It’s here! The 2016 Draft Wild Horse Management Plan

The long-awaited Draft Wild Horse Management Plan produced by the NSW Parks & Wildlife Service was released in early May. The document is open for public comment until August 19,  and I urge any readers who have strong feelings about this issue to make a submission.

In brief, the Draft Plan advocates for a reduction of brumby numbers from an estimated 6,000 horses to 600, using a range of methods, and being undertaken over a period of twenty years. Once the population has stabilised at this sustainable number, other, non-lethal approaches will be implemented, including fertility control, and ongoing passive trapping. The Draft Plan has been met with disbelief by brumby advocates. The most highly-reported opinions have been of those outraged by the proposal, while those in support have not been as visible in the popular media. Further, any accurate reportage of the core elements of the Draft Plan is frequently lost amid the outcry.

One example of this, sent to me by a blog reader, is the July issue of the Australian Women’s Weekly. The magazine’s cover features the tagline “Our heritage – The fight to stop a brumby massacre”, and the article, titled “The battle to save Snowy’s Brumbies”, continues in much the same vein. Overall, I find it doubtful that the author of this piece had even read the Draft Plan when she wrote the article. It refers to environmentalists disparagingly as “greenies” [1], repeatedly gives the impression that fertility control has been completely discounted under the Draft Plan (it hasn’t), and reports the opinion of a brumby advocate who “looks overseas to Europe, where horses are being reintroduced to many wildlife areas to protect biodiversity and replenish natural spaces. Surely … the Snowy Mountains brumbies must have similar value.”[2] The repetition of this woolly thinking is incredibly frustrating, for, as discussed previously on this blog, there can be no comparison between habitats that have evolved alongside hooved mammals, and those (like Australia’s) which have not.

Elsewhere we see the reportage of a very select reading of the evidence – brumby advocate Madison Young, for example, is cited  as being “furious that shooting on sight [site] has been rated by the scientists’ group as more humane than transporting to rehoming.” [3] This appears to be a misreading of the 2015 report of the Humaneness Assessment Panel, which was assembled on behalf of the Independent Technical Reference Group, which makes the point that being shot on site is a more humane option (for the 82% of brumbies who do not find a home) than being trucked interstate to slaughterhouses. Of course it is wonderful for the 18% of brumbies that are transported out to rescue groups and rehomed. But, as has been discussed elsewhere, this is certainly not the fate of the majority of horses removed from the park.

Of course misinformation such as that seen in the Women’s Weekly story is rife in such debates. Consider another “fact”, appearing in the Daily Mail Australia‘s coverage of the Draft Management Plan: “The brumby arrived in Australia on the First Fleet. Only seven survived the harrowing journey.” [4] I honestly don’t even know where to start with everything that is incorrect within that statement! But when you consider the source cited is savethebrumby.org, you begin to see which voices are being heard most loudly in these debates.

This level of misinformation in the (pro-brumby) opinions that are so frequently cited by the media is disappointingly reminiscent of climate change deniers. It would be a shame if such strategies of obfuscation lead to a similar state of paralysed inactivity, while the world (and Kosciuszko National Park!) hurtles towards a state of inevitable destruction.

REFERENCES:

[1] Beverley Hadgraft, “The battle to save Snowy’s Brumbies,” Australian Women’s Weekly July 2016, p. 31.

[2] ibid, p. 34.

[3] ibid.

[4] Hannah Moore, “Almost 6,000 wild brumbies living in the Snowy Mountains to be killed under controversial NSW scheme to save Mount Kosciuszko National Park,” Daily Mail Australia, accessed 2 May 2016.

Nature vs culture

When I was in Year 11 I was on the debating team, and the question set for our intra-school final was “Pants are better than skirts.”  Not wanting to stoop to a battle-of-the-sexes-themed debate, our side, for the negative, chose to approach the question literally, and examined it as an issue of fashion and comfort. The opposing team, on the other hand, decided to interpret the question as “men are better than women”. So the debate played out quite farcically, with both sides trying to rebut each other’s arguments, while fundamentally contesting completely different topics. How can anyone win* such a debate?

