The PETA Distortion: How Luck’s Cancellation Was Far from Ethical

by Ray Paulick | March 21, 2012 7:40 am

Nothing is going to bring back the HBO series LUCK after the decision by producers last week to stop production on the second season and effectively cancel the series after season one. And nothing is going to bring back the three ex-racehorses who had found second careers as equine actors on LUCK but that suffered unusual, sad deaths. Those deaths – one in 2010, another in 2011, and the most recent one week ago – led HBO to cancel the series, though speculation is rife that declining viewership during season one was the real reason the plug was pulled on the horse racing series written by Thoroughbred owner David Milch and filmed at Santa Anita Park under the direction of Michael Mann.

Despite the finality of what happened, I can't in good conscience allow the radical animal rights group PETA – and the journalists who faithfully report whatever the agenda-driven organization tells them – to have the last word on the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the three horses over the two-year period that LUCK was being filmed.

Known as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, PETA was anything but ethical in how it spread lies about the equine accidents that plagued LUCK.

PETA spoon-fed stories to sympathetic reporters like Vickery Eckhoff, who wrote a damning article based on lies or wildly off-base assumptions from a PETA press release for (“LUCK Ran Old, Unfit, Drugged Horses, Says Necropsy Report”). Others picked up on the same story, and it wasn't until the news cycle was several days old that PETA's outrageous claims of LUCK using unfit, sore, drugged horses was brought into question by anyone.

By then, however, the lies had been repeated often enough that people believed them.

That's the way PETA operates, to get ahead of stories and promote their agenda through a sympathetic media with lies or assumptions and unnamed “whistleblowers” and so-called experts whose names they won't reveal.

The production of LUCK was supervised by the American Humane Association, whose film and television unit has been overseeing movie and TV sets using animals for more than 70 years. There were two veterinarians involved in examining and caring for the horses, Dr. Heidi Agnic, a racetrack practitioner hired through the AHA and HBO, and an independent veterinarian, Dr. Gary Beck, who has worked for the California Horse Racing Board. The AHA required X-rays of all the horses used in LUCK (there were approximately 45), prohibited the use of any drugs in the horses (including anti-inflammatories and tranquilizers) and conducted random drug testing, and required daily veterinary inspections. They even weighed the horses on a regular basis. Horse racing scenes being filmed were limited to three-eighths of a mile or less. Horses could be used twice a day. Everyone involved in handling the horses was both qualified to do so and licensed by the California Horse Racing Board.

Despite those precautions, as many horse owners and trainers have learned through their own experiences, accidents can and did, unfortunately, happen during the filming of LUCK.

-In May 2010, jockey David Neusch had pulled up a horse, Outlaw Yodeler, that had been in a scene and was jogging him back to the barn. The horse was playfully rooting, or pulling its head up and down, and tripped on its own feet, falling onto its right shoulder. The impact shattered its humerus. Following the accident, Dr. Agnic administered several medications to relieve pain, tranquilize the horse and reduce swelling in the event the injury was treatable. It was not the kind of fracture that can be treated, however, and Outlaw Yodeler was euthanized.

-A year later, during filming of LUCK, a second horse, Marc's Shadow, suffered a catastrophic fracture of its upper leg bone, or radius. The fracture was so severe that euthanasia was conducted immediately.

-Last week, as a horse was being walked in the stable area by what LUCK writer John Perrotta said was an experienced groom, the horse slipped on a dirt pathway, reared, and fell backwards. It landed on its poll, or soft area on the head where many nerve endings gather. It's an injury that often punctures the carotid artery, and requires euthanasia.

Dr. Susan Stover, a veterinarian at the University of California-Davis who has been in charge of the horse racing industry's necropsy program that looks at every fatality at a licensed racetrack in the state, described the two leg fractures as “atypical” among the many she has seen over the years.

“Fractures occur in very consistent locations because they often happen in pre-existing injuries,” Stover told the Paulick Report. “They are like occupational injuries. These two particular fractures are not typical. They would be rare fractures in racehorses.”

The necropsy reports of the first two horses that died were acquired by PETA through Freedom of Information Act requests and leaked to the press. Among the findings were that the horses had some degree of arthritis, which did not surprise Stover.

“I would concur that it is not uncommon to have some arthritis or some lesions in their legs,” she said. “I would imagine that there are racehorses that have very clean joints, but we're probably not going to see them (in a necropsy).”

The necropsy report for Outlaw Yodeler, the horse that died in 2010, stated the presence of four drugs: Phenylbutazone and Banamine (flunixin), which are non-steroidal anti-inflammatories; Sol-U Delta Cortef, a fast-acting corticosteroid used to combat shock; and the sedative/analgesic Torbugesic (butorphanol).

The drugs were administered by Dr. Agnic to treat the stricken horse, and multiple racetrack veterinarians contacted by the Paulick Report confirmed that combination of drugs would be very typical in treating a horse that had just suffered a severe injury.

But PETA seized on the drug finding in the necropsy report to sell its story to a sympathetic media and for a sensationalized letter to the Los Angeles District Attorney, signed by its in-house attorney, Lindsay Waskey, in which it called for a criminal investigation of Dr. Agnic, writer Milch, and trainer Matthew Chew, who trained the horses used in the filming of LUCK.

“The astonishing array of powerful pharmaceutical drugs administered to Outlaw Yodeler before his injury,” the letter reads, “suggests that Agnic was well aware that he was suffering from severe pain and inflammation and knew, or should have known, that the medication may cause Outlaw Yodeler to have a difficult time being able to recognize and respond to pain that would normally be a signal to a horse to slow down, pull up, or in some way indicated that he is injured.”

This outrageous lie by Waskey is the “smoking gun” that allowed PETA to enlist a sympathetic media, which didn't know to ask whether it's possible those drugs were given to the horse after he was injured. Never mind the facts: this lie helped complete the story.

Waskey, when reached at the PETA office in Washington, D.C., refused to talk to the Paulick Report about the letter, specifically what knowledge PETA had that Outlaw Yodeler was given “powerful pharmaceutical drugs” before he was injured.

“I'll have to have a media person call you,” she said. “I can't talk to you about it. That's not the way we do things around here.”

Instead, we received a call from PETA vice president Kathy Guillermo, who said PETA “made the assumption” the drug cocktail was given before the horse was hurt rather than after it suffered the freak injury.

“There is a possibility one of the drugs was given afterwards,” Guillermo said. “The District Attorney or the Pasadena Humane Society would have to find out when everything was administered. But that's what we were told by the vets we discussed it with. It's fair to say that's what we heard. I believe and was advised that the indication on the necropsy report was that the horses were running on those drugs and I believe that to be the case, and I was told that by six people on the set.”

PETA accomplished its mission. It helped end the production of LUCK. It wants to end the use of animals for entertainment.

What becomes of those 45 horses who found second careers is anyone's guess. It's not something Guillermo or anyone at PETA cares about. According to its latest IRS Form 990, PETA is an organization that spends $7.5 million on its own salaries each year and less than $1 million supporting animal welfare organizations.

It will move on to its next subject, employ the same tactics, and find a sympathetic media to help carry out its mission. PETA is very good at what it does. Just not very ethical.

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