Three Questions with Kathy Guillermo of PETA
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals executive Kathy Guillermo shares her perspective on PETA's involvement with Thoroughbred racing. Guillermo's answers represent her own views and not necessarily ours.
There are those in horse racing who are quick to dismiss PETA as extremists with an abolitionist agenda. They feel that working with PETA to improve horse racing incrementally does not make sense. How do you respond to this?
Since PETA began actively campaigning against horse racing abuses in 2008 everything we have done has been with one goal in mind: reforming racing to make it less cruel. It was clear to us — as it is to many in the racing industry that a few bad practices are harming and killing horses. We believed that we could put some pressure on the industry to make some changes that would decrease the suffering and the death toll. When we have urged the public to boycott racing and have said racing as it is done now must end, it was to spur the industry to make changes.
It has been profoundly disappointing to see how slow change has been. I was hopeful when the 2011 McKinsey Report was released that we would see serious drug reform, as well as action to prevent the transport of horses to Canada and Mexico for slaughter. The McKinsey Report made it clear that younger people are not coming to the track in large part because of the perception that racing is cruel — a perception that animal rights groups are contributing to. I thought: At last! Now the racing industry will see that they need to clean up the abuse so that the animal rights people won’t have anything to report. How wrong I was. Instead, the response was largely to raise the profile of racing, to create television programs, increase advertising and improve the public perception of racing. But the image isn’t the problem. The reality is the problem. In my view, racing can never be glamorized without eliminating the drugs, breakdowns, and slaughter. I know the Jockey Club has tried to push through their drug reform, which doesn’t really go far enough, but the lukewarm response by most racing states has been a terrible mistake.
We believe the Asmussen investigation created a tipping point, but much cruelty had already been exposed:
We documented in 2009 the Thoroughbred slaughter industry in Japan and looked at where Charismatic and War Emblem are.
We then expanded our investigations:
2011: The racing of very young horses in two-year-old auctions. This contains some of the most shocking breakdown video I’ve ever seen.
2012: The transport of horses from the U.S. to Canada for slaughter.
And of course the recent investigation of Asmussen.
Throughout these last few years, we have attempted to work with industry to make improvements. Most of the changes the industry implemented were welcome but they did not deal with the biggest problems, including the misuse of therapeutic drugs. The one substantial success we had up to the point of the Asmussen investigation was on the retirement program, which we proposed to the Jockey Club in 2011, and a version of which was implemented as the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance in 2012. Though any role PETA played has been expunged from, or more accurately was never included in, the official record. But when I sat in Jim Gagliano’s office at the Jockey Club headquarters and saw the copy of our retirement proposal that had been reviewed and marked up by industry representatives, we knew that, after a decade of talking about retirement, the industry was finally really doing something.
But the auction companies ignored our suggestions for small changes that would be simple and effective, and would help prevent the breakdowns of young horses — even though the Stronach Group had already paved the way by enacting the same rules we proposed, and for the same reasons, at their own juvenile auction.
I think the industry has been arrogant and foolish for refusing to work with PETA or at least with those in the industry who agree with PETA on the need for change. They have said, effectively, we would rather carry on drugging and killing horses than even discuss how we might improve things because we don’t want to acknowledge that PETA might be right on some of these things. The irony is, the information we have comes from people in racing. We sought, and continue to seek, expert guidance in all these areas. And tragically, the horses are the ones who suffer for this arrogance, and ultimately, so does racing itself.
By contrast, I went to Jeff Gural at Meadowlands on whipping and drugging in the harness industry and he put out a news release stating that he was in discussions with PETA. Then he took almost immediate action to clean up drugs and whipping cruelty at his tracks. Consequently PETA has not targeted harness racing. Discussions and cooperation with PETA was followed by real action that led to effective change. That’s what we’re looking for.
We have also been encouraged by our meeting with the Stronach Group on April 7 this year, during which we discussed our suggestions for reform, and we hope to continue this dialogue.
PETA is opposed to using animals for entertainment. Does this opposition include all equine sports? Has PETA targeted Thoroughbred racing specifically due to perceived excessive unethical practices in comparison to other equine sports?
We never really intended to take on racing or any equine sport, as we focus primarily on issues in which millions or billions of animals are used, such as the use of animals for food, clothing and experimentation. But it was so obvious to us that some simple changes could eliminate or at least greatly reduce the number of injuries and fatalities in racing. We felt we had to try. We thought we could make a difference for the horses. I still hope we can.
I had my own horses and showed hunter jumpers for other owners many years ago and played a little arena polo. I saw plenty of mistreatment, though not to the extent I’ve seen in racing. Racing is also regulated by the states, the public bets millions of dollars, and it’s visible in a way other equine sports aren’t; perhaps for these reasons, we get many, many whistleblower calls on racing and we feel an obligation to respond to these and do what we can.
There is an old saying, “You can’t legislate morality.” But do you believe, through new practices and regulations, that racing can be considered ethical, even though accidents, injuries, and even fatalities are inevitable?
There is no question that racing can become less unethical. And it could be done in just a few months if everyone in the industry would get on the same page and act. I’ve seen too much ugliness to think it will ever be ethical, but I urge everyone in racing to work toward reform that will mean drugging and breakdowns are rare and not accepted everyday occurrences. When PETA sees real change, and meaningful results from those changes, we will back off our campaign. But as long as 24 horses are dying on tracks every week, we’re not going away.
We are putting together our formal suggestions, based on the opinions of racing and veterinary experts, for reforms we believe will eliminate the worst of the suffering. I invite the industry to meet with us, review our suggestions, provide feedback, and begin to implement change that will save horses lives — and very likely racing itself.
Kathy Guillermo, Senior Vice President of Laboratory Investigations for PETA, is responsible for uncovering abuses in laboratories, working with whistleblowers to expose violations of animal protection laws, seeking prosecution of animal abusers by federal and state agencies, and replacing animals in laboratories with modern, non-animal methods of experimentation.