Durenberger: Time To Change The Way We Think About The Public And Thoroughbred Welfare

by | 08.09.2017 | 6:10pm
Dr. Jennifer Durenberger

The time has come to get comfortable talking about animal welfare.

That's one of the takeaways from a presentation at the 17th annual Saratoga Institute on Equine, Racing, and Wagering Law in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. this week. Dr. Jennifer Durenberger, attorney, veterinarian, and racing official, suggested racing insiders and fans are in the minority of Americans in the way they view animals because they accept the use of horses in an entertainment-based sport.

It's no secret the modern view of animals is changing. Durenberger presented statistics showing the average American is now four generations removed from an agricultural lifestyle, and the majority have never had physical contact with a non-companion animal. This, in the background of a society with increasing emotional attachments to its pets, has resulted in a bell curve of viewpoints on animals. The short ends of the curve probably house extreme views like animal liberationists, who believe animals should not be possessed by humans and people who are accepting of illegal practices such as cockfighting and horse tripping. In the middle is the majority of the population, which might be accepting of animals as food products but which has increasing concerns about animals' emotional welfare – and that may include their use in entertainment-based industries like racing.

“This is racing's big conundrum: we've got this marketable emotional connection, and along with it comes an increased duty of care. It's not in the law yet, but society demands it of us. Most people see our duty of care as akin to that we show our children,” she said.  

This presents unique challenges when it comes to marketing and regulating racing, according to Durenberger's view. In a world where many people choose an egg or milk carton based on labels designed to advertise ethical animal management, people have welfare concerns about becoming consumers of racing.

“We can use science to measure the risk of injury in certain parts of animal husbandry, and we do this really well,” she said. “But science can't answer the question of what level of risk is acceptable.”

The answer from many industry insiders is often that new fans need to be “educated” about the facts or science behind an issue. But because their concerns are based in emotion, Durenberger said this approach often doesn't work. People expect researchers and veterinarians to be experts in certain arenas, but defining their own emotions doesn't tend to be one of them.

“If most people believe something is wrong, then science is unlikely to change their opinion. We have a perfect example of that when we talk about 2-year-old racing,” she said. “All of us in this room know the science shows that starting a horse who's able at two years, that's beneficial to them long-term. And yet when you look at the stuff floating around social media and floating around, starting now in the legislative chambers, you'll see the argument that they race these horses as babies, and racing 2-year-olds is wrong. And we've out-scienced them on that.”

(See studies on the 2-year-old racing issue here, here, and here.)

One of the knee jerk reactions from racing insiders when encountering viewpoints like these is often to become angry and dismissive of outsiders raising questions about a management practice. Durenberger said this is a mistake that deepens the divide between the groups and does little to bring new fans to the sport.

“We need to be mindful that when people say they're concerned about the welfare of our equine athletes, that is not an accusation that they don't care,” she said. “It's really hard, when you get up at 3:30, 4:00 in the morning, travel, always on the clock, seven days a week, to not take these questions personally. And I think that's where we're making a big mistake. Nobody's asking us, ‘Do we love our horses, do we care about our horses?'

“Together, we must hold each other accountable for putting the horse first in everything we do. They are the counter-argument.”

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