This blog has examined the issue of brumbies in Australia, and what is generally known as “the brumby debate”, several times, with my last post only the most recent example. The issue as it currently stands dates back to the Guy Fawkes River cull of 2000, and the situation, particularly in NSW, has been more or less at an impasse since that time. What is increasingly clear is that this is not a simple discussion about pest management, but one of cultural heritage, and, because of this, it is impossible to come to a clear resolution.

The two sides of the debate (to characterise them loosely as such – I am aware that people have differing motivations for their personal stance on the issue) are not two sides of the same coin, so to speak. What is essentially being debated is apples vs oranges. One approach views the clear environmental and ecological degradation wrought by the brumbies as a cut-and-dried case, to which the logical solution is their removal. And while those taking the opposing position offer some attempt at countering this viewpoint by debating exact numbers, methodologies, and impacts, the core of their argument is about something completely different – it is about heritage. Both these perspectives exist on completely different ideological footing, and, quite simply, it is impossible to win a debate that is being argued at cross purposes.

Simon Cubit has referred to this as a “tournament of value”,[1] where competing groups, committed to differing constructions of “truth”, vie to be acknowledged as the singular authority.  In the current context, we might look at this as a contest between nature (the ecological worth of wilderness) and culture (the brumby as heritage).

In the first instance, as Cubit and others argue, nature is a cultural construct,[2] rendering the environmental values ascribed to National Parks as, if not negated, then at least problematic. While the validation of purportedly natural landscapes is enshrined through processes such as UNESCO World Heritage listing, such landscapes are themselves constructed within cultural frameworks. [3] Ideas about the natural and the cultural cannot be considered in isolation from each other. Laurajane Smith draws our attention to the questionable use of the word “natural”, in particular when describing the Australian landscape. She points out that landscapes here perceived and interpreted as being “natural” are in fact the result of between 40,000-60,000 years of active management by Aboriginal people.[4]

On the other hand, if nature is a cultural construct, then heritage is certainly so. If we look at the dichotomy between natural and cultural heritage, we find that in many ways it is an artificially constructed one. As David Lowenthal argues, the two share many similarities in their treatment, and are frequently managed by the same instruments and institutions, for example the World Heritage Convention.[5] In light of this, we might consider that the culturally constructed nature of each of these concepts effectively cancels the other out.

Which is fine in theory, but in practice the debates relating to brumbies are predicated upon the assumption that there is a difference between nature and culture, with the former typically characterised as being largely untouched by humanity, and the latter generally understood to be a product of human design and intention. If we accept this, then certain other assumptions must necessarily follow. For example, both nature and culture must be positioned within the same value system, leading to the prioritising of one in favour of the other if the two are in opposition, which they frequently are – the current example being a case in point. Lowenthal highlights that when these two values are in conflict, it is the cultural that will most likely be defended, for “[h]owever deeply we may love nature, most of us identify more easily with human relics and rise more readily to their defence.”[6]

This is the crux of the matter. It explains why sound evidence demonstrating the destruction that brumbies create is not enough; why arguments relating to the intrinsic value of Australia’s alpine ecosystems are not enough; why a debate fought on facts alone is not enough. To quote ecologists Dale Nimmo and Kelly Miller, “simply appealing to institutionalised ecological knowledge will not resolve the debate by itself, because, in many ways, feral horse management is contingent upon ethical, political and cultural issues, not just scientific ones”. [7]

And what lies at the very heart of this issue? It is the regard that Australians have for the horse. And what lies at the heart of that? Well, that’s something I’m hoping that my research might go some way to answering.

 

*I don’t actually remember which side won. Which probably means it wasn’t mine!

REFERENCES:

[1] Simon Cubit, “Tournaments of Value: Horses, Wilderness, and the Tasmanian Central Plateau,” Environmental History 6 (2003): 396.

