Animals in Sport and Entertainment
Animals have played a significant role in sports and entertainment throughout history, and some of these practices are
deeply rooted in human culture. Animals are used for human amusement in a wide variety of ways. Some celebrate the animals' beauty, strength, and speed. In contrast, animals are also harmed or killed to entertain people.
Supporters of animal rights are concerned about many of the ways in which animals are used in sports and entertainment. They feel that forcing animals to compete in sports for human benefit is cruel. They claim that these sports promote large-scale suffering of animals as a result of overbreeding, mistreatment, poor veterinary care, and disposal of unwanted animals. Most animal rights activists support ending all uses of animals in sports and entertainment.
People who support the use of animals in sports claim that the animals are simply doing what comes naturally to them, such as running or fighting. They also argue that many uses of animals in sports and entertainment provide cultural benefits and are part of long-standing human traditions.
Some of the earliest uses of animals in entertainment took place in the time of the ancient Romans. Emperors commonly arranged for wild animals to be captured in Africa and brought to amphitheaters for elaborate shows featuring animal fights and simulated hunts. Before thousands of cheering spectators, lions, leopards, elephants, crocodiles, giraffes, hippos, and rhinoceroses would fight one another or be killed by Roman gladiators. On special Page 58 | Top of Articleoccasions honoring an emperor's inauguration or achievements in battle, thousands of wild animals were killed over several weeks of festivities. These lavish displays of animals from exotic locations were used to signify the wealth and power of the reigning leader.
These often brutal acts of entertainment involving animals were not just limited to ancient times. As recently as the 1800s, the practices of "bearbaiting" and "bullbaiting" were still popular in England. These events featured a bear or bull chained to a post in the center of a public arena. Trained dogs would attack the animal, eventually killing it. Often several of the attacking Page 59 | Top of Articledogs were killed in the process. Due to rising public outcry against such events, in 1835 the Cruelty to Animals Act was passed that banned the practice. While bearbaiting no longer takes place, other sports featuring animals fighting or being killed continue. Although outlawed in some regions, these "blood sports" such as dogfighting, bullfighting, and cockfighting still occur both in public and in private in many places around the world.
One of the most controversial sports involving the killing of animals is bullfighting. Although its history is uncertain, the sport may have descended from earlier contests between people and animals in ancient Rome. Today's bullfighting is firmly rooted in Spain, where it has been practiced for more than one thousand years. It is also popular in France, Portugal, Mexico, and some other Latin American countries.
As a bullfight begins, men on horseback spear a bull in the neck and shoulders. Next, other men move in on foot to thrust barbed sticks into the bull's back to further enrage it. As blood flows from its wounds, the bull charges the matador who encourages it to attack by waving his cape. The matador is applauded for close brushes with the bull's lethal horns as he smoothly dodges the angry animal running by. Finally, as the bull weakens, the matador stabs it between the shoulder blades with his sword to make the kill. Depending on the quality of the matador's performance, the judge may grant him the privilege of slicing off the bull's ears and tail as tokens symbolizing his courage.
Supporters of bullfighting praise the matadors' technique and bravery, comparing them to gifted artists. Isabel Carpio, secretary-general of the Union of Fighting Bull Breeders views the contest as beautiful and believes that a top matador "is like a sculptor who is molding, not clay, but the animal."38 Many also cite bullfighting's strong historic connection to a region's culture. "It is a cultural component that comes from times that we no longer even remember," says a young Spanish woman attending a bullfight. "It is something that is ours, something intrinsic. It is a world that once you enter, you like it more and more, and you want to be more a part of it."39
Other advocates of bullfighting include the king of Spain and other top politicians and celebrities in that country, many of
Page 61 | Top of Articlewhom share the viewpoint of the supporters of the sport. "There is something incredibly powerful about a man trying to stand as still as possible and to dominate and control a wild animal that's trying to kill him, and at the same moment creates incredibly subtle, beautiful, delicate artistic images,"40 explains one fan. "Good bulls are noble: they humiliate the bullfighter and do not fear him," says one matador. "When I kill a bull, I don't think about it. It is just another movement in a bullfight, and this movement is to kill."41
In contrast to its supporters, many people view bullfighting as an outdated sport that promotes the torture and suffering of animals. Critics claim that the time in the ring is extremely stressful and painful for the bull. Estimates vary, but at least twelve thousand bulls are killed in Spain alone each year during bull-fights. Many horses also die in the ring after being gored by enraged bulls. Miguel Moutinho, the leader of a Portuguese animal welfare group, expresses scorn toward matadors. "Bullfighters like to say they are artists but [the bullfighter] is a murderer and bullfighting is an immoral spectacle,"42 he says.
