Lessons From SeaWorld: Perceptions Can Be a Killer
Horseracing has company.
SeaWorld officials are under the microscope because of a film released in 2013 alleging cruelty to the orca whales that for decades have been entertaining tourists at the company's theme parks in Florida, Texas and California.
Defenders of SeaWorld say the film was spliced together carefully to serve an agenda, that the filmmakers want to end wild animal parks as we have known them.
Since the documentary was released on DVD last fall and aired numerous times on CNN, attendance has declined at the company's theme parks. A recent report said the number of SeaWorld visitors dropped by 13 percent for the first three months of 2014.
On Tuesday, the Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee of the California Assembly will be asking some tough questions of SeaWorld officials, who will try to convince lawmakers not to approve legislation that would prohibit the use of orca whales for entertainment purposes and put an end to SeaWorld's captive breeding program.
I never once questioned whether those majestic creatures were happy to be entertaining us when their trainers gave them cues to jump through rings or splash us with their giant tails. Blackfish, whether it was fair and agenda-driven or not, made me think twice, and nothing I've heard from the defenders of the program has convinced me some of the charges of former SeaWorld trainers aren't true.
In the wake of the video by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the articles in the New York Times and elsewhere, imagine what questions are going through the heads of new fans of horse racing, or those individuals who are considering investing in the sport as an owner.
Has the industry done enough to respond to the allegations and complaints to local, state and federal authorities by PETA that sore horses are given drugs in order to run, that some jockeys use electrical shocking devices to make them go faster, and that one of the sport's leading stables facilitates immigration and tax fraud?
In the wake of the PETA attacks, all of racing's alphabet soup organizations, from the Association of Racing Commissioners International to the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, circled their wagons around an ongoing effort to create uniform medication rules to the horses that race for our entertainment and gambling purposes.
And what does that uniform rule say? It states that “only” 26 approved medications may be given to a horse in order to train it up to a race. No matter how legitimate those drugs may be to treat specific problems, imagine how that sounds to someone who just watched the PETA video.
How tone deaf can our leaders be?
I'm not an animal rights person. I eat meat, like to fish and hunt, and enjoyed taking my kids to the circus and SeaWorld when they were younger. But if you haven't noticed, society is changing around us. People are less tolerant to the real or perceived abuse of animals, and their voice is becoming louder. When I was growing up we didn't have “free-range chicken” or “cageless eggs.” Zoos kept animals in cages and circuses had elephant parades through town.
I have no doubt the majority of Thoroughbred caretakers are good to their horses, but there are enough bad apples in the sport to give everyone a bad name. As an industry we are only as strong as our weakest link. Our weakest links are killing the game we love.
Those who think the status quo in horseracing is okay, that we can continue what we are doing now and survive this latest storm, please get out of the bubble. Talk to people who aren't involved in our business 24/7 and listen to their concerns.
Then work on a solution that doesn't involve circling the wagons and shooting at the messenger.