[2] Cubit, “Tournaments of Value”, 395; Smith, Uses of Heritage, 166-67; David Lowenthal, “Nature and Cultural Heritage,” International Journal of Heritage Studies 11 (2005): 81-92.

[3] Laurajane Smith, Uses of Heritage, (Oxon: Routledge, 2006),  166-67.

[4] Smith, Uses of Heritage, 168.

[5] Lowenthal, “Nature and Cultural Heritage,” 82.

[6] Lowenthal, “Nature and Cultural Heritage,” 86.

[7] Dale Nimmo and Kelly Miller, “Ecological and Human Dimensions of Management of Feral Horses in Australia: a review,” Wildlife Research 34 (2007): 413.

A million wild horses

Brumbies were the cover stars, and feature story, in the Jan/Feb issue of Australian Geographic (and many thanks to my cousin for tipping me off to that fact!). The piece begins with a good news story from an Aboriginal community in Central Australia, where training for the Certificate II in rural operations (in which horses play an integral role) has reignited interest in education, and offers hope of employment opportunities for community members. [1]

While the article does by and large present an even-handed account of the brumby debate, we still find that oft-repeated assertion that ‘horses are deeply embedded in [Australia’s] psyche’ [2], without any further exploration of why that might be (the obligatory mentions of The Silver Brumby and Banjo Paterson aside).

We do, however, learn that Australia’s wild/feral (pick your adjective of choice; the article acknowledges the dichotomy, but sticks with ‘wild’) horse population is now estimated to be ‘at least’ one million animals! [3] This is a significant increase from previous figures I’ve encountered, where numbers were postulated at around the 400,000 mark.[4] If those figures were correct when the research was published in 2007, then this population increase is nothing short of remarkable. Yet given that brumbies are able to increase their population by up to 20% in a good year, [5] and given that there have been no real bad years in the past decade, this figure is actually not surprising.

Central Australia apparently has a healthy brumby population, and several Aboriginal communities  are now looking at ways to exploit this resource, including mustering horses for sale. [6] The versatility of the brumby as a breed is emphasised in the article, and Erica Jessup, founder of the Guy Fawkes Heritage Horse Association, is quoted as saying that owning a brumby has ‘become very fashionable.'[7] But can you rehome a million of them?

There is a limit to how many horses Australians can adopt. Especially when brumbies are not the only horses seeking second chances. In a piece of blue-sky thinking produced by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation in 2001, it was argued that all racehorses exiting the racing industry could successfully be rehomed, and that the demand for off the track thoroughbreds ‘will most likely increase over time as people shift from using other breeds and instead use thoroughbreds.'[8] There are also standardbreds (trotters and pacers) looking for homes after racing.

A horse is not as easy to rehome as cat or dog (and there are  thousands of those looking for ‘forever’ homes across our nation’s pounds and animal shelters). A horse requires very specific, and expensive, care, including specialised feeding, dentistry, and hoof care. If something goes wrong, a horse needs attention from a qualified veterinarian. It requires a large amount of space to live comfortably. Finally, a horse’s owner or handler requires specialist skills to care for that animal correctly. It’s not as simple as feeding it twice a day and leaving it in your backyard while you’re at school or work. For this reason, well-meaning people looking to re-home brumbies or ex-racers who do not have the skills to care for these animals ultimately do them a grave disservice.

In the case of the brumby, if population control is required (and the Australian Geographic piece acknowledges that it does), then lethal control methods (ie shooting or otherwise euthanasing) are the most humane and effective solution. Today, the majority of brumbies caught by passive trapping (the current crowd-pleasing ‘control’ method of choice) are not rehomed, but end up being trucked hundreds or thousands of kilometres, and meeting an unpleasant fate at an abattoir.