Both opinion polls and bullring attendance show that support for bullfighting is declining, even in Spain. Animal rights groups regularly stage protests outside bullfighting arenas and are pressuring the government to ban the practice. Spain already has strict laws against animal cruelty, but those laws make exceptions for bullfighting. "Bullfighting is terrible savagery and should be consigned to history,"43 says one activist.
Another common blood sport held in many parts of the world is cockfighting. Cockfighting takes advantage of a rooster's natural inclination to fight with other roosters over territory and hens. Cockfighting roosters are specially bred to be strong and aggressive.
Before a cockfighting match, the birds' owners strap razor-sharp knives to the backs of their birds' legs. As the roosters jump up to peck and kick each other during a fight, the knives slash and maim their opponents. Eventually one bird is either dead or too injured to continue fighting, and the winner is Page 62
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declared. Spectators bet money on the outcome of the matches. Top fighting birds are very valuable as breeding animals to sire the next generation of competitors.
Cockfighting is a popular and legal sport in some countries, including Mexico, India, Thailand, and the Philippines. Cock-fighting was also once widely practiced in the United States with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson among its notable participants. With the passage of a law banning cockfighting in Louisiana by August 2008, all fifty states have now made cock-fighting illegal. However, banning the sport has not eliminated it. There is an extensive network of cockfighting fans that practice the sport in secret. Underground fighting is thought to be on the rise as more immigrants bring the cockfighting culture to their new homes in the United States. Laws against cockfighting Page 63 | Top of Articleare rarely enforced, and penalties are minimal. Participants who are caught receive only small fines. In Ohio, the penalty for cockfighting is the same as a speeding ticket.
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has pushed for stronger penalties for those who break laws against cock-fighting. "It's an indefensible form of staging fights-watching these animals hack each other to death. Any sensible person can see there is no socially redeeming aspect of cockfighting,"44 says HSUS president Wayne Pacelle. Thirty-three states have made cockfighting a felony. In forty states it is illegal to be a spectator at a cockfight. But cockfighting is not usually considered a priority for law enforcement officials. "Prosecuting cockfighting is labor-intensive and costly. It's not productive to tie up your resources on it,"45 says a deputy sheriff in Ohio.
Another blood sport is dogfighting, and it is growing in popularity in the United States. Although illegal in most states since the 1860s, an underground culture of dogfighting has persisted, especially in southern states. A new culture of dogfighting is also on the rise in urban areas and is often associated with drug dealing, gambling, and other criminal activity related to gangs.
Traditional dogfighting is a highly organized activity run by professional breeders who invest a great deal of time and money on staging fights and developing generations of fighting dogs. The dogs used are usually hybrids of several breeds developed for fighting and are generally known as pit bulls. These dogs possess such a strong drive to fight that they will often fight to Page 64 | Top of Articlethe death instead of backing down when injured or overpowered. Pit bulls are extremely loyal toward people, and this quality adds to their willingness to fight for their masters.
Pit bulls undergo extensive training to prepare for fights. They are forced to run on treadmills to build endurance, often with the dangling bait of a cat or rabbit to entice them to keep going. Their owners have them grasp animal hides hanging from poles to strengthen their jaws and make them wear heavy chains and weights around their necks to develop upper-body strength.
