The mayor of New York City announced this weekend that he was postponing his ban on the New York Carriage Horses until sometime near the end of the year. He told reporters he was as determined as ever to ban them, he was just finding it more difficult than expected. The mayor and his supporters in the animal rights movement speak often of the need to be humane to the carriage horses, but they show little or no concern or humanity to the people who live and work with them. For them and their families, more months of uncertainty, anger, confusion and fear. And then, another fight. Again.
For them, fighting has become a way of life.
Last night I went on the Famous Horse Drawn Carriages Of New York website and there was a brief and joyous celebration over the reprieve. It did not, of course, last long, someone from Vancouver came on and pointed out that the horses were living in filth and horror, a "life in hell," and the battle was joined again. The tone of the message was familiar – strident, absolute, unyielding. The poster did not wish to talk, listen or learn. Almost instantly, there were scores of responses, and so it goes, back and forth, tit for tat, the eternal argument.
I posted a message wondering if it made sense to argue with angry and irrational people and answer every one of their sometimes hateful messages.
Several people answered me. It was important for them to do this, to speak up for the horses, it was therapeutic, it helped them form their arguments, organize their responses, they had been doing it for decades. I understood their response, it did make me sad. When anger and argument is therapeutic, it has become a way of life, an institution unto itself. It is now so much a part of owning a carriage horse that it does not seem unusual or out of place.
The carriage trade people deserve better. I have a different philosophy about conflict, I have learned not to make my life an argument, I do not wish to become what I dislike. But it is easier for me to talk. I am not under assault from millionaires, mayors, CIty Council members, clueless celebrities, lazy journalists, hostile animal rights organizations, unknowing people.
The mayor's announcement was a milestone in the long and painful struggle of the carriage trade to survive in New York, it was a significant, if temporary victory, a testament to the endurance, community and passion of the embattled carriage owners, the drivers and their families.
In recent years, and especially in recent months, I've become increasingly conscious of what can only be described as a cultural war on animals in our country. Animal rights organizations across the country are now pursuing a political and social agenda that would, in effect, drive almost all domesticated animals who are not pets out of populated societies, many farms, pet stories, private homes, markets, zoos, public spaces, suburbs and cities. The conflict between people who have pets and people who have animals has grown into an escalating conflict of values that will determine the fate of animals in society.
The broad, well-financed and increasingly hostile coalition of well-organized and well-funded groups calling themselves animal rights groups believe – it is the central tenet in their ideology – that animals are abused on a vast scale in America, and that the people who work and live with them are abusers. People who had done nothing wrong find themselves accused of criminal and unfeeling behavior.
From the carriage horses to pony rides, to breeders, farmers, researchers, people who raise goats and rabbits for cheese or meat to the animals used in Hollywood movies, these groups have organized on a broad front to remove animals from public interactions with people and to discourage businesses and institutions from working with them. They have drawn government into the most private areas of people's lives with animals with a growing number of regulations, laws and ordinances.
Animal lovers know what happens to large animals who do not have work to do with people. They perish. And people never get to know or see them. In a horrible moral inversion, this new notion of saving animals is drive them from the earth, and from our lives. We are presumed too evil to own or live with them, we cannot be trusted to care for them.
It has suddenly become a fearful thing for many people to own an animal, to work with one, to bring animals to the public, or live with them in private. From movie producers to farmer's markets to carriage horse drivers to rabbit keepers, it has suddenly become troubling, even dangerous to own an animal. People who have broken no laws are subject to repeated and relentless attack for things no one in human history has ever believed to be wrong. It has become easier for so many people to simply avoid the new issues of owning an animal, and countless animals have paid for this with their lives.
