. The first thing we did was to get rid of the gaming machines. We wanted to meet the locals, not get them addicted to gambling. This place is for eating and drinking and talking. There’s no place here for mobile phones either. If you wanna talk on your mobile you do that outside, same as with smoking…
Wendy and Robbie certainly had their ideas about what kind of pub they wanted. Their pub was for socializing and at a time when all of our social contacts went via one or another form of electronic media, it spelt a clear break with convention alright.
The formula was a success. As the evening advanced, more and more people turned up, many of them driving in from far away: workers, tradesmen, technicians and farmers. The place got crowded. I’d been in enough Aussie pubs to know that this was really something unique.
And it was because of this, that we heard about how Marrabel’s annual rodeo had come to an ignominous end. We had assumed that the various strange things we had seen on the rodeo ground, for example, the old bathtubs, the galvanised iron stalls, the signs and marker ropes, were being stored for the one great time of the year when thousands of people converged on Marrabel for its rodeo.
That night we heard about how the rodeo had petered out thanks to the Animal Rights activists. Every year, they had turned up at Marrabel’s famous rodeo, staging protests and bringing actions against the rodeo via the courts. The animal rights activists were against rodeos and wanted the state government to ban them. Then the media had got involved, followed by the politicians. Suddenly Marrabel was in the news all over Australia. The town that had produced the unrideable horse was now famous for entirely different reasons.
The organisers of the rodeo and the people who worked in the stalls – volunteeers – lost interest in offering their services.
Amongst the people we spoke to that night, we discerned a lasting resentment amongst the country people against the animal rights activists.
As one woman I spoke to said:
‘What a farce! Is a rodeo crueller than a horse race? Or a dog race? Of course not! As it is, the country’s got so little going for it. The farms are being bought up by foreign corporations, the towns are emptying and the kids see no reason to stay.
Why did they take this one day of the year away from Marrabel?
The money made from the rodeo was used to finance our football and netball teams. Once they went, the kids had less reason to stay.
Who do these city fanatics think they are to come and moralize to us?’
She had a point.
It struck me that in a society where animals were bred to be eaten and crammed on to ships and exported live to the Middle East (not to mention the battery factories) that ‘animal rights’ was a slippery concept – and that the activists had picked on the Marrabel rodeo because it was a soft target.
On the walls of the Marrabel pub were old black and white photos of the miraculous and unrideable mare Curio and colour photos of Marrabel’s footy and netball teams. Near the doorway was a pin up news board. It was covered in news clippings associated with the animal rights campaign against rodeos. Some of the articles were from regional newspapers, some of them from stock journals, and others from Adelaide’s main daily newspaper, ‘The Advertiser’.
My eyes caught a copy of the following article taken from The Advertiser:
‘Animal Rights Activist Convicted of Mistreating Dog.’
Under the heading was a photo of an old bent man in a long coat and a hat leaving court. His face was haggard and he was staring blankly in front of him. He was obviously devastated. I read the accompanying article carefully.
This man had been the director of the RSPCA (‘Royal Society for the Protection and Care of Animals’) for four years and he had been the leader of the Animal Rights group pursuing the campaign against the Marrabel rodeo.
How did such a man come to be convicted of mistreating a dog? I wondered.
I read on.
He was convicted for failing to fulfil his duty of care to his dog by not taking it to a vet. It was a very old dog. It was blind, it had lost the use of its limbs, it was incontinent and it was in constant pain. It was incapable of eating too, but it had been kept alive by its owner stuffing balls of bread containing vitamin pills down its throat. The man told the court that he didn’t take the dog to a vet because he knew that the vet would recommend that the dog be put down.
He didn’t believe in ‘euthanasia for animals’ he said.
That was a truly bizarre philosophy for someone who claimed that they were opposed to animal cruelty. Here was a man who could get passionate about someone riding a rodeo horse for a few seconds and yet saw no contradiction in putting his own dog through years of unrelenting hell.
This was the man who had given the green light to an animal rights jihad against rodeos and Marrabel.
The contradictions fascinated me.
No doubt this man believed that in being opposed to ‘euthanasia for animals’ he was a moral being; it underlined the point that moral beings were capable of gross immorality. Indeed, there was ample reason to fear self-proclaimed moral beings.
Yes, little Marrabel had lots of history alright, a history which in its own quirky way was a cameo of the history of Australia.
A horse had put Marrabel on the map. But Marrabel had made history and not only because of the famous mare and her progeny.When the animal rights activists had appeared on that One Day of the Year to put a stop to Marrabel’s rodeo, that diminutive town had suddenly become famous. A new set of issues had grabbed the headlines all over Australia: the country versus the city, the right to hold a rodeo and the right of animals to be treated with respect. A rodeo organizer was convicted of cruelty to animals – and so was the leader of the animal rights campaign. All over the country, the old ideas of society, of right and wrong, of the acceptable and the unacceptable, were being challenged. Racism and sexism were the catch cries of a new definition of Australia and what it ought to stand for. The rights of indigenous people, women, gays, immigrants, children and animals – to name of few of the major ‘rights’ issues – were championed.
Change, so needed, like rain on a parched land, had arrived and it was long overdue. But it was capable of its own excesses, its own injustices.
As someone who had spent his life travelling and experiencing first hand nations utterly devoid of any vestige of human rights – let alone animal rights – the contradictions involved here were glaring.
How did this work?
Those who liked to pretend that Australia was a cess pit of injustice, racism and sexism – and many other -isms – had they never really looked at the state of play at the countries where they spent their holidays, e.g. Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, The Philippines? Countries ruled by corrupt and dictatorial regimes, where the rights of LGBT’s, women, immigrants and indigineous inhabitants were non-existent never mind animals.
I left the Marrabel pub feeling confused.
Where was the better direction?
I had a feeling it was like any other direction on the compass.
It was a place to head to, a goal, but what we would find there might be another thing entirely.