Out of “Luck” and All the Wiser: Horse Abuse and What We Can Learn from It

The Times has done an admirable job lately covering the horse abuse that took place during the filming of the HBO series “Luck.” Several horses died of cardiac arrest during filming. The set’s lead horse handler–a veteran in the field–has been accused of overworking horses unprepared to race while injecting them with heavy doses of painkillers to encourage their performance. All in all, it looks like conditions for the horses were miserable. HBO has cancelled production, at an enormous economic cost.

PETA, an organization that typically comes under considerable heat from many animal rights activists (including me), used its considerable resources to obtain documents confirming this widespread negligence. For this I commend the organization.

The “Luck” incident, whether charges are pursued or not, provides an excellent opportunity to explore the broadest intersection of veganism and animal rights. Many vegans think squarely in terms of diet. From this perspective, the abuse that horses suffer on a movie set might seem to be the farthest thing from our noble choice not to eat animal products. In actuality, the two actions are deeply intertwined.

The ethical principle underscoring the decision not to eat animals centers squarely on the reality that animals are sentient, capable of suffering, and deserving of the right not be arbitrarily exploited. If this set of assumptions–assumptions that confirm our  humanity– is the basis upon which we reject animal-based foods, it must also be applied to other realms of life, including entertainment, clothing, cosmetics, and most cases of medical testing.  No ethical vegan can avoid suffering. But she should not, to cite obvious examples, wear leather or attend a circus that uses animals.

From a non-vegan perspective, the “Luck” case is also useful.  Non-vegans are routinely outraged by stories such as the recent “Luck” tragedy (hence why would the Times bother?). It’s worth asking why. Why do so many animal-eaters find these stories deeply disturbing? Typically what non-vegans will say in response to such a question is an articulation–however inadvertently– of why they should go vegan. They may not know that they are making such a case, but they are. (Which is why I’m happy to make the connection for them.)

“No animal deserves to be treated that way,” a non-vegan friend of mine said after hearing about the horse abuse. She’s right, of course. The underlying implication, though, is that the animal has moral worth. It has intrinsic worth. It is worthy of human moral consideration. My friend agrees with all these claims. “So then,” I asked, “why do you eat animals?” She explained that she only ate animals that were raised with dignity and given a quick and painless death. Plus, she added, as if following the sustainable food movement agitprop script, “I always give thanks.”

Herein lies a “teachable moment.” I wondered: On what basis do we think we can separate welfare concerns from an animal’s interest in life? There is no rational and moral basis for this separation; the latter is subsumed in the former. To be concerned about an animal’s welfare is–whether we act on it or not–to believe that we have no right to take that animal’s life for unnecessary purposes. To say that welfare considerations end at an animal’s dignified death is fatally inconsistent logic. You cannot agree that a life has meaning and then justify ending it because you happen to be hungry or want to sell the animal’s body parts and excretions to make a profit.

So, with the cancellation of “Luck,” we all have some thinking to do, connections to make, and a lot to learn.

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About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

3 Responses to Out of “Luck” and All the Wiser: Horse Abuse and What We Can Learn from It

  1. I think for many people the reason they can sympathize with animals that are treated cruelly in situations like movie sets, dog fighting rings, etc. is because it takes no effort on their part to do so. They’re not giving anything up or having to change their own behavior. However, when asked why they eat animals (as you asked your friend), they can’t imagine giving that up (takes too much effort, in their mind) so they justify it. I try to make a point when speaking to non-vegans that it really is not that difficult to stop eating animals (there are so many amazing plant-based foods, cookbooks, restaurants, etc. nowadays).

  2. CQ says:

    Carol makes a good point.

    And since this is Derby day, may I say that I’ve noticed a similar strange disconnect among those who actively oppose horse abuse — from starvation to slaughter, from wild-horse roundups to western rodeos — yet love horse racing, despite its history of corruption and cruelty.

    To me, racing shows every bit as much disrespect for the lives of the animals as does slaughter. (Not surprisingly, the slaughter pipeline is a convenience to many in the TB and QH racing industry. They are paid for disposing of their excess foals, losing racers, used-up broodmares, impotent stallions, and nurse mares’ offspring.)

    The exact same trait that fuels racing — namely, the money-driven mentality of most gamblers, many breeders and at least some trainers and owners — shows up in the other cruelties that these folks rightly despise. The romance and royalty of the race track, the displays of strength and speed and stamina by the equine athletes, mask, or make fans forget, the abuses.

    See what I mean in the comments section here: http://rtfitchauthor.com/2012/05/05/massive-abuse-makes-kentucky-derby-no-bed-of-roses-for-race-horses

    My response to these comments is a quote I’ve probably cited here before, but it applies perfectly: “The moment we want to believe something, we suddenly see all the arguments for it and become blind to the arguments against it.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

    I should add: In other threads on the above-mentioned horse blog, a few commenters make it clear they are vegetarian/vegan or thinking about going veg, but the majority repeatedly point to the vast cultural and ethical difference between eating horses and eating cows, pigs, chickens. As Carol says, they don’t want to demand of themselves a change in behavior, even though it’s cattle ranchers who are insisting the wild horses be kicked off their range (our public lands) and who own the very Quarterhorses who make up the largest percentage of slaughtered horses.

  3. brian lindberg says:

    It is also worth noting, perhaps, that in our culture we have categories for animals. Some are pets: dogs, horses, cats….we don’t eat them and were are protective of their welfare (in Europe, they eat horsemeat, and it used to be that U.S. meat processors would export horse meat to Europe). Why shouldn’t pigs, cows, sheep, goats be admitted into the privileged status of our “pet” animals? That’s a tough question for meat eaters to answer, rationally.

    And, while thinking of tough questions, here is one for the vegan community: we are currently experiencing a plague (yes, plague) of wild pigs in native ecosystems and ag land (used for plant production…maybe to sustain vegans) in Texas, California and some other states in the South. Their numbers are rapidly increasing, and efforts to control the population are not working. Hunting and trapping/killing are the two means of control currently being used. There is some hope for discovering a means of reproductive control, but that is just on the drawing board. What should be done with these animals? If they are killed, should they just be given a respectful burial (like an enemy soldier, bin Laden maybe), or….what?

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