It is normal to have a gut reaction to ‘7.30’s’ revelations of cruelty to horses at Meramist abattoir in Queensland and Burns Pet Foods at Riverstone, New South Wales.
But some of the suggested policy responses seem not to have moved far beyond that same gut reaction.
A preliminary issue is whether an ex-racehorse has superior claims to live out its normal life span and to be free from unnecessary cruelty than does another type of horse or vertebrate.
In my view, the answer to the first question is “maybe” and the answer to the second is “no”.
The answer to the second question is “no” because all sentient beings should be free from unnecessary cruelty. As the British philosopher, Jeremy Bentham said of animals “the question is not, Can they reason?, nor, Can they talk? but, can they suffer?’.
This is not to say that intelligence is irrelevant because intelligence impacts on the extent of suffering.
The basic physiology of our brain stem is shared with other vertebrates. Accordingly, they also possess consciousness and a “self”. But the other vertebrates do not have a cerebral cortex which is as rich as ours. This is the important difference with the human brain. Our richer cerebral cortex results in our having a far stronger sense of self, or an “autobiographical self”, because it is built on a larger base of past memories. This is why a human mother who sees her baby eaten by a fox suffers more than a mother rabbit who watches one of her offspring suffer the same fate.
It is difficult to compare the intelligence of different animals. But pigs are commonly regarded as among the smartest. The lives of some pigs, including in Australia, are far worse than the average racehorse. More than just a cruel end, theirs can be a life of perpetual torture.
Not all of the horses cruelly slaughtered at Meramist and Burns Pet Food were ex-racehorses. It seems perverse to suggest that only those horses bred to race should be spared the cruelty shown.
The slaughtering of horses in an abattoir or knackery is less straight forward than the slaughter of beef, goats or sheep. The latter are far more docile in going to meet their fate. Horses, particularly thoroughbreds, are bigger, flightier and harder to control. It might be that there is no way to slaughter a horse humanely in an abattoir or knackery.
A friend of mine bred racehorses and kept them for their natural lives after retirement. When it came to the time the when the horse had to be put down, he would not send the sick or old horse to the knackery. Rather they would come to the horse- then, a single shot- no pain or distress. The knackers could then take the body.
Maybe the fact that we breed racehorses to sell, race, win prizemoney, and gamble on, does mean it is reasonable to have regulations that require owners to ensure that their horses can live out the course of their natural life. This might be 20 or so years longer than any race career that they have. Perhaps because there is so much discretionary spending associated with breeding, racing and gambling on racehorses it is reasonable to set a portion of it aside for their longevity in retirement. This might be reasonable irrespective of the fact that the overwhelming majority of racehorse owners lose money from owning them.
In any event it needs to be recognised that this rationale for a horse retirement scheme centres around human conduct associated with the racing industry. It is therefore a step removed from the issues directly associated with animal welfare.
If we centre our concerns on the actual animal there does not seem to be any obvious reason why a racehorse has a greater right to a happy retirement than a horse that is bred for some other purpose- recreation, show jumping, rodeo, tourist cart towing- whatever.
Further, if we are going to have regulations that require ex racehorses to be retired to live out their natural lives, there are at least three requirements:
- the regulations need to be adequate (including the definition of which horses are in or out of the scheme and the level of care required); and
- the regulator needs to be adequate and have adequate powers; and
- the funding base for enforcement of the regulations by the regulator needs to be adequate.
Jurisdiction to regulate abattoirs and knackeries in Australia depends on their function. An abattoir produces food for human consumption. If it is an export abattoir it is federally regulated. If it only produces meat for domestic consumption it is state regulated. A knackery cannot produce meat for human consumption. It produces pet food or other products. It is illegal to kill horses for human meat consumption in Australia. This means all horses killed to produce horse meat for human consumption are necessarily killed in export abattoirs. They mainly produce for French and Russian markets. In any event, the emphasis of government regulation of these establishments is meat quality. Animal welfare considerations may also be license conditions.
The racehorse retirement schemes that exist to date are not government regulated schemes. They are racing industry schemes- self regulation.
