Horses aren't the only animals racing at Canterbury Park this month. Ostriches, camels and zebras are set to take over the Shakopee track Sunday for the annual "Extreme Race Day" event, and llamas and "unicorns" will entertain the crowd the following weekend.
The races are extremely popular, said Canterbury spokesman Jeff Maday, drawing crowds of 15,000 or more in a typical year. For 2021, the track has capped attendance at 10,000 due to COVID-19 concerns.
But racing exotic animals for sport is not popular with animal advocates. Nondomestic animals aren't meant to carry human passengers, says the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA called on Canterbury Park to cancel the exotic animal races.
"Kind people don't view animals as objects to be mocked or forced into submission," wrote Kathy Guillermo, a senior vice president in PETA's equine department, in a July 9 letter to Canterbury President and CEO Randy Sampson.
Ostriches aren't built to carry humans on their backs, and doing so while running can cause painful injuries such as sprains and dislocations, she wrote.
The letter also said that prey animals are hardwired to panic and run when exposed to loud noises, such as applause and laughter from a crowd at a racetrack.
"That kind of frantic, erratic behavior that makes people laugh is the animal showing that they're uncomfortable, that they're frightened," Guillermo said Friday. "They can be [a danger] to humans, as well as to themselves."
Guillermo said she wrote to the secretary of racing at Canterbury three weeks ago in order to give the track ample time to cancel the event, but she received no response.
"That's why we decided to take the action of writing to the president and also releasing it publicly," she said.
Sampson declined to speak with the Star Tribune, but he had seen Guillermo's letter, Maday said. There are no plans to engage in any conversations with PETA or cancel the upcoming races. In the 10 to 15 years that they've run the races, Maday said, no human or animal has been injured. If there had been issues, Maday said, they would have been pointed out by Canterbury and the staff of Hedrick's Exotic Animal Farm, the Kansas organization that works with the animals.
"We are confident that the show that … Hedrick's puts on is safe, and we have every intention to hold it this Sunday," he said.
Maya Miller • 612-673-7086