The North American thoroughbred industry was warned in no uncertain terms that it can expect to face increasingly frequent public relations and legal battles from animal rights groups in the future.

At the Global Symposium on Racing & Gaming in Tucson, Arizona on December 7, it was emphasized that the agenda of animal rights groups such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Humane Society of the United States is to abolish the participation of animals in all sporting and entertainment venues.

“These groups don’t encourage animal welfare,” National Animal Interest Alliance President Patti Strand said.   “Their goal is to equate breeding with drunk driving and smoking.”

Horse racing has been under attack from PETA in recent years, including when a member of that organization in 2013 shot a clandestine video of trainer Steve Asmussen’s barn area purporting to show the mistreatment of horses.

Asmussen was cleared of animal abuse charges following regulatory investigations in New York and Kentucky but was sanctioned for lesser violations in New York, the most serious being a $10,000 fine for administering thyroxine within 48 hours of a race.

“We’re in a propaganda war,” Strand said.  “Animal rights groups finance themselves by defaming people and industries for their alleged abuse of animals.”

Greyhound racing industry consultant Marsha Kelly said it’s crucial to capture the high ground on animal welfare.  “One bad apple gives them ammunition to start a propaganda war, and every industry has a bad apple.”

Kelly outlined steps that the horse industry should take to be prepared for legal attacks, which she said would only increase now that animal rights has become a specialty area taught in more than half the law schools in the country.

“Management must articulate a commitment to the highest standards of animal care, and procedures put in place to ensure best possible practices,” Kelly said.  “You also must have a system of penalties with teeth in place to punish offenders.

“Track safety and the adoption/retirement movement show good faith efforts, and you need to let the public know about that; let people know you’re running your business in the most responsible way possible, so that when accidents do happen, people will give you the benefit of the doubt.  If you don’t blow your own horn, the other side will publicize its view.

“Also, let regulators and politicians visit your facilities, and explain your practices to them.  Transparency is in your best interest.  Don’t say ‘no comment’ or tell media outlets they can’t visit your facilities.  Let people in to see what you’re doing and why.

“Catastrophic accidents do happen.  It is crucial to have a comprehensive communications strategy in place.  Be responsive in a timely way and position your industry on the high ground.”

Both Kelly and Strand warned the horse industry against taking animal rights groups at face value.  “No matter what they say, they want to abolish you,” stated Strand.  “It’s a Trojan Horse situation.  They’re not your friend.  Proceed with extreme caution.”

Del Mar Thoroughbred Club manager Joe Harper spoke from the conference floor during the presentation and mentioned the negative publicity from local San Diego media when its catastrophic injury rate has spiked.

“I receive four or five death threats a year,” Harper said.  “Extremists are out there.  They yell at children about dead horses as people are coming through our gates.  There is no middle ground with these people.

“We’re putting a plan together that would open up vet records for every horse that dies from a catastrophic injury.”