Why the Kentucky Derby Made Me Stop Eating Meat

Money, prestige, and a wreath: unacceptable reasons to whip, overrun, severely maim, and kill animals.


The day after the filly Eight Belles was euthanized on the track at the 2008 Kentucky Derby, I joined PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).

In recent years I have expressed my dislike for circuses, zoos, and aquariums. Even visiting Disney World’s Animal Kingdom a few years ago was hard. But seeing a horse raced to its ankle-breaking death was the final straw for me.

According to a NY Times investigation, roughly “24 horses die each week at racetracks across America.” Here are even more sobering numbers: over the last few years, 6,600 horses have been injured, and 3,600 have died while training or racing.

When I joined PETA, I learned that my $25.00/year donation helped “animals suffering and dying in laboratories, on factory farms, in the fur industry, in circuses, and in other forms of ‘entertainment.’” The fee also subscribed me to Animal Times, the organization’s quarterly magazine which includes vegetarian recipes and tips on how to stop animal suffering in my own community. Fine, I can handle this, I think. So I awaited my first subscription.

What I did not know, however, is that I would also receive a membership card, a letter from the organization’s founder, and a colorful pamphlet which boasts these three words: Vegetarian Starter Kit. It’s the latter that, for the time being, did me in.

Because I was too weak to read every horrifying word of the pamphlet, I skimmed the text and glanced hastily at the images. Phrases flew by quickly:

  • cut off beaks without painkillers…
  • broken wings when shoved into trucks…
  • insane pigs from crowded conditions (they compulsively chew on the bars of their pens)…
  • death from decompression and suffocation (fish)…

That was enough, so I flipped to the pages of vegetarian recipes and breathed a sigh of relief.

As someone who has taught college-level rhetoric for years, I am aware that PETA is highly gifted in using pathos to make its arguments. Images of cute piglets, calves, and chicks on the organization’s website are completely endearing, and conversely, photos of forlorn-looking circus elephants and anorexic monkeys are more than disturbing. Still, as Aristotle knew over 2,300 years ago, pathos works. And it persuaded me. I stopped eating meat.

It’s been six years since the untimely death of Eight Belles and my endorsement of PETA. While I’m no longer a member of PETA (its mail propaganda is too overbearing), my diet is still mostly vegetarian—ashamedly, a few times a month, I do succumb to temptation (damn you, Five Guys Burgers).

I might falter with my vegetarianism, but I can guarantee one thing that will remain constant: I will never again watch or support the Kentucky Derby or any horseracing event as long as I live. Money, prestige, and a wreath: these are not acceptable reasons to whip, overrun, severely maim, and kill animals.