Recently, Bill Maher, the TV host and comedian and a board member of the People For The Ethical Treatment Of Animals (PETA) entered the controversy over the New York Carriage Horses. In an op-ed piece, he accused actor Liam Neeson of supporting the abuse of horses by defending the carriage trade. New York City, he wrote, is no place for horses.
In the now familiar liturgy of the animal rights movement, Maher urged us to "just look at horses running joyfully and free in a pasture to see how these complex animals were meant to live. Then look at the sad life of the horses doomed to lug carriages in congested Manhattan and forced to live in tiny stalls with no room to roam free. I love New York, but it's no place for a horse."
Bill Maher, like many of his fellow animal rights activists, is not looking for a dialogue, or even a debate. He also refuses to visit the horse stables or meet or speak with the drivers or carriage owners.
In recent years, animal rights have become a favorite social cause for Hollywood personalities, they have donated tens of millions of dollars to PETA and put the animal rights movement at the center of many new controversies about the future of animals.
Maher's comments are important and revealing, they offer a window into the real issues involved in this conflict, an opportunity for many of us to try and have the discussion about animals in our world that the mayor of New York and the animal rights activists there so far refuse to have. Maher writes in the all-too-familiar voice of righteousness and arrogance that has sadly come to characterize the modern animal rights movement. No room for civil disagreement there.
Maher also says a number of things that suggest his outrage is not matched by any real knowledge of horses, their history, or the things they actually need and want.
For example, the New York Carriage horses are roaming all day, on the streets, in the park. They are in their stables whenever they are not working, and if you have ever been to a horse rescue farm, it would be clear to you that the New York horses get to move about as much or more as most horses anywhere. Work horses have always been stalled, otherwise, they will often harm each other fighting for food, and they are so large few pastures can accommodate them. It is important to know that if you are deciding the future of horses. In the park, they get exercise, fresh air and the constant company of other horses. In animals terms, it is a very good life.
Horses are different, working animals approach work just as eagerly as horses in pastures approach running through the grass. When I go to the stables, I see animals that are excited to do what they have been bred and taught for centuries to do, because they are calm and still, and sometimes lower their heads or lift their hocks, it does not mean they are "sad" – a meaningless term when it comes to animals.
Let's de-construct Maher's comments, they go to the heart of the future of the horses in New York City, and perhaps the future of animals in our world as well.
- First off, I wonder exactly what pastures Maher is looking at when he describes the horses running joyfully and freely. There is no wild left in America, and the ponies who used to populate the American wilderness are all gone, slaughtered a century ago because human beings had no work for them to do. If they were pulling carriages in New York City, they would almost surely be alive today, getting fresh food and shelter and living 18 to 20 years, as the carriage horses do. Maher sees the horses as complex, but I'm not sure what he means.
Their needs are comparatively simple, their history clear. They like fresh water, food, exercise, work and the company of people and other horses. They do not need to explore the outer boundaries of the world or play cards together. Pastures can be quite boring for animals used to work and stimulation.
There is this idea in the animal rights world that animals must live in paradise, and that paradise is nearby and ready to receive them. Horse rescue farms all over the country, desperate for money and shutting down. Many are overwhelmed with abandoned and truly abused horses – 150,000 go to slaughter each year in America and there precious few wild pastures for large work and draft horses to roam freely. Rescue preserves are going under at a heartbreaking rate – Google this sad reality for yourself.
There is also this fantasized idea about those wild and free pastures.
These draft horses in New York City eat an average of three to four bales of hay a day, the idea that the rescue system will suddenly absorb more than 200 of them for the rest of their lives – at a cost of many millions of dollars - is simply astonishing to anyone who knows much about horse rescue right now. Many of these horses will be sacrificed in order to be saved.
If PETA were paying attention, they might devote their resources to horses that are in trouble, not to horses that are not. Abused horses are abandoned on country roads, neglected on struggling farms, they are starved, riddled with disease, suffering from sores and infections. The New York Carriage Horses, with rare exceptions, are healthy, fed good fed, sheltered in heat and air-conditioning, inspected regularly and given good medical care. That is not true of many horses in America.
So many animals in America are truly being abused, it is simply stunning to see so much time and money spend on horses that are appreciated, busy, profitable and cared for. There is simply no common sense or respect for reality in this movement to ban the horses in New York City. NYClass has spent a half-million dollars building a prototype for the ugly vintage cars they intend to replace the horses with. Think of how many truly abused horses that money could save.
If Maher followed his horse history – I recommend "Horses At Work: Harnessing Power In Industrial America," by Ann Norton Green - he might know that the draft and work horses that pull carriages in New York have never roamed the wild or lived freely in pastures, they were imported to America from Europe to haul things, pull carts and carriages and goods – to work. They were bred for it, and they need work to be healthy and fit. They did a great job, they literally helped build New York. They have no instincts for life in the wild and would not last long there – they are much too big and slow.
Maher's notion of the wild, typically, has been romanticized beyond reason. In New York, the animal rights demonstrators often evoke the "wild," as if it were truly an alternative for the horses. We do now know what is in the mind of a horse, they do not make career choices, they are either comfortable or at ease, or they are restless and uncomfortable. I believe the New York Carriage horses work quite contentedly, just as contentedly as Maher's mythical horses in the open pasture. It is what they are conditioned to do – not spent their lives foraging for grass and dropping manure.