The carriage trade owners and drivers – mostly comprised of immigrant families who have worked and lived with animals for generations, even centuries – suddenly are finding their work controversial, they are relentlessly and without evidence accused of cruel and abusive and illegal behavior and are the objects of insults, protests, petitions and campaigns that would put them out of business and destroy their way of life. And always – always – the goal is to remove animals from our sight and consciousness. The carriage horses are only one piece in this emerging conflict. This is the real conflict, the war on animals, the campaign to take them away. They will never return, they never have.
This war is just getting underway, the carriage horse conflict one of the epic first battles, because it is in New York City, the largest concentration of media on earth, where everyone in the world can see it and hear about it. The battle is thus joined. For the animal world, it is the Battle Of Bull Run, the first epic conflict of the American Civil War, the first time Americans understood the nature of the conflict they found themselves in. The horses are at the epicenter, the symbols and victims and perhaps, the first casualties. The Battle Of The New York Carriage Horses.
In this conflict, there are many things at stake. At its heart, the war on animals is over two profoundly different view of the role and nature of animals:
The animal rights organizations see animals primarily in terms of abuse, they are piteous and dependent creatures in this view, too fragile and precious to work with people or live animals, they are safe only as pets in carefully regulated conditions or in no-kill animals shelters, rescue preserves and the farms and properties of the wealthy. Under this view, most large domesticated animals will disappear. In this view, we are superior not only to animals but the people who who own, sell, live and work with them. Humans are generally reviled, even despised, it is a fixture of every single animal rights website I have seen.
The traditional view of most people who love, live with and work with animals is radically different. Animals are seen as partners, not wards, they live and work among us, they share the risks and travails of life in the world. They do not live no-kill lives any more than we do, they sometimes are injured, get ill and die, just as we do. Work is not cruel for them, it often means survival, and we need to find ways to keep animals in our lives, not remove them from our lives. There are abusers for sure, but I have met and interviewed and lived among countless animal lovers, there is more often much love in them. There are easier things to do in life than live with animals, although few as rewarding.
At a recent speech I made in Ohio, I was asked if I felt the tactics and ideology of the groups were disturbing. I answered by saying I was not an especially active political person, but I found many of the tactics of these groups – especially those I studied and witnessed against the carriage trade – to be anything but progressive or humanistic. This movement is not about the welfare of animals, but the needs and fantasies of people. Their tactics in this case are much more akin to neo-fascism than compassion.
The assault on the carriage trade is anything but humane, for people or horses. It evokes a governmental system where a leader with great power and his allies forcibly ignore or suppress opposition, demonize people outside of their ideology, refuse to consider criticism or negotiation and seek to arbitrarily regulate all industry, commerce and traditional ways of life, seize private property, abuse its authority.
So animal lovers, generally among the world's most peaceful people, find themselves in a war over animals. Agricultural people like farmers and people who own horses or farm animals or drive carriages tend to be working people, they work hard and live internal lives, they are rarely media-savvy, well-organized or well- funded. They have generally watched in discomfort from the sidelines as the animal rights organizations – now including the Humane Society Of The United States and the A.S.P.C.A., two organizations I can sadly no longer support or contribute to – have unilaterally redefined what abuse and torture mean and applied them to the very behaviors and institutions that have helped so many animals survive with human beings.
It was not widely known last year that animal rights groups were the primary supporters to the new mayor's campaign, they gave him well over a million dollars. It was not well -known that he completely supports an animal rights agenda that is far outside of the mainstream, that is almost determinedly ignorant of knowledge of animal behavior, and that the vast majority of animal owners and lovers find irrational, unconsciously cruel, and repugnant.
Declaring he was "proud" to be a member of this movement, the mayor, who has never even owned a dog or cat, let alone a horse, vowed to ban the carriage horses immediately, likening carriage-pulling to "waterboarding," an especially cruel form of torture. People who live with animals – myself included – were surprised and thus awakened to the meaning of the carriage horse ban and the real agenda of these groups. When they get the horses and the ponies and the rabbits and the goats and the donkeys and elephants they will be coming for you and for me and for the animals we love and wish to see in the world.
