Are We Mushrooms or Sunflowers?
By: Cindy Schonholtz
President, Animal Welfare Council
Director of Industry Outreach, Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association
With the increased scrutiny on the welfare of animals used in entertainment, sport, industry and recreation, the time is now for the horse industry to unite with the common goal ensuring the welfare of the horse. We must take the issue of equine welfare back from critic groups and step up efforts to proactively address the proper care and handling of the equine athletes that are such a big part of our industry. The changing attitudes of society towards animals as well as the ease of spreading negative messages via the internet increase the need to create programs within our organizations to both promote equine welfare and address issues from groups who wish to ban or curtail many uses of animals, including horses. When developing equine welfare programs it is important to understand that in order to succeed all of our decisions must based on what is best for the welfare of the horse, not as a response to criticism or negative media coverage. Our fans, corporate partners, members, legislators and the general public will look favorably upon this type of decision making and in the end it will be the best course for not only the horse industry, but also the horse.
With many high profiles equine welfare issues recently, it would become easy for the industry to hunker down, not look inward and try to continue down the same path. This is a path to nowhere. We must address the changing attitudes of society toward animals, the increasing scrutiny by critic groups and the successful efforts to divide our industry. For the many facets of the horse industry to survive and thrive, we must learn other segments of the industry, including their equine welfare policies. I think we can all agree that unity is key to growing the horse industry and thriving in these challenging times.
How can we become a stronger industry?
- Review all of our rules and policies relating to equine welfare. This must be done to ensure they are successful in providing for the proper care and handling of the horse in our respective industries. Once a panel of experts in your industry reviews your policies, the enforcement procedures must be scrutinized as the rules are good if they are properly enforced.
- Appoint one person within your organization to be the primary contact on equine welfare issues. These issues are complex an each horse organization should have one person who understands all nuances of equine welfare issues and can address them knowledgeably.
- Reach beyond our membership and build relationships with other animal industries, legislators and the media. Every time a horse person forms a relationship with a legislator, reporter, community leader or others it brings that person closer to our industry and more engaged. They are then less likely to buy into false information about the horse industry if they are engaged and have a relationship with someone in the industry.
- Become more politically active. We witness daily the consequences of groups who are pushing for the end of many animal industries becoming much more politically active. The result is that legislative bodies more open to the critic groups' anti-animal use proposals. Animal owners are losing their rights and for us to stem tide we must be more active in grassroots political activity including fundraising, outreach, campaigns and positive, continuous contact with local, state and federal legislators.
- Engage and educate youth about the horse industry. This crucial initiative is already being underway in many horse organizations but for the horse industry to thrive, we must expand this effort. The outreach should include not only trying to recruit members but also educating urban youth on the importance of human interaction with animals in the horse industry and other industries. Youth are being bombarded with negative images of all animal use industries. We have the positive messages and need to continue building programs that communicate this message to the next generation of horse lovers.
- Work harder to get our positive stories into the mainstream media. The horse industry does so much good for not only the horses but also humans. These stories need to be shared, the media is looking for great stories and we have them and should work harder to share them with the public who can then see our industry in a more positive and accurate light.
- Have communication plans in place to deal with controversial issues. When an equine welfare issue is brought forward by anyone, including anti-animal use groups, it is important to completely investigate the situation and if there are any legitimate concerns, those are addressed first. After that step, crafting a written statement is an excellent way to insure your message is accurately communicated to the media or other interested parties who many want more information on the issue. The ultimate goal of this plan should be to provide timely and accurate information on equine welfare issues.
Understanding the Tactics of Critic Groups
- Divide and conquer. It is much easier for a critic group to target an industry if that industry isn't standing together and if an issue has divided them. The horse industry has allowed equine welfare issues to divide us and we are not as strong as when we stand together.
- Capitalizing on the urbanization of our society. Our society is many generations removed from the farm or using horses and work animals, this makes is easier for critic groups to perpetuate the thought that horses are pets and should be given the same considerations as cats and dogs. The horse industry must continue to educate within the horse industry and to the general public that horses are livestock.
- Undercover investigations have also been a very popular tactic used by animal rights groups to target animal use groups. The biggest mistake an animal industry can make is waiting for an "undercover investigation" to address animal welfare issues.
- Utilizing the legal system. This is an effective tactic for critic groups even if they don't win the court case. Fighting legal battles takes time and drains financial resources that we must use for legal fees. This tactic has been used recently in the horse processing issue and more recently against Ringling Brothers and it is important that we be increasingly aware of this and the legal issues that may be brought up by critic groups.
What makes us easier targets?
- Saying "that's the way we've always done it." The collective horse industry is steeped in tradition and change is hard, but we must consider that to thrive we are going to have to adapt and change policies and procedures as they relate to equine welfare.
- Not considering the public's perception of our respective horse activities. We must always consider the saying "perception is reality." If all the public sees of our industry is a continuous running video clip on the news of a tragic accident that is the only frame of reference they will have for our segment of the industry.
- Reacting emotionally or unprofessionally to animal welfare or animal rights issues. It is easy to take criticism personally and reaction emotionally, especially when it is leveled by anti-animal use groups. Reacting unprofessionally or emotionally will certainly escalate any situation, especially when relating to sensitive and controversial issues regarding equine welfare. The horse industry must have trained spokespersons that can compassionately and professionally address equine welfare issues when they arise.
- Throwing other segments of our industry "under the bus." Sometimes it is human nature to try and distract attention by diverting it to something else we feel is worse. Within animal industry we must learn that we are all in this together and educate ourselves on other horse activities and their animal care standards so we are not tempted to take this path, which is playing right into the anti-animal use groups' hands. If we see another animal activity that we feel is not handling the animals correctly we should work within our power to educate them on the importance of proper animal care and handling and not be tempted to compare industries to make ours look favorable. We must be prepared with positive information on our own equine welfare programs and not be led down the road of criticizing others.
- Trying to "negotiate" with activists. When approached by a group with concerns about equine welfare within our industry, we must consider carefully the goals of that group and the consequences of engaging or negotiating. Many critic groups have the goal of ending all use of animals, and negotiating with these extremists will not be successful. Beware of the incremental approach to negatively affecting animal industries. Anti-animal use groups will claim to only want to stop certain practices, not ban an entire industry. Once they get those tactics banned they will continue down the path, usually saying just ending those tactics is not enough and the entire industry should be regulated, often times right out of business. By sitting down at the table with some animal rights activists, you will hand the power to them and give them credibility.
If the horse industry works together, understands critic groups and provides completely for the welfare of the horse, we can prosper. Animal welfare issues definitely pose the biggest threat to our industry but we have the power to take this issue back, provide for the welfare of the horses and succeed as an industry in the future.