- Published: June 25, 2014
- Written by Dan Needham
What Does PETA Really Want From Horse Racing?
“They’re fanatics and extremists who want to ban horse racing. You have to remember that.” This has been a common insider response to the recent campaign on Thoroughbred racing by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
In what is now simply known as “the video,” PETA compiled and released selected scenes from an undercover investigation of the Steve Asmussen barn. The heavily edited video was a powerful blow to racing not because it showed anything illegal. As of this writing investigators have determined that no laws or rules were broken.
But the video succeeded in portraying the status quo of Thoroughbred care including the widespread administration of “therapeutic” drugs and procedures. Of the anti-bleeding drug Lasix, or furosemide, veterinarian Dr. James Hunt Jr. nonchalantly remarks that, “They basically all run on it. It makes them lighter.”
“If rules aren’t being broken then we need different rules,” noted one Thoroughbred breeder after watching.
Those with preconceived notions about horse racing found ample confirmation in the video. Those without preconceived notions now have them.
The video sparked clarion calls for change across racing. Why? It is because we understand that the topic of animal welfare resonates like never before with the average law-abiding citizen who dutifully totes recycling to the curb every week, buys cage-free eggs, and likes grilled cheeseburgers. People believe they can and should try to make a difference and are thinking carefully about the lifestyle choices they make. And more and more are starting to think about that cheeseburger.
Thoroughbred racing is many things. On its grandest days at its finest venues it is spectacle steeped in tradition. On most days it is a fascinating and compelling gambling game. And everyday it is animal racing.
When you hear horse racing described as an anachronism, this is code for “It’s animal racing.”
In the West, and especially in America, prevailing attitudes toward animals and our relationships with them have changed and continue to evolve. Once the exclusive domain of iconoclasts and intellectuals, animal welfare is now squarely mainstream. But horse racing remains much the same as it was a hundred years ago.
Somewhere buried inside the 2011 McKinsey “state of the industry” report for The Jockey Club is a page or two acknowledging these rapidly changing attitudes. This did not, however, “make the cut” as a major issue facing the racing industry.
It is self-evident that Thoroughbred racing must find a way to not only exist but prosper in societies unwilling to tolerate animal cruelty and exploitation in any form.
Thoroughbred racing is not a dying pursuit existing at the margins of society, the way one might describe dog racing. While you might remember dog racing, you might not remember how popular it once was. Dog racing, horse racing’s pari-mutuel cousin, is now banned in thirty-nine states, primarily due to animal welfare concerns. In the end, the fact that the majority of dogs were well taken care of didn’t matter.
In Australia, jump racing, inherently more dangerous than flat racing, faces increasingly intense public pressure. Calls for banning the dwindling sport have an air of inevitability to them.
We learned that twenty-million Americans watched California Chrome bid for the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes. The worst possible way to interpret that statistic is to offer it up as a public stamp of approval for horse racing.
How have we arrived at this point?
The animal rights movement, the more radical offspring of the animal welfare movement, is only decades old. As social movements go, it’s still an infant. But organized concern for animal welfare, predominantly in England and America, predated discussion of animal rights by more than a hundred years. Its legacy is all around us in the form of familiar organizations like the ASPCA, RSPCA, and national and local humane societies.
You may find it ironic, especially if you live in New York City, that the animal which received considerable attention in the early days of this nineteenth century movement was the horse, specifically the carriage horse.
The story of animal advocacy took a perverse turn soon after the Nazis came to power in Germany. In the 1930s the murderous Nazi regime enacted the most comprehensive animal welfare legislation the world had ever seen. Adolph Hitler proclaimed that “Hunting and horse racing are the last remnants of a dead feudal world.”
It is a testament of sorts to the animal advocacy movement that it has managed to forge ahead without being linked to this historical absurdity.
Decades later in 1975 Australian philosopher Peter Singer wrote the monumentally influential Animal Liberation. It is widely accepted that this book sparked the modern animal rights movement. Indeed, PETA considers this book a manifesto of sorts. In Animal Liberation Singer denounces speciesism and declares the moral status of humans and animals to be equivalent because, simply, suffering is suffering.
In 1983 American philosopher Tom Regan contributed The Case for Animal Rights to the burgeoning canon of animal advocacy literature. Regan argued that animals, like humans, are experiencing-subjects-of-a-life (ESOAL) and therefore have intrinsic value and rights. For Regan, animals do not just have life, they have “a life” and experience themselves as subjects of that life. Animals can expect, anticipate, prefer, and have a sense of past and future. They use their lives to accomplish goals.
