Racing can defeat animal rights complaints... by copying McDonald’s

Racing can defeat animal rights complaints... by copying McDonald’s
Activists outside the gates of the Grand National Festival at Aintree in April - PA/Peter Byrne

A racecourse veterinary surgeon has called for racing to radically change how it engages with its critics in light of the animal rights invasion of Aintree in April that caused a 15-minute delay to the start of the Grand National.

Citing the fast-food chain McDonald’s and zoos as good examples of businesses that swam with the tide rather than against it, Gemma Pearson - an expert in equine behavioural medicine employed by the Horse Trust, based at the Royal School of Veterinary Studies at the University of Edinburgh and a race-day vet at Musselburgh - recently published a paper with three fellow scientists on the narratives surrounding racehorse welfare that took place in the immediate aftermath of the 2023 race.

With the Becher Chase being run over a modified National course on Saturday, Pearson’s paper warns that racing could go the way of circus animals or performing orcas if it does not take its head out of the sand while attitudes change around it.

“I was watching the Grand National,” Pearson, 39, who can see both sides of the argument, recalls. “The protesters came on and then the commentary - I just had my head in my hands.

“They believe they are doing the best thing for racing but they cannot see they are actually digging a hole for it by saying things like, ‘You don’t realise how much these horses are loved at home’, or by belittling the protesters without addressing the reason they are there.”

As this relates to changing public attitudes, she got in touch with Tamzin Furtado, a human behaviour change specialist, Janet Douglas, the ‘queen’ of social licence, and Inga Wolframm, who researches sustainable equestrianism.

“We debated whether to publish something because it’s a hot potato,” she says. “I don’t want to upset people and it would be very tempting not to but someone’s got to say it. We’re blunt in some places. We focused on that commentary, the radio phone-ins and a few things online. It’s not all wrong but bits of it are.”

Racing can defeat animal rights complaints... by copying McDonald’s
Animal rights activists are seen alongside police officers at Aintree - Reuters/Phil Noble

Social licence is not something that just exists around horses or was magicked up recently. It started in the mining industry decades ago. “There is plenty of research on how to lose social licence and how to maintain it,” Pearson points out.

“McDonald’s did a really good job. Animal rights protestors were saying McDonald’s didn’t care about the welfare of beef going into their burgers so they employed independent welfare scientists, looked at slaughterhouse regimes and handling facilities, audited it, put the results online so there was transparency.

“Rather than saying, ‘No, we’re happy with the way our cattle are slaughtered’, they said, ‘Ok, we’ll get an independent expert in to improve things’.

“Racing has to engage with its critics, not dismiss or belittle them. Listen to what they are saying. Not just the moderate critics but even the more extreme ones. Listen to the stuff they are public about, reflect on it. If you live in the bubble of an industry, everything is so normal to you that you don’t reflect on it.

“Also we know from human behaviour change science that if someone critiques you, that’s a part of your personal identity so you feel threatened. It’s not easy but you’ve got to ask if there’s any merit in what they are saying.”

‘Horses don’t want to live like kings, they want to live like horses’

Citing the difference between zoos and circuses, Pearson believes racing needs to make some decisions. “Circuses can’t use animals now but zoos can. In zoos, the changes in welfare have been unbelievable. They invested in independent welfare scientists, got them to measure this and it’s not necessarily that you’re doing something wrong but that you can do better. Zoos have invested time and money in measuring welfare and striving to improve.

“Circuses said, ‘We’re the experts, we know what we’re doing’, and the public lost confidence with them. Social licence is all about trust. If the public trust you, they will continue to let you self-regulate.

“But if they don’t, they will lobby the Government for legislation. Trust is key. You often hear ‘if we give an inch, they’ll take a mile’ - if you’re proactive and willing to make changes, the public won’t be interested in Animal Rising anymore. Being brave is often the way forward.

“If people say, ‘We’re worried about horses being injured’, say that’s a very valid concern but tell them we’ve got the jump racing risk model coming on line, we’re invested in it. The fatality rate used to be 0.3, it’s now 0.2. Use the numbers. The reduction of a third in 20 years is a massive difference but we’re going to continue reducing it. You’ll never get to zero but people will trust that you care. You have to walk the walk. You can’t say you’ll do things and not do them.

“Don’t say, ‘Horses live like kings’. Horses don’t want to live like kings, they want to live like horses. We know they want to be turned out in a field with other horses. That’s why we championed Lucinda Russell in the paper. After Corach Rambler won [the Grand National] he went to Kelso. She was asked to take him elsewhere but said, ‘No, he’s out in a field with other horses’.

“In yards we have high rates of cribbing or windsucking. These are coping mechanisms for stress. We have to acknowledge we can improve here. You probably make yourself sound a bit silly saying racehorses have the best life of any horses, because they probably don’t. But we know to change things you have to nudge people in the right direction. The zoos moved quietly in the right directions. If you said all horses had to live in a field 24/7 or in a barn, it’s not going to happen.

“I’m passionate about racing. If we do what zoos did, think carefully, tackle problems transparently, racing will survive. If we do what the circuses did and say we know better, ignore the critics, say it’s they that need educating, it won’t. If stakeholders in racing think a little bit more about social licence principles in what they’re saying and if they are brave and willing to make changes, racing’s got a really bright future.”