To insist that horses not be shot in national parks, but then to do nothing when the approved method of managing brumby populations, implemented due to people’s squeamishness at the idea of wild horses being shot, means that these same horses must go through the trauma of being captured, wrested from the only homes they’ve known, and finally butchered at a knackery, ultimately reeks of animal cruelty.

REFERENCES:

[1] Burdon, Amanda. 2016. “Where the Wild Horses Are.” Australian Geographic January/February 2016: 76.

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] Nimmo, Dale Graeme, and Kelly K. Miller. 2007. “Ecological and human dimensions of management of feral horses in Australia: a review.” Wildlife Research 34: 409.

[5] Burdon, “Wild Horses,” 76.

[6] ibid

[7] Burdon, “Wild Horses,” 83

[8] Geelen, Renee. “The Internet Age of Misinformation.” Racing and Breeding (117): 54.  http://breedingracing.realviewdigital.com/?iid=102110#folio=54

Are humans animals?

To me, this question seems ridiculous – of COURSE we are animals! We eat, we defecate, we procreate. Surey there is no room for doubt? Yet there are still many people who would flatly deny that humans are still part of the animal kingdom.

Today I was reading a piece by Dominick LaCapra, who reflects on the desire, evident throughout human history, to separate ourselves from the animal, when I suddenly recalled an argument I’d had, on this very topic, with a high school English teacher 20 years ago. She flatly refused to accept that human beings were animals – I think for her it was a matter of semantics, and the connotation of “animal” was one characterised by concepts of beastliness and degradation, in the way that someone might casually say that “so-and-so is no better than an animal.” I still remember how upset she was by my assertion that humans were animals – and I did not mean it in the beastly sense, but in a (undeniably!) biological one.

LaCapra questions this insistence on a distinction between human and animal, and the motivations that underlie this “misguided quest for a kind of holy grail”. [1] Further, he questions whether humanism has always required an “other” against which to project negatively. As post-modernism has increasingly given voice to women and non-European/colonised peoples, animals remain the last bastion of otherness – what LaCapra describes as “the residual repository of projective alienation or radical otherness.” [2]

The ascription of animalistic characteristics – the same ones I believe my English teacher was calling to mind – often equates to a denigration. LaCapra points out that those very behaviours, negatively perceived as animalistic or beastial – such as victimisation, torture, and genocide – are in fact distinctly human in their performance. [3] Conversely, many positive descriptions of animals have humanity as their reference point – for example, the lion being constructed as ‘the King of the beasts’.

In many ways, human beings, and what it means to be human, is constructed against the animal.[4] But is the apparently insurmountable gap between human and non-human animals real, or simply another anthropocentric human construct? According to Thomas Suddendorf, scientific evidence indicates that homo sapiens occupied the planet simultaneously to other hominids, including h. erectus, h. neanderthalensis, and the Florensis and Denisova hominids. Suddendorf argues that it is because all these other hominids have been rendered extinct that the chasm between human and animal is seemingly so great. More disturbingly, he believes that these extinctions were caused, at least in part, through the deliberate actions of homo sapiens, and draws a link between those early acts of genocide and the current human campaign, which appears to be leading inexorably to the extinction of the great apes.[5]

This idea is, frankly, rather depressing. While Suddendorf still considers us (humans) to be part of the animal kingdom, he appears to accept without question the anthropocentric assumption that “there is something extra special about us: After all, we are the ones running the zoos.” [6]  For Suddendorf (and I think for the majority of people), humanity is the acme of evolution. What would happen were we to deconstruct this anthropocentric viewpoint, and completely re-frame it? LaCapra cites a National Geographic feature where Clive Wynne is quoted as saying that intelligence is “a bush, not a single-trunk tree with a line leading only to us.” [7]

Perhaps if we viewed ourselves within that paradigm, part of an inter-related web of life, we might create a world that more closely resembled it. To me, the explanation offered by Suddendorf for the “gap” between human and non-human animals, while scientifically plausible, is also embedded within the type of anthropocentric assumptions that see our dominance – and subsequent destruction – of the planet as inevitable.