If there is regulation for horses to live through retirement it needs to be a reasonably contented retirement. There is not much point creating a situation in which retired racehorses are just left out in a paddock- they require more care than that. The thoroughbred is not a wild horse. The species was bred by humans in the late 1600’s. Other types of wild horses were the earlier ancestors of the thoroughbred. But the thoroughbred itself is a creation of a breeding program by humans to produce the type of horse best suited to racing. Thoroughbreds need far more hard feed than other breeds just to maintain their weight and muscle structure. If you under feed them they tend lose weight very quickly, especially in colder climes. Soybean meal, linseed meal, corn gluten, canola meal, and cottonseed meal are the most common protein supplements used in hard thoroughbred horse feeds.
It seems unlikely that the racing industry can be relied upon to adequately resource policing of proper care requirements of retired thoroughbreds throughout the country. In fact it is unlikely any regulator would be able to do so. As with the keeping of domestic animals, such as dog and cats, you can give the regulator entry, inspection and prosecutorial powers. But ultimately the welfare of these animals will also mostly depend upon owners doing the right thing voluntarily. We know they do not always do so. And we can expect a larger rate of non-compliance with ex racehorses as their proper care and maintenance is substantially more costly than is the keeping of cats and dogs.
The RSPCA already receives many calls to come and do the humane thing which is to put down horses that are found in an appalling condition due to neglect.
Accordingly the RSPCA has a large dose of justified scepticism regarding the comprehensiveness of any racehorse retirement scheme.
The RSCPA says its essentially self-regulation that has failed horses. Racing industry regulations — such as those as in NSW that require all retired racehorse to be re-homed has fed a “fantasy” that retired horses are cared for until they die.
That’s “delusional”, according to the RSPCA, because too many racehorses are being bred and raced over short careers.
“To suggest that a fairy tale ending is possible when around 8,500 horses are exiting racing every year, and to suggest that’s going to happen to all horses, that’s just delusional,” says acting RSCPCA chief executive Dr Bidda Jones.
But the suggestion that the industry should breed fewer than the 15,000 thoroughbred foals bred each year is also unlikely to be practical. The majority of foals bred will never see a racetrack, let alone win a race. They simply cannot run fast enough. Trying to limit foal numbers will not reduce the percentage of foals born which are too slow to race. The measure would just result in smaller field sizes, or, numbers being made up by horses bred outside Australia- mostly from New Zealand.
No regulations introduced into Australia will save the lives of the significant number of Australian bred horses sold into the overseas market- mostly Asia. If they are not suitable for breeding, the reality is that most horses sold into this market will be destroyed after their racing careers are over. The Asian countries have neither the land nor the cultural inclination for racehorse retirement schemes.
There is something unpleasant associated with the notion that an animal should be destroyed once it no longer serves the purpose humans have assigned to it. But this is commonplace. It is, for example, what happens to dairy cows once they are no longer good for milk. They are commonly destroyed for pet food. Brumbies (wild horses) are another source of pet-food in Australia. So are ex racehorses and kangaroos.
So maybe the racing industry should not exist at all? It is not unreasonable to raise the question. Apart from the animal welfare issues, one day some enterprising PHD student will study the environmental effects of the breeding and racing industry and the picture to emerge is unlikely to be very rosy. But no government is going to ban the racing industry. There are too many livelihoods and too much government revenue at stake. The NSW government banned greyhound racing- a far smaller industry. The ban proved politically unsustainable and was reversed.
Ultimately the way we treat ex racehorses is a subset of the broader question of the way we humans treat animals in general, including both wild and domestic animals.
Many scientists believe humans are perpetuating a sixth major extinction of other animals.
Only about 5-7,000 tigers survive in the wild. Since 1970, the world rhinoceros’ population has declined by 90 percent. It has therefore been necessary for human beings to set aside special reservations, where animals to can continue to live in the wild.
On the other hand, those animals that depend upon human beings- dogs, cats, and herd animals that we use for food or recreation (including racehorses)- have increased in number.
According to Israeli historian Yuval Harari, if we were to weigh all domesticated animals in the world their total weight would be around 700 million tonnes. If we weighed every human being the total would be 300 million tonnes. Yet the combined mass of surviving wild animals, including elephants and whales, is just 100 million tonnes.