Cruel Or Cool? Analyzing Australian Views On Animal Gambling
Gambling on animal “sports” has been widespread in Australia since settlers arrived, in the late 18th century, both among the working population, which primarily held cockfights, and affluent classes, which favored horse racing, conveying social status markers and soon forming part of the customary landscape. In 1865, the Melbourne Horse Racing Cup became the occasion for a public holiday, which it still is in Victoria. Campaigns to heighten moral standards across Australian society during the 20th century showed little interest in dismantling horse racing practices. Greyhound racing, on the other hand, became an organized practice later, in the early 20th century, and was linked to the betting industry from the start. Governmental efforts to ban the practice were criticized as attacking working-class entertainment and were thus promptly abandoned. Currently, several billion Australian dollars are gambled each year on horse and greyhound racing. Horse racing generates more spending, taxes, jobs, and popular and media participation, but the authors describe both practices as ‘normalized’ within Australian society.
How can we best understand the complex spectrum of motivations driving people to support or condemn animal gambling, including betting on horse or dog races? This study brings a nuanced answer to this question, focusing on greyhound and horse racing in Australia and following a qualitative approach to identify salient elements of public opinion on these controversial practices.
The study analyzed Australian public response to two events: the deaths of two horses used at the 2014 Melbourne Cup and a January 2015 broadcast of a major televised current affairs program which exposed live animal baiting in greyhound racing. The authors compiled opinions voiced up until October 2015 across Australian news, commentary, and discussion platforms – including media articles and reader comments, statements by non-governmental organizations and industry representatives, and so on – totaling about 50 documents for each of the two topics. They conducted a multi-stage thematic analysis on this content, using techniques such as data immersion, which involves both looking at the manifest meaning of texts and interpreting them to extract underlying perspectives. The themes were organized around ‘narratives’ and ‘counter-narratives’, with a ‘stewardship’ paradigm at one pole and animal rights ethics at the other.
The research team identified three key arguments made by supporters of animal gambling. These arguments revolved around:
- The notion that accidents and the killing and mistreatment of animals are not industry norms but occasional incidents that regulations can minimize, and that racing animals are treated with great care, as “athletes” and beloved partners in sport, and, for horses, revered as celebrities
- The idea that greyhounds and horses fulfill an innate need to race and that racing, therefore, offers them the most satisfying life possible
- The economic, social, and cultural role of these practices – though greyhound racing was generally not defended on social and cultural grounds as much as horse racing
On this last point, the authors noted greyhound racing’s close links to blood sports, i.e. its origins in hunting and the use of live animals as bait, which led a sizable proportion of the public to deem it immoral and socially marginal. Horse racing, by contrast, is exempt from this link, which makes it more widely accepted. Its long-standing connection with high social status also contributes to its wider popularity. The study indicates that ‘social legitimacy’ and its complex emotional and cultural aspects influence public perception of these forms of exploitation.
Being smaller, less expensive, and easier to breed than racehorses, greyhounds are considered more expendable and are therefore treated more obviously as commodities than their equine cousins, despite dogs’ favorable status in Australia. Overall, animal welfare-related arguments featured heavily in arguments from supporters of animal gambling, with some accepting that stronger regulation may be needed, or likening risks to those faced by human athletes.
Opponents of animal gambling primarily expressed the following arguments:
- Poor welfare, violence, and cruelty are inherent features of animal gambling, e.g. through overbreeding, culling, live bait use, use of whips, risks of injury, and killing following injuries – with an annual average of 125 racehorse fatalities demonstrating the systemic danger intrinsic to animal gambling – and poor ‘retirement’ conditions. The excellent fitness animals must enjoy to run races, which makes them appear healthy, only hides many other animal welfare issues
- It is fundamentally unethical to reduce animals to commodities for human enjoyment
- Animal gambling is archaic and reflects immoral and reactionary views
The most striking divide between these themes separated commentators who considered animals property and those who recognized them as autonomous, sentient beings. Somewhere between these was what the authors refer to as a ‘contractarian’ view, which did not value the interests of the animals involved per se, as they are not part of society, but was concerned with sources of moral upset affecting a considerable proportion of the population.
This empirical study shows animal gambling customs as culturally embedded, yet receiving strong, seemingly growing, and multi-faceted criticism. The research team focused on two events directly accessible to the public and widely reported by the media. The construction of social meaning and identities, and the media’s role in it, seem to strongly influence the protection or rejection of these practices at a time when people take attempts to ban animal gambling increasingly seriously. For animal advocates, especially in Australia, this study gives a good sense of the positions on either side of the debate about these practices, and some insight on how we might bridge that gap.