REFERENCES:

[1] LaCapra, Dominic. History and its Limits: Human, Animal, Violence. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009, 150.

[2] LaCapra, History and its Limits, 152.

[3] LaCapra, History and its Limits, 156.

[4] LaCapra, History and its Limits, 155.

[5] Suddendorf, Thomas. “//www.googleadservices.com/pagead/conversion_async.js//statse.webtrendslive.com/dcs2tby2210000kjsmeahasl5_1d8x/wtid.js?callback=Webtrends.dcss.dcsobj_0.dcsGetIdCallbackhttp://www.abc.net.au/res/libraries/stats/webtrends-10.2/custom_attribs.js//s.webtrends.com/js/webtrends.hm.min.jshttp://www.abc.net.au/res/libraries/stats/webtrends-10.2/webtrends.min.jshttps://apis.google.com/_/scs/apps-static/_/js/k=oz.gapi.en_GB.jZP4KwfWTDU.O/m=auth/exm=plus,plusone/rt=j/sv=1/d=1/ed=1/am=AQ/rs=AGLTcCOKQ3rum35Kog6sSccqiw7h7RGu7A/t=zcms/cb=gapi.loaded_2https://apis.google.com/_/scs/apps-static/_/js/k=oz.gapi.en_GB.jZP4KwfWTDU.O/m=plus/exm=plusone/rt=j/sv=1/d=1/ed=1/am=AQ/rs=AGLTcCOKQ3rum35Kog6sSccqiw7h7RGu7A/t=zcms/cb=gapi.loaded_1What sets us apart from the animals?” Ockham’s Razor, ABC Radio National, Friday 7 March 2014. Transcript and audio available at http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/ockhamsrazor/5303368

[6] Suddendorf, “What sets us apart”.

[7] Cited in LaCapra, History and its Limits, 154 (footnote 7).

The brumby as heritage

Firstly, an apology for throwing my posting schedule to the wind – I’ve been on holidays! But I hope you will forgive a hard-working PhD student a well-earned break, and now we can happily pick up where we left off! In this post I’m returning to the topic of the brumby, which we have looked at several times already on the blog.

In May this year, the Australian Brumby Alliance (ABA) published a post on their website outlining the key principles of the Burra Charter,[1] a framework that outlines best practice management of Australia’s heritage. While the Burra Charter is most frequently cited with reference to built (or tangible) heritage, the ABA feels that “it supports our values, for example, where cultural values conflict, the Charter requires that Co-existence of cultural values should always be recognised, respected and encouraged. It is not one culture above another; both have equal value and need to be in balance.”[2]

As Laurajane Smith has argued, heritage is not simply about the past. It refers to a process of meaning-making and engagement that is manufactured in the present, as well.[3] According to Smith, ‘heritage’ is not the sites or the buildings that are commonly associated with the term, but the meanings we ascribe to them.[4] The ABA’s citation of the Burra Charter, a foundational document governing Australia’s cultural heritage, offers an opportunity to consider the brumby in the context of ‘heritage’, and to shape a broader discussion of the horse in this role.

The ABA’s invocation of the Burra Charter may be somewhat simplistic, however it illustrates what Simon Cubit has referred to as a ‘tournament of value.’[5] In this context, the environmental concerns of those opposed to brumbies in National Parks in Australia are set against the claim that horses (particularly brumbies) embody significant cultural heritage values of Australia. These claims bear closer examination. In the first instance, as Cubit argues, nature is a cultural construct,[6] and therefore the environmental values usually ascribed to National Parks could be, if not negated, then at least problematised. On the other hand, if nature is a cultural construct, then heritage is certainly so. In light of this, we might consider that the culturally constructed nature of each of these concepts might cancel the other out.

