(Unlike the Central Park horses, Red works in all kinds of weather, including -10 temperatures this morning.)
I realized last night, reading through some of the news reports from New York, that my working dog Red meets the abuse and mistreatment criteria for the Central Park horses, and by their lights, ought to be taken away from me and sent back to Ireland to roam the hills and pastures there. It was fascinating – and revealing – to substitute Red and his life for Chester, one of the seemingly doomed horses of Central Park and compare the lives of the two and the ways in which people see them. And to see the ignorance and hypocrisy that swirl around public ideas relating to the rights of animals.
In our polarized country, I often try an experiment when I find myself on the opposite end of an argument or idea. I do not argue my beliefs online, my life is not an argument, but more and more, I try to assume the people on the other side are correct, I put myself in their shoes and try to see the world from their side. This helps me learn and understand much, and often prevents anger and rigidity, it softens my ideas and keeps my anger in check, it is the foundation of compassion and empathy. It reminds me that there are two sides, at least of everything, way more than just the simple-minded notions of the "left" and the "right."
I have been writing and reading about the Central Park Horses ever since I became aware of the massive, well-funded and highly organized effort on the part of people who call themselves animal rights advocates (and who the media call animal rights advocates) and the political and bureaucratic power structures of New York City to ban the Central Park Horses from Central Park and New York City, and exile them to the rumored but so far largely mythical "rescue farms" waiting to take in all 200 of them.
The horses have been in the park since 1858 and are loved all over the world, but it seems there is a pervasive idea in urban New York City that their lives are grim, filled with too much work, abuse and dangerous traffic. That their time is come, the mayor says the discussion "is over," no point in any more. Apparently, the mayor of New York City has more power than I thought mayors generally have. The Mayor and City Council President and a broad array of activists have made it a major priority of the new administration to get rid of the horses, above just about everything else.
This is evolving into one more well-meaning tragedy visited upon animals by people who believe they know what is best for them. No one who knows anything about horses believes these active and engaged working animals will be alive for very long, this is a campaign to kill and banish animals so that they can be rescued from meaningful work and connection with human beings.
I have been researching the criteria of abuse and mistreatment that underlies this campaign and is used to justify it, and I think this issue has great interest and relevance for anyone who loves animals, as I do, it goes to the very nature of what is really good for animals, what their rights truly are, and the epidemic tendency in or culture to misunderstand animals – especially domesticated working animals – by projecting human values and ideas onto their lives.
So is a working border collie different from a working horse in New York, and if so, why? Is there one set of values for horses in the park and another for the countless dogs in New York City who live in closet-sized apartments and never run free in their entire lives, apart from ghetto-ized tiny dog parks? Red is a working animal, it seems quite appropriate to me to compare his life with the horses in Central Park.
Red has a much rougher life than Chester, one of the park horses I met in New York last week and who has been widely photographed as a result of the assault on the horses in the park. Chester can only work a total of nine hours a day, according to New York City regulations (much of that time is spent standing by the curb, gnawing on a bucket of oats, getting patted and photographed by tourists). Red is on call 24 hours a day. Chester can't work if the temperature is above 90 degrees or below 18 (odd since the people trying to exile him want him to return to grazing in the wild, where he would be out in all temperatures.) Red was out this morning in -10, moving the sheep, he works all summer in temperatures up to 100 degrees, the sheep have to be moved regardless.
Chester's work is straightforward and calm, he pulls a carriage. Red encounters all kinds of difficulties – ice, snow, mud, manure, savage flies and mosquitoes and clouds of gnats, he is butted by ewes, kicked and trampled by rams, chased and sometimes bitten or kicked by donkeys, sometimes challenged by raccoons and even bobcats, watched by coyotes, usually from afar. Red gets worms, has ticks, his claws are sometimes torn, he is often cut on rocks, shards of ice, there are often scabs and cuts on his skin. He has gotten splinters from fenceposts, been cut on hidden metal and wire in the pasture.
Can you imagine what the people campaigning against the placid lives of the New York horses would make of this? Any of these things would get Chester's owner and carriage rider arrested and fined, even jailed.
Chester gets five weeks off a year, often more, Red gets no vacations, has frequent bouts of diarrhea, dry coat, debris in his eyes.
In New York City, Chester is widely seen as having a life of drudgery, one thoughtful person on my Facebook page said the very existence of these horses and the drudgery of their lives diminished all of us as human beings. If this is so, then what does Red's life say about us, about me? Is his work drudgery, and if not, why? Is it perhaps because border collies are beloved objects of movies and TV, widely praised by the affluent and educated people who often own them as intelligent, praised all over the media as appealing and hardworking? Why is Chester an abused dullard, he works hard and well, is much-loved and admired?
Our notions of animal welfare and animal rights are chaotic, thoughtless, politicized and above all else, self-serving, more about us than the animals we profess to be protecting. People who have pets seem to have no understanding of people who have animals, especially working animals. Where I live, in upstate New York, where there are working animals everywhere – donkeys, horses, dogs, goats, barn cats - I do not know one single human being who is not mystified and appalled by the determination of the mayor of New York and his many political allies to ban the Central Park Horses, and in New York City there are very few people willing to stand up and speak for the real rights of the Central Park Horses – to have work and purpose in their lives, to stay connected to human beings, even in the most urban of areas.
I understand, after all, who wants to be against the rights of animals?
If the horses lives are grim, make them better. If people mistreat them, punish the people, not the horses. (There are 18 New York City police offers assigned to watch over them. Nobody but me watches over Red.) If they need protection from trucks and busses, move the trucks and busses, fight for the horses, they were there first, they deserve to be there always. Working horses are no different from working dogs, their instincts propel them to the same things, the same lives. It's just that most people in New York seem to know nothing about them. By the lights of the mayor of New York, and the people who call themselves animal rights advocates, Red is an abused animal, exploited, mistreated, living a life of misery and endless labor, he ought to be out in the wild, chasing wild sheep.
Nearly half a century ago, a psychologist named Boris Levinson wrote a book called "Pets And Human Development," in which he warned that urban and suburban Americans are becoming disconnected from the natural world and from the world of animals. This would cause humans to be damaged, broken, and eventually, people would need to reconnect with animals in order to heal themselves from the fragmentation and depredations of technology, politics and greed. Levinson was prescient, I think, his prophecy has come true.
Chester is living a good and meaningful life, he needs to be saved from activists, not from work. The mayor plans to replace the horses with $150,000 vintage electric carts to ferry tourists around the park. What a truly grinding and soulless substitution. For me, loving animals is much about the romance they bring to our lives, not about killing the romance that remains.
How sad that the many of these well-meaning people in New York, all of whom call themselves animal lovers, have lost sight of the fact that what Chester and the horses and the people in cities need is more animals in their lives, not fewer. Chester is no different than Red, they are brothers, bred to serve and work with people. Banning them is a cowardly and lazy solution. As we disconnect from the natural world to make room for more condos, Wal-Marts and Wall Street-bought apartments, we are truly diminishing ourselves and breaking our faith with the animal world.