A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Horse Racing: Cruelties We Condone and Cruelties We Condemn

By Hal Herzog

I was not surprised, last week, to see that Luck, the HBO drama series about horse racing, had been canceled. In fact, when I first learned that HBO was planning a series based on racing, I told my wife that they were making a big mistake – that there would be deaths. Do I have ESP? No. But I did know the statistics.

In the wake of the death of Eight Belles, the horse that died during the 2008 Kentucky Derby, Associated Press reporter Jeffrey McMurry analyzed horse track mortality rates in the United States. His findings were astounding:

In California alone, 261 thoroughbreds died in track-related injuries in 2007. And between 2003 and 2008, more than 5,000 horses died at American racetracks — nearly three animals per day. In short, the deaths of horses on the HBO set were not just predictable, they were inevitable. (For the racing industry’s rebuttal of McMurry’s statistics see here.)

Animal Cruelty: What the Supreme Court Said

The deaths of these animals point out a larger issue associated with how Americans think about animals: our flagrant moral inconsistencies. Why are Americans are so outraged by some recreational uses of animals, but overwhelmingly approve of activities are even more cruel?

Take, for example, the comparative cruelty of dog fighting and hunting. In 2010, the Supreme Court took on the problem of delineating the cruelties we condemn from the cruelties we condone. In United States v. Stevens, the justices voted 8-1 to overturn a federal statue banning the interstate distribution of materials depicting acts of overt animal cruelty, in this case, dogfighting. The court did not defend dogfighting.

Nor did it defend “crush videos”, the even more repulsive activity that Congress had prohibited and that had been targeted to fetishists who find sexual gratification in watching women in high heels slowly squash small rodents, dominatrix-style. Rather, the court made the decision on constitutional grounds. The justices ruled that, with only very few exceptions like child pornography, the principle of freedom of expression allows the display of materials that nearly everyone finds deeply offensive.

But in the Stevens decision, the judges did raise the consistency issue. They noted that killing wild animals for sport is a deeply rooted American value. Indeed, when in 2009 President Obama proclaimed September 26 to be National Hunting and Fishing Day, he said that hunting and fishing were “ageless pursuits” and urged we “pass on this honored tradition to future generations.”

The problem is that, no less than dogfighting and mouse-crushing, hunting involves animal suffering. Nearly a third of the 40 million migratory birds blasted out of the sky each year by American hunters are not killed outright but wounded, perhaps to drown in the muddy waters of a cold Maryland marsh or flop for hours in the stubble of a Midwest cornfield. And while we claim to be a nation of animal lovers, Americans fork out $75 billion each year in hunting-related expenses. This includes many millions of dollars for hunting magazines, videos and subscriptions to outdoor cable TV channels that glorify the deaths of animals.

In Stevens, the justices took on a difficult task regarding the treatment of nonhuman animals. Could they come up with a legally coherent principle that would criminalize the depiction of dogfights while at the same time allowing the depiction of hunting, a much more pervasive but widely accepted form of animal cruelty? The answer in Stevens was no. The Stevens decision makes me squirm. My intuition tells me there is a big ethical difference between dogfighting and hunting as forms of recreation, yet I am hard-pressed to come up with a logical distinction between the two.

Class, Race, and Animal Cruelty

It is also instructive to compare the rather muted responses to the deaths of racehorses when compared to the universal moral outrage that followed the Michael Vick dogfighting conviction. Kathy Rudy, author of the book Loving Animals: Towards a New Animal Advocacy, pointed out that our society is more likely to criminalize forms of animal abuse that involve minorities and the poor than animal cruelties that affect the wealthy. The comedian Chris Rock made the same point on national television in response to a photograph of Sarah Palin after a hunting trip. He told David Letterman, “She’s holding a dead, bloody moose. And Michael Vick’s like ‘Why am I in jail?’ They let a white lady shoot a moose, but a black man wants to kill a dog? Now that’s a crime.”

Public opinion polls also reveal our ambivalence about the recreational use of animals. After the death of Eight Belles, the Gallup Organization conducted a public opinion poll on the attitudes of Americans toward various uses of animals. They found that more people supported the right to hunt animals than supported their use in biomedical research. And most adults opposed any ban on competitive animal sports such as dog and horse racing.

It will be interesting to see if public support for “the sport of kings” will substantially erode following the latest revelations about the perils of thoroughbred racing. My hunch is that it will not.

Anybody want to bet?


Hal Herzog is a psychologist at Western Carolina University whose research focuses on our attitudes towards and interactions with other species. His book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals is published by HarperCollins.