Currently, there is much controversy over animal rights activist groups and what good they actually do. It is a common misconception that animal rights and animal welfare are the same. Animal rights is defined as a philosophy that animals have rights equivalent to those of humans, and where the use of animals for any reason is rejected. Animal welfare on the other hand, promotes the idea that it is human responsibility to treat animals humanely and provide a life for them free of pain (Montgomery, ‘Welfare vs. Rights,’ n.d.). While many extremist groups take their campaign over the top, their outspoken nature has brought attention to some inhumane practices in the equine industry, particularly that of soring Tennessee Walkers. More commonly however, animal rights activists are known for twisting images of animal industries by using rare instances of abuse to condemn the entire industry, as seen in their attacks on the wool industry. This paper will discuss the positive and negative effects animal rights activists had on the horse and wool industries respectively.
Soring is a common practice used on many gaited horses, particularly “big lick” Tennessee walking horses. Soring is a technique used to exaggerate the movement of gaits through the application of chemicals or chains. These implements cause pain to the horses and their reaction is to move away from the pain, resulting in the exaggerated movements. Even though this practice has been illegal since the 1970s, many horse inspectors still turn a blind eye to the issue as it is such an integral part of Tennessee walking tradition (AVMA, ‘Soring Horses: Unethical Practice Making Horses Suffer,’ n.d.). Soring is no doubt an inhumane practice, as one of the first signs of it is the horses’ pain. Horses will try to take weight off their front legs by standing with their front and back feet close under them. Other signs include a “praying mantis” gait, and reluctance to get up. There are two types of soring: physical and chemical. Physical soring involves changing the integrity of the hoof to create pain. Techniques include removing hoof wall, trimming down to sensitive sole, inducing laminitis, placing a foreign body, such as a nail, into the toe, and inserting hard objects between weight pads and the sole. Performance Packages are a common soring technique and are still unregulated as of today. This method involves stacks of weighted pads held to the foot with metal bands. Complications caused by these packages can include stumbling, fatigue, and flexor tendon inflammation. Additionally, action devices such as chains and rollers circling the pasterns. As long as the devices weigh less than six ounces, they are permitted by the industry. According to studies, chains and rollers heavier than six ounces can lead to the development of open sores on the leg. Another form of soring is done by chemical irritants. Trainers cause pain by placing harmful chemicals, such as kerosene, diesel, mustard oil, DMSO, and WD40 on the pasterns. To enhance the effect, the pasterns are then wrapped in plastic. This can cause chemical burns, irritation, and open sores on the horses’ legs. The combination of chemical and action devices can cause intense irritation and pain to the horse’s pasterns (AAEP & AVMA, ‘Horse Soring and the Past Act, S 1121 and H.R. 3268,’ n.d.).
At the end of Barack Obama’s second presidential term, animal rights activists pushed for the finalization of federal regulations on soring. The new regulations would update the Horse Protection Act and ban all soring practices. Additionally, the Department of Animal and Plant Health Inspection would provide trained horse inspectors to control the continued use of soring. This would decrease the occurrence of corrupt inspectors in the walking horse industry ignoring the inhumane act. (Collins, ‘Animal-rights groups push quick action on horse ‘soring’ rules,’ n.d.). In January 2017, the efforts of these activist were rewarded, when the US Department of Agriculture announced changes in the Horse Protection Act. The changes made many of the devices used for soring illegal and required that horse industry inspectors become trained and licensed by the USDA (Associated Press, ‘Feds change regulations aimed at stopping horse soring,’ n.d.). The changes were enforced starting January 2018.
While animal rights activists have made positive changes in some industries, there are extremist organizations like PETA and the Animal Liberation Front who dramatically attack aspects of animal industries. One example of this is PETA’s fight against sheep shearing. Anyone involved in agriculture knows that shearing not only gives us wool, but is beneficial for sheep as well. Without shearing, sheep wool builds up and causes health and comfort issues. Long wool accumulates moisture, dirt, debris, and bacteria. This can result in genitourinary infections, fleece-rot, foot abscesses, and parasite infestations. Additionally, unshorn ewes may have difficulties during parturition, and lambs may struggle to find teats on ewes, resulting in lamb starvation (‘Shearing Is an Animal Welfare Necessity | NSW Department of Primary Industries,’ n.d.).
Every industry has those few people who do not follow ethical practices. These people should be punished; however, many animal rights activists punish entire industries for those few people. After filming two abusive shearers in the UK, PETA campaigned and attacked the entire UK wool industry claiming that this one incident was routine. The vast majority of shearers treat sheep humanely and are very carful not to harm the sheep while shearing. However, PETA and other animal rights groups distort the images of animal industries, like the wool industry, from very little evidence or research and project their ideas dramatically to the public. Those uneducated in animal industries may see PETA’s gruesome posters of a beaten and bloody lamb and swear off wool forever. These people are driven by their emotions and many do not take the time to learn the truth about the wool industry. Those who are familiar with it pointed out that lambs as young as the one shown in the poster are not sheared, and that that abuse portrayed is not the norm for the industry. PETA did not advocate for reform and humane shearing of sheep, but condemned the entire industry and urged consumers to stop buying wool altogether (Hynes, ‘PETA anti-shearing video sparks backlash,’ n.d.).
Wool producers were not blind to the notion of abuse in their industry and had already started the process of regulating industry standards. The Australian Wool Producers, who make up about 20% of the world’s wool, has spent more than $60 million on reforming the industry to combat animal welfare issues (Murphy, ‘Export wool industry faces ‘full-scale implosion’, merchant warns,’ n.d.). As a production industry, wool growers rely on the health of their flocks to produce quality wool, so the care and treatment of sheep is taken very seriously in the industry, even if just for basic good business practices. In September 2016, more than 500 wool companies signed the Dumfries House Declaration which confirms the industry’s commitment to the welfare of sheep (International Wool Textile Organization, ‘Animal Welfare,’ n.d.). Instead of recognizing the extensive animal welfare regulations in place and committing to helping the industry crack down on the abuse that was still present, PETA focused their efforts on using gruesome media and campaigns to encourage consumers to turn from the wool industry altogether. While this brings attention to the abuse, it also just condemns the entire industry and hurts many growers who are not abusive.
In conclusion, animal rights activists can have both positive and negative effects on animal industries. In the horse industry, the voice and action of animal rights groups helped to bring about new legislature and guidelines to put a stop to soring Tennessee Walking horses. Soring is an extremely cruel practice has long been condemned by the horse industry. However, within Tennessee Walking horse competitions and culture, the practice was so engrained into the history of the sport that corruption in regulation officials allowed the abuse to continue. Animal rights groups and animal welfare groups worked together with the horse industry to drive changes to the Horse protection Act during President Obama’s second term. Their efforts were successful and an amendment to the act was passed in 2017. On the other hand, other animal rights agendas focus more on destroying industries rather than calling for change. This is what happened to the UK wool industry. After acquiring abusive footage of two shearers beating and harming sheep, PETA UK launched a gruesome media campaign urging consumers to stop buying wool. While this did bring to light the presence of abuse within the wool industry, PETA did not approach law makers or offer reform options to further control the abuse. The wool industry has a zero-tolerance policy for abuse, and as a production industry, their success depends on the health of their flocks. By trying to turn the public against wool, many humane and successful growers and shearers lost business. This does nothing to control the small population of abusive shearers.