During competitions pairs of dogs are released into a pit, where they immediately attack one another. Matches usually end in under an hour either when one dog is too injured to continue fighting and quits or when one of the dogs is killed. Owners sometimes kill animals that quit by hanging, shooting, or electrocuting them. Top dogs are highly valued for both fighting and stud services and may fetch prices of up to twenty-five thousand dollars.
Dogfights that take place in urban areas are usually less organized. Known as street fighters, dogs used in these fights are not the result of carefully planned breeding and training. Instead owners buy dogs off the street and provoke them to become vicious by whipping them and burning them with cigarettes, resulting in dogs extremely quick to attack.
Because of its connection with other crime and most people's strong objection to cruelty against dogs, dogfighting is actively targeted by law enforcement. Participating in dogfighting is a felony in all states except Idaho and Montana, where it carries the lesser charge of a misdemeanor. In forty-six states it is also Page 65
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illegal to be a spectator at dogfighting events. Dogfighters can also be charged under anticruelty laws. Penalties can include jail time and substantial fines. In 2004, one longtime South Carolina breeder was sentenced to thirty years in prison for his dog-fighting activities.
Despite law enforcement efforts, dogfighting shows no sign of declining. The HSUS estimates that approximately forty thousand professional dogfighters operate in the United States. Another one hundred thousand are street fighters. "This dog fighting deal is right under our noses. It's a big deal . . . probably as big as the underworld drug business. It's everywhere,"46 says a law enforcement official in Texas.
Proponents of dogfighting defend their sport, saying it is not cruel because the dogs want to fight, even love to fight. Pit bull breeder Bill Stewart explains: "It's about two highly conditioned athletes going at each other with everything they have to try to win. It's the purest form of combat on earth."47
Most people agree that blood sports such as cockfighting and dogfighting promote animal cruelty and should be illegal. However, the cruelty of other legal sports involving animals is the subject of debate. One such sport is rodeo. Rodeo is a sport with origins in the roping and riding skills once commonly used by cowboys. Today rodeo has become big business in the United Page 67 | Top of ArticleStates and Canada, with professional rodeo stars competing for millions of dollars in prize money.
Most fans view rodeo as wholesome family entertainment, but animal rights activists criticize many rodeo events. Critics claim that rodeo animals are subjected to cruel treatment during events such as bronco and bull riding as well as steer wrestling and calf roping. The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) strongly disagrees with this claim. The organization says it has a thorough animal welfare policy in place for the treatment of animals in the rodeos it sanctions. It also requires that a veterinarian attend all events. Rodeo Page 68 | Top of Articleorganizers stress that it is in their economic interest to treat rodeo stock well. Rodeos contract with livestock owners who make large investments to provide the best performing animals possible. Abused and injured animals would perform poorly and cause their owners to earn less or go out of business entirely. Many bucking horses and bulls perform for years, becoming stars in their own right.
Rodeo opponents dispute that horses and bulls are well treated and point to several practices they believe are cruel. One is the use of flank straps placed around the abdomens of bulls and horses to encourage them to buck. Critics say the straps are painful and cause injury to the animals. The PRCA counters that flank straps do not cause pain. Instead, they say, the strap simply encourages the animal to kick its legs higher while bucking, resulting in a more dramatic performance by the rider.
The other rodeo event most often criticized is calf roping. In this event a rider on horseback throws a loop of rope around the neck of a running calf, pulling it to a rapid stop. The sudden jerk of the rope can cause injury to calves, including broken necks, backs, and limbs. To help minimize injuries, PRCA rules prohibit flipping or dragging the calf, but, even so, sometimes calves are hurt or killed.
