Affording an industry the freedom to regulate itself presents a classic dilemma: It sounds good, and sometimes it works. But sometimes is doesn’t.
Self-policing in the Tennessee Walking Horse community to end the abusive practice of soring show horses has been an abysmal failure, to the point that Congress enacted the Horse Protection Act to prohibit the showing, selling, or transporting sored animals. Forty-plus years later, incidents of soring have been reduced but not eliminated by HPA intervention, even with serious criminal and civil penalties on the table for violators.
Racing fares no better. Inconsistent regulation at the state level and a growing perception of the sport as riddled with drugs, both legal and illegal, have led to another call for the feds to step in.
Sometimes, though, an industry gets it right—with a little help from a friend.
Seventy Years and Counting
For decades, the entertainment industry has collaborated with the American Humane Association (AHA) to protect the welfare of horses and other animals used in motion pictures and television. American Humane Certified Animal Safety Representatives™ monitor production of movies and television programs, make suggestions for improvement when necessary, and certify compliance (or lack thereof) with the organization’s standards for animal welfare.
The relationship is a voluntary one; AHA no real authority to demand compliance with its production standards. The relationship works, though, because everyone benefits. The AHA’s "No Animals Were Harmed"® certification is a well-recognized marketing tool for the entertainment industry and in return, the organization’s welfare concerns are addressed.
This comes to mind because of "Luck," HBO’s ill-fated television series about Thoroughbred racing.
Two episodes of "Luck" do not carry the full AHA certification.
One horse broke down and was euthanized during production of the pilot for the series and a second horse was euthanized after a similar accident during taping of the seventh episode. When a third horse was put down following an accident in the Santa Anita stable area, HBO canceled the series. This was "arguably the best decision HBO could have made," according to AHA.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is neither a fan of racing in general, nor of "Luck" in particular. A recent request from PETA to the Los Angeles County District Attorney called for a criminal investigation into just about everyone involved with the production of "Luck" for violation of state animal welfare laws. The PETA letter also questioned the adequacy of AHA’s recommended protocols to protect the welfare of the horses used in the series.
Was AHA really asleep at the wheel? I don’t think so.
Some safety protocols were in place at the start, others were implemented at the insistence of AHA during a suspension of taping following the first two fatal accidents. The measures included:
●Hiring additional veterinarians;
●Daily training and care records for all animals;
●Microchips in all horses used in the series;
●Soundness exams before and after taping of racing sequences, and at the end of the day;
●Radiographs of the legs for all horses being considered for use in the series.
PETA might argue that fatal accidents are absolute proof that the safety protocols in place for the taping of "Luck," no matter how comprehensive or well-thought-out they were, simply weren’t good enough. But that logic is flawed. Many accidents can be prevented, and everything reasonable that can be done to prevent them, should be done. But some accidents truly are the fault of no one, unfortunate events that cannot be predicted or prevented.
There’s an easy way to guarantee that horses never break down during a race, or suffer injuries during a show or competition—ban the activities. Maybe that’s what PETA really has in mind.
It’s a foolproof solution, but is it what we really want?