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Should the use of animals in sports be banned?

Anne-Sophie Brändlin
April 29, 2024

From dog races to bullfighting and circus shows — animals have historically been used in sports and for entertainment. But critical voices to curb or even ban their use are getting louder.

A bullfighter provoking a bull with a red cloth
Every year approximately 250,000 bulls are killed in bullfightsImage: Oscar Gonzalez/picture alliance

Though humans have used animals as sources of sporting entertainment for millennia, ethical concerns and questions about welfare are becoming increasingly vocal. 

"In Australia, we have a big horse race every year, the Melbourne Cup. And that's becoming increasingly controversial because we can see horses fall and break their legs and die in that race almost every year," said Heather Browning, a lecturer in philosophy at the UK's University of Southampton who focuses on animal welfare, ethics, and consciousness.

A horse looking through a metal door
Race horses are often housed in isolation and close confinement, which causes these social animals major distressImage: Sorge/Caro/picture alliance

With stakes often high, some animals are given drugs or whipped into delivering the desired performance.

"There's a lot of money on the line, so obviously you have unscrupulous trainers or veterinarians who are willing to push these horses to the absolute limit," said Joanna Grossman, a senior policy advisor at the Animal Welfare Institute in the United States.

Animals can feel pain

For a long time, the degree to which animals experience pain, suffering and fear was hotly contested, which Grossman says made it all the "easier to exploit them."  

Horses clear a fence during a race
Experts say that while animals might think about and respond to pain differently to humans, they still feel pain in the same way. Image: Scott Serio/picture alliance

But recent years have seen the emergence of an interdisciplinary community of animal sentience researchers that studies animals' capacity to experience pleasure or suffering.

"Everyone is very, very confident that mammals — dogs, horses, primates — feel pain just the way we humans do. They have brains that are structurally very, very similar to ours," Browning said, adding that there's now broad consensus that birds and fish are equally sentient beings. 

Increasing bans on greyhound racing

Some popular sporting events based on the performance of animals have already been banned in countries across the world.

Dog racing, in which greyhounds chase a mechanical lure around a track, is among them. At times, this sport drew more spectators than its more prominent rival, horse racing and was mainstream entertainment for decades.

Two greyhound dogs racing
In 2022, the UK recorded a total of 4,354 injuries and 306 deaths of greyhound racing dogsImage: Zac Goodwin/empics/picture alliance

However, it has recently come under scrutiny for confining the animals to lonely lives in kennels, for its brutal training methods and for what happens to the dogs once they are no longer needed on the track. 

"A lot of the training methods used to ensure the animals are performing are quite harsh and punishment-based. So what's happening to them when they're not on display — that's the main concern for their welfare," Browning said.

Dog racing remains legal in only 10 countries worldwide, four of which are in the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).

Wild animal shows are becoming less popular

Two orcas jumping in an amusement park
Animal welfare groups say keeping marine wildlife in small pools robs them of a life spent roaming the open seasImage: Howard Lipin/picture alliance

Traditional circus acts involving animals, such as elephants, tigers, giraffes and lions, have also faced increasing backlash. The same goes for the use of dolphins and other marine animals in sealife shows.

"They are outright being abused to get them to behave according to what the trainer wants them to do because that's not naturally something that a wild, exotic animal who should be out roaming free is going to be inclined to do on their own," Grossmann said. "So you might have to just kind of literally beat them into submission to get them to do that." 

The use of wild animals in circuses has been banned in many countries across the world, including Bolivia, Costa Rica, India and Iran. However, it's still legal in many European countries.

A bear performing at a circus
A circus performance doesn't show what it is like for animals to live as entertainersImage: Maksim Konstantinov/picture alliance

In 2021, one million EU citizens called for a bloc-wide ban on the use of wildlife in big-top shows after research showed that almost 90% of animals saved from European circuses suffered from behavioral problems, self-injury or physical problems as a result of practices such as declawing. 

France, the EU country that has at times held the highest number of wild animals for use in circuses, decided to ban them from the ring as of 2028.

In Germany, however, it remains legal to show wild animals at the circus. This is despite polls suggesting 75% of Germans are against it, alongside a rising awareness of how lions, bears and primates are transported.  

"It just doesn't seem like there's any possible way to house an animal in a sufficiently large and complex enclosure when you're trying to move it around all the time," said Browning.

'Blood sports have no future'

Blood sports such as bullfighting, in which a bull and a matador face off in a public spectacle, have also become ever more controversial.

A dead bull is dragged out of the bullring after being slaughtered during a bullfighter
Mexico had banned bullfighting in 2022, but overturned the decision in 2023, after bullfight organizers claimed it violated their right to continue the 500-year-old traditionImage: Manu Fernandez/AP/picture alliance

Approximately 250,000 bulls are killed in organized fights annually, according to the European animal welfare organization Humane Society International (HSI).

Grossman describes it as a "very violent and very cruel sport" rooted in brutality. "If the goal is just to terrorize a poor animal and then ultimately end up killing them, to me, that stands out as a very blatant example of needless and unjustified suffering.” 

"But the good news is that we have seen a move in various jurisdictions and countries to ban forms of blood sports," she added. 

Bullfighting has already been outlawed in many countries where it used to be popular, including Argentina, Canada, Cuba, Italy and the United Kingdom. Nowadays, it is only legal in eight countries worldwide, three of which are in Europe: Spain, France and Portugal. 

Animal rights activists smeared with fake blood and donning banderillas to depict bulls stabbed in bullfights, protest against bullfighting, in Mexico City,
Mexico's decision to overturn its ban on bullfighting in December 2023 caused massive protests Image: Marco Ugarte/AP/picture alliance

And though Grossman says there will likely always be people who think blood sports should remain legal, she has also seen "much more concern among the public for animal welfare."

Is there a way to still have animals in sports in a responsible way?

"How the animals are housed and cared for plays a huge part. The majority of their life is spent not doing the sport. And many are simply killed when they're no longer useful. That's why regulations around that are vital," Browning said. 

But it's not enough to just create these laws. "We need to make sure that there are enough inspectors, that they're doing their jobs on a regular basis," she added.

Volunteers show signs during aprotest against the exploitation of animals in circuses
Animal welfare experts say awareness can create pressure and drive changeImage: Davide Pischettola/picture alliance

Social media has also helped in showing people what's happening behind closed doors, says Grossmann.

"It has made the public see footage of what is really going on," she said. Browning agrees, adding that seeing abuse could lead people to refuse to pay for something where animal cruelty is happening. 

Edited by: Sarah Steffen

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