Ask The Horse: Animal Welfare Meets Interspecies Sustainability
When we think of sustainability, we usually think about the long-term welfare of the planet in human terms. To be sure, what is good for the planet should be good for all its inhabitants. Unfortunately, we tend to fail to look at sustainability from the point of view of cows, pigs, chickens, horses, dogs, or other species. Instead, we consider what might be good for them from our perspective. To counter this prevailing anthropocentric view, the author of this study constructs a model of interspecies sustainability applied to a case study of the horse racing industry. Interspecies sustainability is defined by its concern for the interests of animals, and for protecting them so they thrive. It recognizes animals as autonomous individuals with their own species-specific cultures that are interdependent with those of humans.
The business of thoroughbred racing is global in reach. It spans 59 countries and has enough economic impact to generate significant political support. The industry reduces animal protection to eliminating the most egregious welfare violations, while maintaining a focus on productivity and breeding. There are no minimum welfare standards for the industry, but the public’s concern for the welfare of the horses is growing. High profile breakdowns on major tracks, coupled with the ability to spread the horrifying images across the internet, may be fueling this awareness.
For this study, eight racing industry participants and eight animal advocates from Australia, the U.K., and the U.S. agreed to be interviewed. Subjects represented breeders, racetracks, jockey clubs, regulators, and national advocacy groups. Questions gauged how they think about sustainability, how it relates to animal welfare, and what this means to the future of horse racing. Responses from industry personnel and animal advocates were compared. Finally, the researcher analyzed the interviews to see where the concepts of sustainability and thoroughbred welfare converged.
Conversations with industry interviewees make it clear that the commercial aspects of racing are their greatest concern. To them, sustainability means attracting more owners and breeders, creating a new generation of consumers, advancing digital marketing, protecting racetrack infrastructure, improving safety and, in the U.S., medication reform. Sustainability, as it relates to animal welfare, comes into play only where it affects market prospects.
Meanwhile, animal advocates are very concerned about animal welfare but are hesitant to link sustainability, welfare, and horse racing. While views differ widely among advocates, most agree that daily care, breeding, and training need improvement. Some doubt the racing industry will ever treat the horses as more than commodities, while others think effective reform is still possible. Special scorn was reserved for veterinarians who administer drugs to keep the horses running, rather than work to protect the horses’ health. It’s worth noting that it was far from a settled issue among advocates as to whether the industry should be banned outright.
Based on the above, the author posits a final model of interspecies sustainability containing eight layers. The first two layers embody the current animal welfare model – horses exist solely for the benefit of humans and the care of the horse goes only so far as it helps the human enterprise. Layers three and four use science to better the horse’s condition and give high priority to welfare concerns. Layers five and six emphasize the horse’s overall quality of life from birth to death. The final two layers require a fundamental shift in human attitudes: animal autonomy and individuality, fostering of behavioral integrity, interspecies justice, and political reform that supports a multispecies world are all part of these layers. Layers seven and eight represent a true model of interspecies sustainability.
This study used global horse racing as a backdrop, but its lessons apply to any industry where humans exploit animals. Animal welfare, at its most basic level, consists of food, water, and shelter. Advocates know, however, that this minimal level of care can result in intense suffering despite its humane appearance. Advocates can improve the lives of animals by helping the public to see beyond the fur and feathers to value animals as autonomous beings with wants, needs, and cultures uniquely their own. This is animal protection on the animal’s own terms.