Peter Singer and Tom Regan opened a floodgate of philosophical inquiry into the nature of animals that continues unabated. Regan recently observed, “Philosophers have written more on the topic [animal rights] in the past thirty years than our predecessors had written in the previous three thousand.”
Regan’s point is well-taken but should not obscure the fact that philosophers and spiritual sages of antiquity, from Aristotle to Zoroaster, have sought truths about human responsibility towards other sentient beings.
Aristotle, in particular, writes about an important yet often overlooked (by contemporary animal advocates) concept — the notion of a telos. For Aristotle, a telos is understood to be the essential interest of each kind of animal — the set of functions that define its essence. The “dogness” of a dog or the “horseness” of a horse is its telos. A telos is not at all the same as instinct. It is something more vital, something that gives the animal purpose.
While your dog might keep your kitchen floor crumb-free and protect the household from threats, both real and imaginary, that is not her telos. Rather, when she triumphantly returns a thrown ball and awaits praise, perhaps there is a bit more going on than mere play. To chase and retrieve surely seems a job that many breeds of dogs live to do. It is in their blood and marrow. This seems closer to that essential thing she must be allowed to do.
Who could dispute that the telos of the Thoroughbred is “to run”? Some might even go further and suggest it is “to race.”
We don’t really need to know what the telos of a crate-confined calf is to know that his telos has been denied. The same is true for endangered Asiatic black bears held in “crush cages” to harvest gall bladder bile for use in traditional Eastern medicine. And despite universal opposition, these practices continue.
“There's always an uncertainty that I see in the faces of some of these animals [Thoroughbred horses] because they never know where they're going to be next,” claims Kathy Guillermo, Senior Vice President of PETA. The life of an average Thoroughbred, especially at the lower claiming levels, is clearly unsettled and transient. But can that cause a horse to experience uncertainty or anxiety?
Racing followers routinely infuse horses with qualities and emotions typically reserved for humans. Courage, perseverance, pride, intelligence, tenacity, all quickly come to mind. But what about uncertainty, fear, even terror? The other side of the emotional coin is generally ignored. But not by animal advocates.
Even a cursory survey of the language used by turf writers and racing fans would lead you to believe that they fully consider Thoroughbreds to be not just animals but ESOAL. These are animals that have names, personality quirks, and a carefully documented family tree that dates back further than yours or mine.
How then to explain the absent rules and policies and mistreatment cases that we are all too familiar with?
PETA, founded in 1980, did not start the animal advocacy movement and does not currently define it. Some will even say that PETA’s tactics give the movement a bad name. But PETA is highly visible, well-funded, and committed to its cause.
Decades of activism against using animals for biomedical experimentation, product testing, and factory farming, just to name a few issues, have resulted in repeated success stories and milestones for the organization.
PETA succeeds because they know that the story, once confirmed as true, is bigger than the means by which it was obtained. The public will see to that.
Alerted by news reports and whistleblowers, since 2008 PETA has set its sights on welfare issues and abuses in Thoroughbred racing. The list of issues is long and familiar to you — drug reform, fatalities and injuries, horse slaughter, after care and retirement, under tack shows, whipping — and PETA has pushed racing to act in some of these areas.
But, as anyone who follows racing knows, fundamental change is rare and protracted. “It has been profoundly disappointing to see how slow change has been,” admits PETA’s Kathy Guillermo. And with that maybe we are better able to place the motivation underlying the recent Asmussen undercover investigation within a larger context.
“When we have urged the public to boycott racing and have said racing must end, it was to spur the industry to make changes,” she clarifies.
What does PETA really want from horse racing? They want racing to be as safe and ethical as possible. They want what you want. The difference is they lack your patience and are more than willing to operate “outside the system.”
“We never really intended to take on racing or any equine sport,” explains Guillermo. “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.”
PETA’s campaign against racing is not a campaign designed to abolish the sport. Clearly certain elements of the campaign are designed to maximize attention and provoke the industry to initiate reforms. And perhaps those elements are working as planned.
There is a PETA-sized hole in Thoroughbred racing and authorities would be wise to formally collaborate with the advocacy group on a spectrum of reforms — reforms that reflect the implicit assumption that a Thoroughbred is an ESOAL with a telos — whether or not you buy into either philosophical construct.
But when the recurrent question is again asked of racing, “Who speaks for the horses,” the answer cannot be PETA. The answer must be “We do.”