When you get down to it, and past the arguments, the New York Carriage Horse story is one that draws us into the rarely explored realm of moral philosophy. We live with animals and talk about them all the time, we rarely think about them in a broader or moral way. The big new idea about animals in America is that they are piteous, abused and endangered creatures and need to separated from the people who live with them and own them.
In our culture, the historic relationship between humans and animals is being upended, redefined. Without much discussion or dialogue, It has become commonplace for government to value the rights of animals over people while, in the process, trampling on the rights of people and serving the animals poorly as well. Thus, the animals are disappearing, the people who would live with them under siege all over the country, their living property increasingly taken from them.
Is this argument over the horses the sad legacy of the carriage horses, or a call to awakening, a new social movement, the beginning of the wider and more mystical understanding of animals that author and philosopher Henry Beston called for a century ago? It's too soon to know, the movement against the horses is stalled, confused, perhaps as a result at it's ugliest.
John Locke, the radical mid-seventeenth century philosopher whose ideas led to the unraveling of the cruel monarchies that ruled the world, expressed the view that became the American Revolution and altered the world. He wrote that the primary function of government is to serve people, namely by protecting life, liberty and property. We call it life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
When government stopped protecting people in this way, he warned, it has lost it's moral authority and is not deserving of support. The most striking thing about the carriage horse controversy is that government seeks to serve animals by taking freedom, liberty and property away from people.
What makes the New York Carriage Horse story so important and compelling is that it touches so many deep chords in our cultural and political life. Do animals have more rights than people? Who has the right to speak for them? How have we become so disconnected from the natural world that the people who claim know what is best for the horses know the least about them? What are the rights of the people who own them? What is the future of animals in our world? Is the glorious history of animals working with people – one of the most enduring characteristics of human history – now ending because no one seems to know or remember that so many animals live and survive to work? What is the role of government in protecting the welfare of animals, and of treating the people who own them fairly and reasonably?
The authorities in New York simply wish to ban the horses, they don't want to have this discussion, or talk about them or their future. The animal rights community and the mayor won't even speak to the carriage horse owners and drivers. They have been relentlessly dehumanized, no longer considered worthy of participating in the city's moral community or decision making process. It is, of course, necessary to dehumanize people before you can justify taking their work and property away.
Those of us who love and live with animals shake our heads in wonder, sometimes in anger at this story, we intuitively grasp it's importance. We know that keeping animals in our world is not free, not of money, pain, struggle or death. We know there is no paradise for them or us. We know animals who do not work disappear from the world. We know they sometimes need to die, and we sometimes need to kill them.
Animals do not live in a perfect world any more than we do, they cannot be given better lives than we have. We wonder at the power of a small group of angry and disconnected people who seek so much power over us and the animals of the world. No voters have ever granted animals more protections than human beings, no government has argued with a straight face – until the carriage horse controversy – that animal rights come before the rights of human beings – citizens, voters, taxpayers.
The horses also remind us almost every day of the great moral conundrum at the heart of this story. It is not about the abuse of animals, it is about the abuse of people. Abuse is a crime, not an argument or opinion. It occurs when animals are severely injured or killed by people acting in excess of what is necessary or appropriate. It is illegal. No carriage driver in the modern history of the carriage trade has been accused of it, no horse is known to have died as the result of it. In the past five years, about 4,000 complaints of animal cruelty have been reported to the City Of New York each year. None have been made against the people in the carriage trade or on behalf of the horses.
Are we really to believe that these horses are continuously abused right under the noses of the army of police, bureaucrats, inspectors and veterinarians who work for the five agencies of a city government who regulate and oversee the horses every day and are utterly committed to banning them from New York?
The carriage horses remind us that as a people we are losing touch with the natural world and the true nature of animals. The carriage drivers most often come from a long tradition of people working with animals. Only in modern-day America is this considered cruel, even criminal, behavior.
My working dogs, donkeys, even chickens and barn cats love to work, live to work. We have lost touch with food and where it comes from, we have become distant from the real lives of real animals, we have turned them into emotionalized versions of us, we project our garbage onto them as if they were our emotional trash receptacles.
People who own and work with animals- the carriage drivers for sure – are struggling to cope with the extraordinary wealth and power of extra-legal, self-appointed cadres – militias, almost – that function outside of government, due process of law, or traditional ideas about truth, fairness, compromise and negotiation. Under the banner of being progressive and humane they wantonly invade the privacy of the carriage drivers, insult them publicly, videotape them secretly, taunt them, often in the cruelest ways, and harass them mercilessly, often without any basis in truth or fact. They threaten their way of life, seek to criminalize historic tradition and behavior.
At one point, the issue really did seem to be about the abuse of animals, that was my impression back in January when I took the train to New York to see the Clinton Park stables for myself. For most of New York City, that claim has been revealed to be the chimera that it is. There are 444 pages of regulations governing the care and safety of the horses, there is not a single page that requires government to protect the carriage horse owners or drivers or seeks to ensure their well being or safety. We are paying attention.
If the horses are driven from New York, they will continue remove the animals from all over the country. Mine, yours, the ponies in the park, the chickens on the farms, the elephants in the circus, the working dogs in the field, the horses on your small farm.They are already doing it, everywhere. They will come for the horses, they will come for your dog and horse. If the horses are driven from New York, they will probably have your local government with them.
New York is the big stage, our great city.
Here are just a handful of the demonstrably false claims about the carriage horses that have created this contrived and false controversy:
the horses are confined in "cells" too small for them to lie down in or turn around. The horses are overworked in heat and cold. The horses are not permitted to socialize with other horses. The horses are systematically abused: underfed and mistreated. The horses do not receive adequate medical care or any medical care. The horses never get to graze in pasture. There have been scores of accidents involving the horses in New York. The horses are unhappy with their work and seek a different life. The horses contribute to global warming by slowing traffic. The horses are less eco-friendly than cars. The horses soil the streets and spread disease. They suffer from respiratory illness from breathing exhaust fumes. They live shorter lives that horses in the wild or on rescue preserves. Their drivers are cheats and thieves who abuse animals and steal money from visitors.
Check this out for yourself, you can do it on the phone, or online, it won't take long.
In theory, a moral government is not for hire or sale. The people who call themselves supporters of animal rights gave more than $1.3 million dollars to political candidates who agreed to banish the horses. Federal authorities are investigating numerous claims that politicians were threatened if they didn't support a carriage horse ban. The people in the carriage trade do not have a million dollars or anything close to it, and the money they do have is continuously threatened by the movement against them.
Woody Guthrie would be living in the stables, singing the horses and the drivers songs of support and encouragement. John Locke would be picketing the picketers.
Words do matter, truth does count. Every day, I receive messages from people who are beginning to consider the truth of this controversy and are deciding where to stand. I am no ideologue or political activist, I do not belong to the left or the right. It is a gift to me to stand beside the carriage horse owners and drivers. I know where I belong here, I knew it early on. I stand with the drivers as an author, a journalist, an animal lover and a believer in John Locke's idea of what a moral government should be and do.
The horses belong in New York.
I actually thought Liam Neeson said it best when he told the mayor of New York City to man up and come and see the horses for himself.