While animal entertainment industries usually market themselves as being about conservation or education, sports industries are far more blatant in their use of animals for human amusement. Whether these activities can even be called ‘sport’ is debatable, since in a sport both sides know they’re playing, whereas what we are dealing with in these cases is a human’s entertainment weighed against an animal’s life. 

Hunting is perhaps the example which first comes to mind for many of us. Hunting as a sport must be discussed distinctly to the hunting of animals by communities who are dependent on subsistence hunting, but for anyone not dependent on hunting animals to meet their basic nutritional needs, whether they eat the animal after they kill them or not is irrelevant. Anyone who hunts when they do not need to is doing so for their own pleasure, whether they derive that pleasure from the act of killing itself or from the taste of the flesh they acquire from their victims. Though data is unreliable since most kills go unreported, numbers are thought likely to range between 100 to 200 million animals killed by hunters per year, most of those being recreational kills.

Many hunters argue that the animals they kill die instantly and painlessly, however, the data tells a very different story.  A study of 80 radio-collared white-tailed deer found that of the 22 deer who had been shot with traditional archery equipment, 11 were wounded and not recovered by hunters. The situation is no better for animals shot by guns: a British study of deer hunting found that 11% of deer who had been killed by hunters died only after being shot two or more times. Some wounded deer suffered for more than 15 minutes before dying. Those who do manage to escape will likely die painfully from blood loss, shock or starvation. We do not need scientific studies to tell us that being shot with a gun or a bow hurts, and there is no rational reason to suppose that animals do not experience this pain just as we do when their bodies are pierced with bullets or arrows.

Unless a hunter is a member of a community which is reliant on hunting to survive, they cannot reasonably claim that they kill animals for anything other than pleasure. In the West, hunting is certainly not more accessible than eating plants, since your average hunter spends $2,000 per year on hunting alone. To claim, as so many hunters do, that hunting is kinder than the alternative of buying meat from stores is to create a false dichotomy in which the only two options are killing animals yourself or paying for others to do it for you. It is beyond doubt that the vast majority of us can be perfectly healthy without consuming any animal products whatsoever, therefore most of those who choose to hunt animals do so purely for reasons of palate and entertainment. 

Fishing is seldom thought of as being on the same level as hunting, yet ethically speaking, there is little difference between these two activities – the main difference being the value we place on the lives of the animals being killed. Again, there are cases in which a community is dependent on fishing, but for most of us, fishing is not a necessity. There is a popular mythology among anglers that fish do not feel pain, this however, is demonstrably false. We know that fish are intelligent, socially complex creatures who are as sentient as any other vertebrates.

Fish caught by line usually die from suffocation, when they are dragged from the water their gills can collapse, and their swim bladders can rupture because of the drastic and painful change in pressure. Considering that this is a species we know feel pain, it is utterly illogical to assume that these animals do not suffer during this horrific and often prolonged death. Anyone who has ever watched a fish caught by line will attest to this, they struggle and fight, the way that any stressed animal does when they are frightened and in pain. Putting fish through this for the sake of a meal when alternatives exist is inhumane.

Some people believe that fishing is acceptable so long as the caught fish are released back into the water once they are caught. However, this justification fails to consider that many released fish die when put back in the water; at least one out of three fish caught with bait will die after release, as will over 60% of deep hooked fish. The most common cause of death for caught fish is stress, though many also die from rough handling, exhaustion from struggling, or injuries to their highly sensitive mouths or internal organs, rendering them unable to eat. When animals are dying from shock and stress from being dragged out of the water, it cannot reasonably be denied that even for those who do survive, the experience is painful and deeply cruel.

Of course, not all animal ‘sports’ industries rely on the deaths of animals, as hunting and fishing does. For sports like horse racing, the deaths of those animals forced to participate are seen as an unintended yet seemingly ‘acceptable’ trade-off for human entertainment. Horse racing, for example, places extreme stress on horses, with their jockeys pushing them to increase speed beyond comfortable levels. Dr. Holly Cheever, an award-winning veterinary surgeon noted:

 “Cruelty is an inherent part of the horse racing industry.”