However, to further consider the contentions of brumby advocate groups such as the ABA, we must ask in what context the horse is to be considered as heritage. Is it every horse? Is it only wild horses? How did the association between brumbies (or horses generally) and Australian heritage begin? While the horse as a species unquestionably provided Australia with advantage and benefit in the process of colonisation and settlement, it was not the wild horse populations that rendered these services, nor even necessarily their ancestors, given that feral horses were being considered a pest as early as the 1860s.[7] Therefore, the claim that brumbies are part of Australia’s heritage seems factually questionable.

In the case of wild horses specifically, the conjuring power of the brumby as an animal of romance and myth could be argued to originate with A. B. ‘Banjo’ Patterson’s poem ‘The Man from Snowy River’, in which a nameless man, on trusty steed, rounds up a herd of wild horses. Though the poem itself might not have been distinguishable from similar verses of the time, its continued repetition and ongoing visibility renders it now part of our heritage, particularly in the sense that Smith conceptualises the term. That is, the ongoing engagement with the poem, and its dissemination across several genres – film, festivals, even the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney Olympics – renders us familiar with its tropes. It has come to be recognised as ‘heritage’ through the processes that shape such discourses – frequent repetition and continued visibility. Thus the Man from Snowy River has become part of Australia’s cultural iconography, and the brumbies with which he is forever associated (though they were never referred to as such in Paterson’s poem) are now also described as part of our heritage.

This is a fascinating discussion, and there is certainly much more to be explored on the topic, of which this is only a starting point.

REFERENCES:

[1] Australian Brumby Alliance, “The Burra Charter”, posted May 12 2015, accessed August 25 2015 http://australianbrumbyalliance.org.au/the-burra-charter/

[2] ABA, “Burra Charter.”

[3] Laurajane Smith, Uses of Heritage (Oxon: Routledge, 2006), 1.

[4] Smith, Uses of Heritage, 3.

[5] Simon Cubit, “Tournaments of Value: Horses, Wilderness, and the Tasmanian Central Plateau,” Environmental History 6 (2003): 396.

[6] Cubit, “Tournaments of Value”, 395.

[7] Dale Graeme Nimmo and Kelly K. Miller, “Ecological and human dimensions of management of feral horses in Australia: a review,” Wildlife Research 34 (2007): 408.

Culling koalas

Last week I came across this article about a koala cull in Cape Otway, in Victoria. According to the article, almost 700 koalas were culled during 2013 and 2014, in a bid to deal with over-population in the region. ‘Interesting’, I thought. ‘I wonder what the public response will be?’

Well, in short, there has been very little public response in the intervening days. One of the only* online news article with comments appeared in the Geelong Advertiser. Of the 11 comments that were left there last week, only one person mentioned the ‘iconic’ status of the koalas. In fact there was no mention of any sort of cultural attachment to koalas in any of the news articles, until the International Fund for Animal Welfare commented on the issue, referring to the koala as ‘our national icon’ [1].

I find this particularly interesting, given the public outcry whenever the possibility of a brumby cull is mentioned, particularly in NSW and Victoria. These debates are constantly peppered with references to the brumby’s iconic status, and its important place in our national heritage. And yet the koala, an animal native to the east coast of Australia, is culled, despite being listed as vulnerable in NSW, the ACT and Queensland, and no one seems to care.

My issue is not that the cull happened. By all accounts it was necessary from a welfare point of view, with the koalas descended from a previously relocated population, and further relocation was deemed unfeasible [2]. Nor was it carried out in a brutal fashion. The animals were reportedly sedated before being euthanised [3], which is the same method in which the family pet would be put down by a vet, certainly not cruel.

The issue I have is that the over-population and subsequent culling of koalas in a small region doesn’t raise a tenth of the ire as the proposed culling of brumbies, which are an introduced species. Yet brumbies are in a very similar situation to the Otway koalas, suffering from over-population in the Snowy Mountains region, and, as reported last spring, apparently starving. Perhaps this is because conservationists and brumby advocates continue to dispute the actual number of brumbies? Well, according to The Australian Koala Foundation, the same goes for the Cape Otway koalas [4]. So maybe the lack of outcry is because the koalas were euthanised, rather than shot? Well, in 2008 there was no complaint made at the shooting and complete eradication of rabbits in Sydney’s Centennial Park, another ‘secret’ operation.

