Racehorses and Circus Animals—Stifle Your Outrage



Flipping channels the other day, I came across an ad for SeaWorld. Instead of showing images of flipping dolphins, laughing children, and Shamu the killer whale, the commercial was more of a PSA. Instead of its typical advertising, the spot consisted of discussions about how the organization cares for its animals and their lifespans.

As it turns out, the ad campaign was a response to a documentary called “Blackfish,” a film that questioned SeaWorld’s treatment of its animals.

SeaWorld has long been fodder for animal-rights activists. (The mere mention of the name “SeaWorld” may make members of PETA foam at the mouth.)

It’s not just dolphins and killer whales, however, that make this and other animal groups upset.

I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. Aside from being the home of Louisville Slugger baseball bats and a variety of bourbon (yes, all good bourbon comes from Kentucky), my home city is perhaps best known for the “fastest two minutes in sports.” The first Saturday in May, a field of three-year-old thoroughbred horses competes to win the Kentucky Derby.

Every year, some news outlet inevitably does a story about horse racing, the abuse suffered by racehorses, their mistreatment, and the plight of retired racehorses. Such stories reached a fever pitch several years back after Derby winner Barbaro was euthanized following a severe leg fracture in a subsequent race.

Undoubtedly, racehorses are sometimes mistreated. Circus and other performing animals are sometimes abused, just as domestic dogs and cats are sometimes neglected and harmed by their owners. While a Google search of “circus animals” or “retired racehorse” leads to an overwhelming number of articles claiming abuse and mistreatment is the norm, allow me to argue that such activities are probably not as common as people think. In fact, there is good reason to believe that these animals are likely better off than their wild counterparts.

Why? The answer lies in basic economics.

Why do people own racehorses? Why do circuses own elephants, tigers, and bears? Because they want to make money, of course! These animals are seen as an investment.

Investment is absolutely the appropriate word. Take racehorses, for example. In 2013, one of the largest racehorse sales reported some 18 horses sold for $1 million or more each. One colt sold for a whopping $2.5 million. The most expensive horse ever purchased set its buyer back $11 million. The average two-year-old racehorse costs over $58,000. A “cheap” racehorse costs around $20,000.

But the costs don’t stop there. Training costs between $30,0000 and $50,000 a year. Vet bills range from $300 to $700 a month. Add to this the cost of horseshoes ($100 every 2 to 4 weeks), insurance, licensing, racing fees, and jockey fees. Oh, and we can’t forget the cost of boarding the horse at a farm, stable, or training facility.

Put yourself in the shoes of a racehorse owner. After shelling out all this money and time on a racehorse, do you think that you are going to be inclined to abuse it? Will you let other people abuse it? No! A broken or poorly maintained animal is of little to no use to you as its owner. As such, you have a strong incentive to maintain its well-being. That’s an investment that you intend to make you money!

Racehorses’ earnings vary throughout their careers. Some earn their owners millions, while others earn a negative return. But even for horses that don’t perform as their owners had hoped, there is life after racing. A stallion used for breeding, for example, can bring his owner “stud fees” (breeding fees), booking fees (used to reserve a place for mares in the stallion’s breeding season), semen shipping and deposit fees, semen collection fees, shipping and handling, and insemination costs.

While places like SeaWorld and the circus are probably not breeding their animals, the creatures are still investments. Why does SeaWorld have killer whales? Why does the circus have tigers and elephants? They have them because people want to see them. The animals are why people come to these events. Just like racehorses, these animals require serious investments on the part of their owners.

So the next time you hear about the cruelties of the circus, SeaWorld, or “the sport of kings,” remember your Econ 101. While we may not like the idea of animals being used for entertainment—they’re probably better off than you think.

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