Barbaro Makes This Vet Think Twice About Her Heroes
Last week I received another issue of the glossily produced, University of Pennsylvania Vet School quarterly magazine, The Bellwether. Its last two issues have sported Barbaro, the school’s most recent poster child for its success in cutting edge medicine, on its cover.
As you might expect I have a few opinions on the subject of Barbaro and, although this may not be the ideal forum (since pets is the Dolittler thing), I thought I might give it a go anyway. Thank you for your indulgence. Here goes:
If there’s anything that holds up a mirror to our collective love of horseracing, it’s a horse like Barbaro. His saga exemplifies all that we love about the sport: the marriage of athleticism and grace pushed to courageous extremes of strength and endurance. Unfortunately, his catastrophic injury and months of hospitalization also reveal the sport’s bitter reality: horseracing claims lives more often than it produces heroes like Barbaro.
My confession: I’m a veterinarian and I have always loved horseracing. Since I was a little girl, I’ve marveled at Affirmed, cheered for Spectacular Bid, and shed more than my share of tears over Ruffian and Genuine Risk. I’d like to think it was horses like these that gave me the courage I needed to meet my goals.
As a kid, I idolized racehorses like other girls worshipped rock stars. The reality is that in our popular culture nothing says power and prestige quite like horseracing. Why else would the sport outlast millennia? Why else would the otherwise urban-centric rap culture embrace it?
As a student at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center, where Barbaro is (still!) a patient, I reveled in the velvet-rope access to famous mounts just like him. I loved and cared for them like a groupie with a backstage pass. Spoiled rotten and silly, these famous three-year-olds gave new meaning to my sleepless nightlife. But while I was there, I also learned firsthand that horseracing has a dark side, just like any other sport or limelight venture.
In vet school, it became impossible to ignore that racing took a huge orthopedic toll. As one of my professors, Dr. David Nunamaker, has said, "[Horseracing] is more dangerous than any sport you’ve ever heard of." His studies show that 1.5 out of a thousand race starts result in a catastrophic [usually life-ending] injury. Statistically speaking, that means horseracing may well best Pamplona’s running of the bulls for percentage of deaths per event.
So when I saw Barbaro being hoisted from the recovery pool that race day I followed his progress with bated breath like everyone else. Two months later, hearing about his near-death on NPR, I couldn’t help but consider my own contribution to his then-imminent demise. As a fan, was I not somewhat to blame for the glorification of a sport that yields cases like his?
Whether as veterinarians, animal lovers, or simply as members of a progressive society, do we not have a responsibility to advocate for these horses' safety, just as we have for child athletes and others who can’t have the benefit of an informed choice? While the extreme danger of the sport persists, it seems likely that, at some future time, our increasingly animal-centric society will begin to go the way of Britain and other nations — we’ll start to reject the racing industry’s lack of safety standards that lead to tragedies like Barbaro’s.
Be it by science or via racing reform, something will have to give. Because the racing industry is notoriously traditional in its methods, I don’t expect changes to come in the guise of policies that improve racing’s safety. Rather, I see veterinary medicine as their backstop answer to the brewing issue of animal rights in the sport.
While racing’s injury rate has not diminished significantly in recent years, the recovery rate of its participants has — dramatically. Barbaro’s case proves this without a doubt; his survival would have been unthinkable just ten years ago. For this, I credit veterinary medicine, and, to be sure, the financial success of the racehorses whose medical insurance dollars fuel veterinary care at its bleeding edge.
It’s veterinarians like Dr. Dean Richardson, my one-time professor and now Barbaro’s surgeon (and reluctant celebrity doc -- in the pic), who will continue to shoulder the burden of racing’s casualties. The veterinary industry will persist in blazing trails, devising new ways to heal an industry only just beginning to break down under the weight of an evolving public conscience with regards to the horses' safety.
As Gretchen Jackson, Barbaro’s owner has said, "[Barbaro] has captured the attention of the world because the world is hungry for a hero." From near-immortality as our next Triple-Crown winner to an all-too vivid reminder of the sport’s deadly toll, Barbaro has captured our hearts with his courage and his grace, both on and off the track. But, to my mind, Barbaro was as much the hero in this story as my profession has been, exemplified by his doctors and the science that has made his comfort possible this long after such a devastating injury.
Nonetheless, after all the Penn Vet media hype that has accompanied this tragedy, I’m starting to feel like my profession is basking in the glory of a less than moral sport, if only (ironically) because of its success in fixing one of its most visible disasters. I’m beginning to feel more than a little disgusted by the shameless propaganda put out by my own school (two consecutive magazine issues?) proving how wonderful we are in serving the animal kingdom. What about all the other advances that really do make a lasting difference in the world? Why are those profs' faces not on The Bellwether’s cover?
In spite of my objections and misgivings, I still love horseracing — as I’ll always cherish my alma mater and my profession. They’re all too much a part of my past and too great a source of inspiration for me. Perhaps, like most people, I’m just not ready to give up my heroes. But I have come to see things a little differently now. I’m beyond the blind adoration of my past and, consequently, I’m beginning to require something more from my heroes and their heroics.
To gain my admiration my heroes will now have to prove they can think more broadly and act more courageously than simply excelling in the narrow limits society sets for them. To that end, I’d like to see the University of Pennsylvania take a stand against the racing industry’s role in creating the problems the Vet School is paid handsomely to solve. Instead of taking this moment in the light to bolster its prestige and fatten its endowment, a hero of mine would seize the opportunity to stand up and speak out.