The PRCA keeps track of injuries to animals used in its rodeos. In 2001 they recorded twenty-five injuries out of 85,638 uses of animals-a .029 percent injury rate. Animal rights groups challenge these numbers and call on people to protest against rodeos when they come to town. The efforts of animal rights Page 69 | Top of Articlegroups to prove rodeo animal abuse and shut down rodeos have so far been largely unsuccessful. PETA representative Amy Rhodes says, "We want rodeo out of business, but we know it's not going to happen overnight."48
Another sport targeted by animal rights activists is horse racing. Thoroughbred horse racing, a multibillion-dollar industry, is the leading animal sport in the United States. Approximately ninety thoroughbred racetracks host over sixty thousand races each year. Occasionally a racehorse becomes a household name after a winning season, gaining the privilege of retiring to stud on a lavish breeding farm. For most horses, however, the racing life is not so glamorous.
Critics of horse racing point out the physical toll that training and racing has on the fragile bodies of these highly bred animals. Horses begin racing at age two when they are not yet fully mature. As a result, horses suffer frequent injuries to their delicate feet and legs. To keep them in competition, trainers and veterinarians may give painkilling drugs to horses with illnesses or injuries. Massive injuries, such as shattered leg bones, and even deaths are not uncommon during training or races. In fact, hundreds of racehorses die at tracks each year. "It's part of the game,"49 says one jockey.
Recently, some famous racehorses have died from injuries suffered in the sport's most famous contests. In 2008 the second place finisher in the Kentucky Derby shattered both front ankles at the race's end and was euthanized. In 2006, after winning the Kentucky Derby, the colt Barbaro fractured his hind leg during the Preakness Stakes and was also eventually euthanized when the injury failed to heal.
Due to the great expense of buying, housing, feeding, and training racehorses, owners tend to treat their horses as investments, making decisions about their futures based on their earning potential. Winning horses can earn millions for their owners through prize money and stud fees. Losing horses, however, are sold or retired to adoptive owners. Many injured horses are euthanized so that the owners do not have to spend money on Page 70 | Top of Articleveterinary fees for an animal that has no future earning potential.
Critics point out that horse racing exists primarily to generate money through gambling. However, there are many people involved in racing who genuinely love and care for horses and admire their beauty and passion for running. Still, some question if the sport is justified. George Vecsey, a sportswriter for the New York Times, wonders, "These fragile thoroughbreds do not exactly have much say, other than demonstrating that they love to run. Perhaps that is why we love them and respect them and protect them, although not nearly enough, from the stress of
racing itself. After what we put them through, do we love them so much out of guilt?"50
Under the Big Top
Another much-loved American tradition is a family visit to the circus to see trained animals perform. Animal rights activists, however, are sharply critical of animal acts in circuses, insisting that the elephants, big cats, primates, and other animals are forced to perform unnatural tricks through the use of abusive
Page 73 | Top of Articletraining methods. Trainers have been accused of beating animals and employing electric prods to force animals to comply. Circus opponents also express concern over the mistreatment they say occurs when wild animals are forced to live in confinement during months on the road as they travel the country.
Joan Galvin, spokesperson for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus responds to these accusations:
Most reputable circuses have incredibly dedicated and professional staff. It's almost a personal affront to hear these things. That's hard when it's your livelihood, and it's not an easy livelihood. It's in our best interest to do what's right and to treat these animals almost like members of the family, almost sometimes better than you treat your own family.51
There have been instances when circus animals have escaped and caused damage and injury to people. During a Wisconsin performance in 2002, two elephants escaped a circus tent, with one of them injuring a boy before being brought under control. In 1994 an elephant killed its trainer and escaped the big top in Honolulu, rampaging through city streets before being shot by police. Circus critics point to these instances as signs of the stress circus animals are exposed to, saying mis-treatment causes them to finally "snap." Other reported violations include an elephant dying from heatstroke while traveling and animals injured by mistreatment from trainers. "What all this is saying is that circuses are not always doing the best job there is or that they can do with these animals,"52 says Richard Sarinato of the HSUS.
Despite the efforts of animal rights organizations to put an end to the use of animals in sports and entertainment, the public has continued to show strong support for these activities. Because many mainstream animal-related pursuits play such a prominent role in human culture, it is unlikely that they will end any time soon. However, by exposing some of the hidden aspects of animal cruelty sometimes associated with these practices, animal rights activists are playing a role in improving the welfare of the animals involved.