I honor the people in the carriage trade – it is they who have been abused, not their horses. They have suffered for years in these skirmishes and attacks, they could easily have sold their old stables to real estate developers and walk away from this painful and destructive controversy with millions of dollars. Instead, they are choosing instead to fight for their dignity, for their work, for their way of life, and for the carriage horses, for whom they alone have the right to speak.
Before this, it was possible for people like me to shrug off these angry and widening skirmishes between people who work and live with animals and people who call themselves supporters of animal rights, but are anything but. People who support the rights of animals do not seek to ban them from the world of people and send them into oblivion, we seek to find ways to keep them among us. The carriage trade people have come to see, finally, in the past few months, that they are not alone, people like me and many other people can no longer see these assaults as the inconsequential ranting of angry extremists. Theirs has been a tough and lonely struggle. Reinforcements have finally come.
The Battle of Bull Run made Americans understand that the Civil War was going to be ugly and painful and long. The carriage horse conflict in New York is doing the same thing for animal lovers. Like it or not, this will be a long and difficult conflict. The fate and future of animals depends on it. Those of you who agree are, in fact, already joining the battle, already helping to turn the tide. New York City politicians have been flooded with messages of support for the carriage horses from all over the country, reporters there say that has made a real impact.
There is a lot at stake for animals. This conflict is now spreading all over the country, not just New York, but in Chicago, Santa Monica, St. Louis, Cincinnati, New Orleans, in scores of towns, villages, cities and backyards. The ban is postponed, but the real work begins. People who mistreat people and who know little about animals should not be permitted to decide their fate, ought not be allowed to take them away from us and out of our lives and the lives of our children for no reason without any kind of due process.
I am heading back to New York City in the coming week to take more photos of the carriage drivers and write more about the carriage horses. It is important to me, and to many other people. There is, thanks to the carriage horses, a great stirring among people who wish to truly save animals rather than pretend to give them rights. I have never gotten so many messages of support from so many different places with so much passion and feeling.
I believe the horses are carrying a powerful message to the world, and I believe it is beginning to be heard. I believe the horses are speaking to me and to you, calling to remember and to cry out that the effort to remove them is an injustice, that they are important to our world, they are needed, as the Indian Chieftain said, to bring the thunder and the rain and to keep the glory of the natural world in our lives.
For me, the message of the horses and the animals in my life is to be compassionate, to love human beings as well as animals, to never use one against the other, or to draw us into the soul-sucking cycle of anger and argument and cruelty. It is wrong to abuse animals, it is wrong to abuse people. Animals abuse neither, that is part of their story and their gift to us in our lives. We honor them by keeping our humanity and our spirituality intact, by telling their story, and the story of their time with us.
My wish for the carriage horse people is that they can find the strength to keep telling their story and fighting for the horses, I hope they can do it without losing their own sense of humanity, purpose and faith. It is an awful and difficult thing when your life becomes an argument, and when people are trying to take your life away.
The carriage horse conflict is not just about the horses, it is about the very real loss of animals in our lives. It is about the freedom to define our relationships with our animals in freedom and dignity, for them and for us. The government and bands of ideologues have no place in the midst of our private relationships with animals, so long as we obey the law and are merciful.
The challenge, as always, is to stay clear and grounded, to tell the powerful story of these horses and the people who care for them, to avoid endless and debilating argument. I can only speak for myself, my life is not an argument, I will not become what I hate to see, I don't need to hate the other side or accuse them of the foulest things. I don't want to do to others what I have seen being done to the drivers and carriage horse owners, that would be a different kind of defeat.
These horses and the other animals in our world have stories to tell, and if these stories are told, then this arrogant and disturbing movement will turn inward on itself and fade away. I have never met an angry person who had a contented animal or knew how one should live.
We may be at a kind of cultural war, but we do not have to be at war with animals or with people. You can not love one and hate the other; you can not abuse one and not abuse the other. That is what it means to be a human being.