A study on injuries during races concluded that 1 horse in every 22 races suffered an injury which prevented them from finishing a race. According to the Jockey Club’s own database, two horses are fatally injured on tracks every day. Horses who do not die from their injuries are commonly killed due to the fact that their veterinary fees are not considered worth paying for a horse who can no longer race. Even for horses who do not stumble, the intensity of races and the stress it puts on the horses means that fatal collapse is common.

Even without racing, horse riding itself has its problems as a form of recreation. Though many riders undoubtedly love their horses and form a strong bond with them, the act of riding alone requires coercing and conditioning horses to perform a function that is entirely unnatural to them. The process for getting a horse to accept a rider is usually referred to as ‘breaking.’ Methods vary from throwing a horse to the ground with rope until exhausted, to the gentler daily training and sporadic riding to coax a horse into slowly accepting a rider. When a horse does accept being ridden, it is thought that what we are seeing may actually be a form of learned helplessness – the horse simply learns to accept the treatment as they come to realise that they have no control over what is happening to them.

The process of breaking is usually performed while the animal is young, as older horses are more difficult to train. However, studies demonstrate that the epiphyseal plates in the body of the lumbar vertebrae of a thoroughbred horse are not fully developed until they are between six and nine years old, and that riding them before this time can cause lasting injuries. Even after this age, damage to the spine is common. In one study, 91.5% of ridden horses studied were diagnosed with some kind of alteration of the spine after x-ray, even though they seemed perfectly healthy prior to the scan. On top of the process of riding, many riders inflict additional harm on their horses using instruments like harnesses, bits and whips; even saddles can restrict blood flow and cause chafing. None of this includes general injuries sustained by horses which are part and parcel of being ridden. Bits are particularly harmful, as they damage a horse’s sensitive nerves, their teeth, tongue and palate. 

Horse riding and horse racing, though distinct activities, are often defended on the basis that the animals appear to enjoy the activity. It is beyond doubt that animals need and enjoy exercise, but the insistence that this exercise must include a human sitting on their spine is a self-serving fantasy. Greyhound racing is defended on similar grounds, despite the fact that dogs in this industry undoubtedly do suffer cruel treatment and exploitation. 

On the track, hundreds of greyhounds sustain injuries such as bone fractures and ligament tears, with many collapsing from heat or exhaustion. Even off the track, greyhounds do not lead happy lives; racing dogs are typically kept caged and muzzled at all times between races and training.  When greyhounds retire or are too injured to continue racing, many disappear from public record. The League Against Cruel Sports estimates that around 1,000 of the approximately 8,000 greyhounds ‘retiring’ from racing annually are not rehomed and are ‘unaccounted for’.

Other animal-based sports are less widespread but enjoy enormous regional support in some parts of the world. Bullfighting, cock fighting and rodeos are good examples of these. Cock and bullfighting are obvious in their cruelty, in that animals are forced to fight one another – usually to the death. Rodeos however, do not usually require the deaths of animals, but still involve terrible cruelty. In bronc and bull riding, participants attempt to stay mounted on a bucking horse or bull.  Steer wrestling is a popular exhibition, where participants leap from a horse onto the back of a steer, attempting to wrestle them to the ground. Steer tripping is another variation of this, where steers are forced to run at full speed only to be yanked by rope to make them fall. Perhaps most distressing to watch is calf roping, where a rider chases a visibly frightened calf, forcing them onto the ground and tying their feet with rope. 

The animals typically used in rodeos are docile by nature, so before they even appear in events it is common for abuses to be inflicted upon them in order to get them riled up, including electrocution and jabbing with wire prods.148 Injuries are common during events too, on the first day alone at the 2012 Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo, five animals were so badly injured they had to be taken out of the arena. Needless to say, most rodeo animals are sent to slaughter once their entertainment value has been spent; a final insult added to injury as their owners seek to squeeze every last bit of profit out of their suffering.

“It is often said that if slaughterhouses were made of glass, most people would be vegetarian. However, the parallel is not exact. Slaughterhouses are invisible because the public wants them that way. Everyone knows what goes on inside them; they simply do not want to be confronted with it.”

Jeffrey Mason & Susan McCarthy