What emerges here is that the discourse around brumby management is different to that of any other animal, whether native or feral. The constant reference to the brumby’s iconic status, and it’s national heritage, have seemingly elevated it from the realm of ‘animal’, and conferred upon it an almost untouchable symbolic status. What remains to be seen is how the issue will play out, and what the ecological cost will be.

*The Australian also did a piece on this topic, with comments, however this cannot be accessed by everyone, as it pops up as ‘subscriber only content’. Suffice to say debate in the Comments field was typified by anti-‘Greenie’ sentiment. Of the 32 comments posted as of today, no mention was made of national heritage or iconic status.

REFERENCES:

[1] ‘Koala Cull Highlights a Bigger Problem’, International Fund for Animal Welfare web page (Australia) 5 March 2015, accessed 11 March 2015 http://www.ifaw.org/australia/news/koala-cull-highlights-bigger-problem

[2] ‘Hundreds of starving Cape Otway Koalas killed in ‘secret culls’,’ The Age website, 4 March 2015, accessed 11 march 2015 http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/hundreds-of-starving-cape-otway-koalas-killed-in-secret-culls-20150304-13un49.html

[3] ‘Starving koalas secretly culled at Cape Otway, ‘overpopulation issues’ blamed for ill health,’ ABC website, 4 March 2015, accessed 4 March 2015 http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-03-04/starving-koalas-secretly-culled-at-cape-otway/6278768

[4] ‘Almost 700 Victorian koalas killed in secret cull,’ ABC News website, 4 March 2015, accessed 11 March 2015 http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-03-04/almost-700-victorian-koalas-killed-in-secret-cull/6280158

Contested statistics – part two

Firstly, my apologies for the irregularity of my posting. I should have known better than to promise a two-part post in a month that included both an inter-state conference AND Christmas! However here we are with time for one more post before Christmas, so on with the show!

In my last post, I argued that the number of race horses ending up the knackery is actually much less than animal rights groups such as the Coalition for the Protection of Racehorses claim. This is largely because of a mis-calculation in the number of thoroughbreds born, who do race – the estimate of only 30% eventually racing used by the CPR is actually something of an inversion of the true figure. Data analysis of statistics provided in the 2012/13 Australian Racing Fact Book showed that between 71-81% of thoroughbred foals born went on to be registered.[1] Once again it is worth pointing out that just because a horse is registered doesn’t mean it will race, however once a horse is registered it is accountable (in the statistical use of the word), and its career trajectory is traceable.

In order to counter the claims of such high numbers of horses ending up at the knackery, the racing industry has sponsored its own research. Unfortunately, the outcomes of this study, undertaken by Renee Geelen, are just as dubious as the numbers put forth by animal rights campaigners. I mentioned Geelen’s research in a previous post, where I was critical of her methodology, but given her work is being given credence, often presented to counter the figures used by the CPR, it is worth taking a closer look.

Originally published in Issue 117 of Racing and Breeding magazine and later re-interpreted for a blog post on the National Museum of Australia’s website, Geelen’s research traces the destination of 3224 horses in the racing stables of 37 trainers. [2] Here lies the first major flaw of this research; Geelen’s entire sample consisted of just 37 trainers, among a potential pool of 3,891 trainers across Australia. As a percentage, that works out to be less than .1 of a percent of the sample population. On the other hand, her study covers 3,224 horses, covering a much greater proportion of the racing population, estimated to be around 31,000 horses in any one season.

These figures reveal a significant bias in favour of metropolitan stables, which train a large number of horses. This bias is particularly problematic, as research indicates that poorly-performing horses exiting larger metropolitan stables are much less likely to be sent to the knackery, instead going to new trainers at smaller establishments. Conversely, horses from smaller stables were more likely to end up at auction or knackeries. [3] Therefore, not including smaller-scale operations significantly skews Geelen’s results.

