Animal Rights Groups Demand an End to Turtle Racing at Brennan’s Pub

The Organization Says Its Tried to Contact the Westside Bar for Months

By Zach Armstrong

Among its numerous entertainment events and games, bi-weekly turtle racing has been the specialty at Brennan’s Irish Pub since 1975. On March 21, while patrons inside the crowded Marina del Rey bar cheered for their wager, multiple animal welfare organizations stood outside with pamphlets, signs, megaphones and a cluster of protesters. 

STOP EXPLOITING ANIMALS and EVERY BET HURTS TURTS and HALF A CENTURY OF ANIMAL ABUSE read signs which the demonstrators directed at passerby traffic. Their chants, led by activist Brittany Michelson, included “Turtles get stressed! (Just like us!) Turtles feel fear! (Just like us!) It’s not entertainment! (It’s cruelty!)”

The demonstration was organized by In Defense of Animals, Los Angeles for Animals and the Los Angeles Animal Defense League; three animal welfare groups who contend that Brennan’s signature spectacle is a form of abuse. The organizations claim that the loud cheers and drunken screams of boisterous patrons during a race can traumatize, and even hinder the biology of, the reptilian creatures.

“It’s 2024. There’s no reason animals should be used for racing. They should not be used for entertainment. They belong in a peaceful, outdoor environment.” said Brittany Michelson, who is also a campaign specialist at In Defense of Animals as well as the founder of Desert Oasis Turtle & Tortoise Sanctuary. 

“It’s important not to support an event where animals are being exploited. [The customers] can go to Brennan’s any other night. Just please don’t go on those Thursdays when the turtle races are happening.” said former Baywatch actress and IDA supporter Alexandra Paul. “Please call Brennan’s to let them know you’re happy to come on a Thursday when they’re doing something else that’s fun, such as their trivia nights or karaoke.”

Brennan’s turtle racing began 49 years ago when then-owner Ab Lawrence started the tradition, according to its website. Every first and third Thursday, customers can gamble on the winner by paying for a ticket and placing their name in a turtle’s hat. If their pick wins, and their name gets pulled, they get a prize.

Of course, the bar’s management doesn’t view things in the same context as Thursday night’s protestors. A certified veterinary technician is on staff, the turtles are monitored closely and none of them are required to race if they would rather nap or socialize, according to Sean Phagan, Chief of Operations at Artisan Brewers Collective. A series of provisions are also in place for the animals’ safety: no pointing, no booing, only specially trained turtle wranglers are allowed to touch them and they don’t leave their habitat for more than ten minutes.

“When we purchased Brennan’s Pub seven years ago, we found the long-term resident turtles were living in an inadequate habitat. They were not well cared for, and some were in poor health.” said Phagan via email. He went on to say that, after consulting with turtle experts, the bar built a new habitat with enough space for the creatures to swim and sunbathe. 

“This project was not easy, but we did it with joy in keeping with our decades-long commitment to centering vegan menu options, donating to animal welfare organizations, and similar efforts to promote the well-being of our non-human neighbors on Earth.” said Phagan.

All proceeds from the races also go to charity. As much as $30,000 per year is raised and donated to “good causes” thanks to the popular competitions, according to Phagan.

For groups like IDA, however, none of this negates the detrimental harm those races cause. 

Nick Geist, a professor of biology and turtle biologist at Sonoma State University, was quoted by IDA as saying “The turtles would interpret being surrounded by agitated (often drunk) humans as lethal threats, evoking a flood of stress hormones (e.g., adrenaline, cortisol). This sort of stress response has well-documented deleterious effects on the immune system, growth, and reproductive function, among other negative effects on the animals’ biology.”

IDA also quoted Kim Titterington, lead researcher on the Rescue Rehabilitation Research Conservation Of Reptiles Amphibians project, as confirming that the races increase stress levels. Harmful effects that this can lead to include a decrease in appetite and ability to absorb nutrients. 

Communication between IDA and Brennan’s began in November after veterinary experts discussed with the nonprofit how the racing causes harm, according to Paul. 

In January, after a few fruitless attempts at setting up a meeting with the Westside bar to propose alternatives, IDA created a pre-made letter that could be personalized and sent to Brennan’s. The letter, titled “Stop the Inhumane Races at a Los Angeles Bar”, could be signed by any member of the public who aligns with IDA. It had 11,272 signatories at the time of this writing. 

The continuous lack of response from the Westside establishment after all these actions is what culminated into Thursday’s protests.

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