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April 30, 2012

In the News: Horse Racing and the Federal Government’s Wildlife-Killing Program

A big part of The HSUS’s enterprise of helping all animals is to carry out research and investigations and to shine a light on cruel and unacceptable practices, as a precursor to driving substantive reform. In recent years, there’s been a decline in hard-hitting investigative journalism, so that task often falls even more heavily on groups like The HSUS to do the digging and even the reporting. But today, in two major newspapers, I am pleased to share solid and in-depth front-page news stories exposing animal exploitation―one in The New York Times on horse racing and the other in The Sacramento Bee on predator-killing by our own federal government.

Horses racing

Last month, I wrote about the first installment in a three-part look by a team of reporters at the New York Times into horse racing. That piece looked broadly at the industry, but specifically at the carnage on New Mexico’s race tracks. Today’s article by Joe Drape, Walt Bogdanich, Rebecca R. Ruiz, and Griffin Palmer focuses on abuses and breakdowns throughout the industry, while exposing an incredible number of breakdowns at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, N.Y.

Horse racing, which I wrote about more than two decades ago for a national animal protection magazine, has always had its share of cheaters and animal exploitation. In these last two decades, things have become even worse, partly because there is no national regulatory authority setting standards and policing the industry. It’s something of a free-for-all, with states setting their own rules. The state associations are controlled by race horse owners and others involved in the racing industry, and the rules are lax―allowing drugging of horses on race day; running horses on surfaces that are too often hazardous, and starting them too young; permitting reckless breeding that makes the horses vulnerable to breakdowns; and discarding them and selling them off to the horse slaughter industry when they don’t perform well. Some industry racing associations and some states have adopted minor reforms, but the bulk of the problems that I saw 20 years ago are still rampant in the industry.

Congress hasn’t done anything about the problem. A few lawmakers are trying to change that, however, and today, Congressman Joe Pitts, R-Pa., conducted a field hearing in Pennsylvania on a bill to halt the use of performance-enhancing drugs in racing: the Horse Racing Improvement Act, H.R. 1733, introduced by Rep. Ed Whitfield (with a companion bill introduced by Sen. Tom Udall, S. 1733). Medicating injured horses to get them onto the track, or giving them performance enhancers, are both thought to be major contributors to breakdowns that kill horses and jockeys. One horse owner cited in the Times story, Michael Gill, had nine horses die on the track in 10 months―a sickening record for a guy who runs through horses as if they were just old cars.

Coyote
Photo: John Harrison

The Sacramento Bee reported on a different sort of failure of government: in this case, too much government. For 80 years, as a subsidy to western ranchers and other private interests, the federal government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars operating a ruthless and indiscriminate wildlife-killing program, which is now euphemistically called Wildlife Services. Today’s story by Tom Knudson, the second installment of three parts, recounts how the agency is slaughtering coyotes to boost big-game populations for hunters in Nevada. Ironically, the predator-killing is not doing much to help raise deer numbers, but it’s doing a very good job of boosting populations of rodents and other small mammals injurious to agriculture.

We at The HSUS have demanded reforms of this program for years, but a coordinated lobbying effort by the Farm Bureau, the NRA, and state agriculture and fish and wildlife agencies has blocked bills and amendments to get the government out of the business of slaughtering predators and other wildlife with your hard-earned tax dollars. Reps. John Campbell, R-Calif., and Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., have been leading the effort in Congress to turn this problem around and have introduced H.R. 4214, The Compound 1080 and Sodium Cyanide Elimination Act, to stop the use of these two highly toxic poisons for predator control.

At the very least, it’s time for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to make changes in this program, including banning the use of sodium cyanide and Compound 1080 by this agency, as called for by H.R. 4214 but within the Secretary’s power to do administratively. These poisons have no place in our federal wildlife management or damage control efforts. Write to Secretary Vilsack and urge him to end this cruel and reckless poisoning program.

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