In fact, of Geelen’s sample group of horses, only around a third (806) actually exited the industry, with the majority either going to a new trainer, still in work or going to stud. This means that the population of greatest interest when dealing with these contested statistics –  that is, horses actually exiting the industry – is much smaller than the study initially makes it appear. Geelen’s figures are outlined in the table below:

Still Racing Combined Results Total % of Retired
Different Trainer 662 21%
Still in Work/Spelling 1,015 31%
Exported 77 2%
Total 1,754 54%
Completed Racing Career
At Stud 664 21% 45%
Sold/Gifted as pleasure horse 450 14% 31%
Returned to Owner 205 6% 14%
Died/Euthanised by Vet 109 3% 7%
Unknown 19 0.6% 1.3%
Career in Racing 17 0.5% 1.2%
Knackery 6 0.2% 0.4%
Total 1,470
TOTAL 3,224

(Source: ‘What Happens to all those racehorses?,’ blog post by Renee Geelen dated 1 October 2014, People and the Environment Blog, National Museum of Australia)

By applying the above logic, we see that, of the number of horses in Geelen’s study actually exiting the industry, 0.74% go straight to the knackery, not the 0.2% claimed by Geelen. It is also worth bearing in mind the heavy bias in favour of metropolitan stables, as articulated above, indicating the true figure is probably somewhat higher.

In fact, the only peer-reviewed study that has been published on this issue found that 6.3% of racehorses exiting the industry went straight to the knackery. [4] This study, authored by Thompson, Hayek, Jones, Evans and McGreevy, and published in the Australian Veterinary Journal in August of this year, probably represents the most accurate figures when debating the number of racehorses ending up at the knackery. The authors present a clearly outlined methodology, and base their findings on a much larger and more representative sample group, which covered 3816 horses, trained by 377 trainers based in stables of all sizes, across Australia.

So if you want to get a reasonably accurate figure of the number of racehorses who go straight from racing to the knackery, and an understanding of the the way the landscape differs in this respect according to State or Territory, then the Thompson et al study is the one I recommend you read.  However, there are further issues when trying to calculate an exact number of thoroughbreds born within the racing industry who end up at the knackery. These include:

* The record-keeping practices of knackeries and abbotoirs, which do not record the type of horse slaughtered, or even necessarily how many horses are slaughtered; [5]

* Those thoroughbreds who are not registered (between 19% and 29% of the foals born each year [6]), and who therefore do not figure in industry statistics;

* The argument over when exactly an ex-racehorse can be defined as ending up at the knackery. The racing industry claim they are not responsible for these horses beyond their initial exit from racing, while others, such as the CPR, believe that, as these animals were bred for the sole purpose of racing, the industry is responsible for their welfare for the duration of their lives. And that is a whole other debate!

REFERENCES:

[1] Data extrapolated from pp. 30-40 of the 2012/2013 Australian Racing Fact Book by statistician Clinton Paine, personal communication.

[2] Renee Geelen, “The Internet Age of Misinformation,” Racing and Breeding (117):53, accessed 29 November, http://breedingracing.realviewdigital.com/?iid=102110#folio=52

[3] Thompson, PC, AR Hayek, B Jones, DL Evans and PD McGreevy. “Number, Causes and Destinations of Horses Leaving the Australian Thoroughbred and Standardbred Racing Industries.” Australian Veterinary Journal 92 (2014): 310.

[4] ibid, p. 308.

[5] Hayek, Ariella. “Epidemiology of Horses Leaving the Racing and Breeding Industries.” Bachelor of Science (Vet Science) thesis, University of Sydney, 2004.

[6] Data extrapolated from pp. 30-40 of the 2012/2013 Australian Racing Fact Book by statistician Clinton Paine, personal communication.