West Virginia's racing commissioners reacted with horror and outrage to a series of photos distributed by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) several weeks ago, and vowed that change would be coming as a result.
PETA published a set of photographs taken by an unnamed whistleblower which appeared to show the body of a chestnut Thoroughbred in a West Virginia landfill. The organization identified the horse as Bridget Moloney, an 8-year-old mare who was fatally injured in a Sept. 25 starter/optional claimer at Mountaineer Park.
At a conference call held Oct. 25, track and horsemen's representatives said they were still investigating how the horse's body came to be placed in that part of the landfill in Hancock County. Maria Catignani, executive director of the Charles Town Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA), suggested it was possible the photographs had been staged.
“Obviously we're very saddened by what we feel is a very distressing thing — because of the animal but also because it feels like something that was set up,” said Catignani. “From looking at the pictures, I feel like there was a contrived situation. I don't have any facts, I just think the angle from which I saw that picture, and this is totally my subjective viewpoint, it looks like a contrived photo.”
Landfills which accept animal remains set aside a specific section for livestock, and it's not clear why this horse was not taken to that area. An investigation by the Hancock Sheriff's Department has found no wrongdoing on the part of Mountaineer Park.
Of course, the reason Bridget Moloney was at a landfill at all was because that has been the method used in West Virginia for equine carcass disposal for several years. Post-euthanasia options are limited for horse owners in remote places who may not have easy access to a sufficient crematorium or area for burial, particularly as rendering plants have begun refusing animals euthanized chemically over fears of contamination.
In many other states, the question of disposal is moot because horses are taken to a veterinary diagnostic center and undergo necropsy (autopsy). That facility then becomes responsible for any cleanup. The primary value of a necropsy program, however, is the information it provides to veterinarians and others looking to prevent future fatalities. At many tracks, commission representatives conduct mortality reviews with the horse's trainer and other connections, looking at necropsy findings and the horse's exercise and veterinary history to help all parties improve management practices.
West Virginia's three racing commissioners agreed this incident should give tracks the push they need to start a necropsy program. West Virginia's rules have for some time permitted the state veterinarian to order necropsies on horses as needed but has not required tracks to have a necropsy program in place.
West Virginia Racing Commission executive director Joe Moore said the goal is to have the necropsy program up and running by January 2020.
Commission chairman Jack Rossi suggested Mountaineer, Charles Town, and the tracks' two horsemen's groups collaborate with the commission to start the state's program. Charles Town horses will be hauled to Virginia Tech's veterinary school lab, while Mountaineer horses will be sent to The Ohio State University.
“My idea is, you can't ever say never, but hopefully this never happens again,” said Rossi.
Commission counsel Kelli Talbott said the commission wants the program to include any horse euthanized due to a racing or training injury, but per the writing of the rules, the commission's state veterinarian will be the one to approve which horses are subject to necropsy. Talbott also suggested the state vet have the latitude to send non-exercise related fatalities for necropsy if foul play is suspected.
“The state vets keep records on all of this and obviously when we ship these horses for necropsy the commission will get a report on any conclusions that are drawn,” said Talbott. “Obviously that costs money. It costs money to transport the horse, and for the necropsy to take place and for the facility to appropriately dispose of the remains. Luckily last [legislative] session we got a bill passed that gives the commission the monies that you impose in fines on Thoroughbred permit holders for rule violations to be used toward those necropsies.”
Talbott and Moore have asked other Mid-Atlantic states for their content guidelines on necropsies to ensure the reports they get back will be adequately specific to racehorses.
Each of the state's three commissioners expressed outrage at the sight of a horse in the landfill. Commissioner Ken Lowe was especially determined the incident not be repeated.
“As a longtime horse owner/breeder, it hurts me that this happened,” said an emotional Lowe. “If it were one of my horses I'd be really, really mad. We know it's wrong, we know it should never happen again. I can't take it. I don't want anyone else to have to accept it.
“The horses depend on us. They depend on people to take care of them, and we must do that. We must follow that rule all the time.”
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