Horses in the wild do not live perfect lives of joy and freedom. They fight with, even kill one another, they are subject to the elements, to bitter cold and heat without shelter, to predators, hunters, disease, starvation, poison, human development and infection. They do not live half as long as the New York Carriage Horses do.
Of all the animals in the world, say the authors of "Horses At Work," draft horses are the best suited by temperament and genetics to be in cities. Work is the foundation of their life, health, breeding and survival in the world. In fact, Central Park was built in part for the carriage horses – "Central Park: An American Masterpiece," by Sarah Cedar Miller – they have as much right to be there as the people living in apartments in Brooklyn or celebrities in Hollywood trying to banish them.
In his writings about the carriage horses, Maher cites the case of Blondie, a carriage horse whose driver was arrested after he worked her for several days despite her having a foot infection. He cites the case – the only arrest of a carriage horse driver for neglect in a century, as reason to ban the horses from New York. The driver lost his license, Blondie is well and and back at work. Does Maher really not know, I wonder, that Blondie would be dead if she had this infection in the "wild," there would be no police officer to notice her limping, no vet on call to come and treat her hooves? Is the system failing, or is it working?
The carriage horses live longer than animals in the wild, are much healthier, they get five weeks of vacation a year, and are among the most regulated animals in the world.
The Department of Health, which oversees the horses, has repeatedly reported that they are healthy, well-cared for and safe. There is no evidence of any kind that the horses are suffering any affects from working in New York City.
- Maher believes anyone who supports the carriage horses in New York is supporting abuse. But this idea of abuse, like the "wild," has also been emotionalized beyond reason or reality. When Maher talks about abuse, or when the mayor does, or when the founder of NYClass, the group spearheading the carriage horse ban does, they are simply expressing their own personal notion of how a horse ought to live. They have as much right to do that as I do, or anyone else does. But it is just an opinion, mostly from people who do not have horses or know much about them.
Abuse is a specific legal notion, a crime.
Abuse is not an argument, it is not an opinion. It occurs when animals suffer extremely, or are severely injured, even killed, as the result of neglect and mistreatment that is cruel or unnecessary. Abuse has nothing to do with whether horses ought to pull carriages in New York or not, no government jurisdiction in America defines abuse as occurring because horses do not live joyfully in the mind of someone with no experience or training in animal welfare or behavior.
According to the Legal Dictionary, cruelty to animals is "the crime of inflicting physical pain, suffering or death on an animal, usually a tame one, beyond necessity for normal discipline. It can include neglect that is so monstrous (withholding food and water) that the animal has suffered, died or been put in imminent danger of death."
This definition does not apply in any way to the New York Carriage horses, not a single one has been neglected or had food or water withheld to the point that they have greatly suffered or been in imminent danger of death. There were more than 4,000 cases of animal cruelty reported to the authorities in New York City last year, not a single one was directed at the carriage trade.
People who do know about horses – the famous author and trainer Buck Brannaman for one, the inspiration for Robert Redford's "Horse Whisperer," has written that pulling carriages in New York is a proper and fitting thing for draft horses to do. It is good and light exercise for them, he has written, and pulling light carriages with rubber wheels over flat ground- asphalt – is not hard work for working horses. I know of no reputable veterinarian or behaviorists or horse trainer who believes pulling carriages in New York City is tantamount to abuse for the working horses there, or for working animals anywhere.
This idea of work as abuse is largely the invention in recent years of animal rights activists working outside the animal world, beyond the law or conventional regulatory strictures. It is about people like Bill Maher waking up one morning or going to a PETA board meeting or going to a Hollywood cocktail party and redefining abuse while arbitrarily deciding that horses ought to live differently than they have lived for thousands of years.
It is simply no more than one person's idea. It seems difficult for me to understand how a city government can justify putting hundreds of people out of work for that. When Maher uses the term "abuse," he is simply reinventing the term, he is speaking outside the law, any conventional animal regulatory statutes, or the experience and believe of almost every person who lives with animals and loves them.
-The mayor of New York and his supporters in the animal rights movement do not believe in debate or public discussion, they seem to make their decisions in private, or at fund-raising dinners. If I were to sit with Bill Maher, one of the things I would ask him is why, of all the the living things in New York City, only horses are unfit for life there? Standing in Central Park recently, I saw all kinds of living things walk around – kids, tourists, elderly people, dogs, cats, rabbits, commuters, joggers, boarders, walkers. If the city is an unfit environment for horses, can it be a good environment for children? The elderly?
The year before last, two children were killed in Central Park by falling trees. Would Maher suggest that children be banned from the park, or that the park be shut down?
Can it really be that of all the things that live in New York, only horses have to be banished from the city because it is not safe for them?
"I follow the horse-drawn carriage debate closely," wrote Maher in his op-ed piece. "That's why I challenge the fairy tales about how happy the horses must be to dodge buses and taxis, with their noses in exhaust pipes day after day, under the blazing sun." But there is no debate to follow, only raging arguments and accusations, the kind Maher himself makes. The carriage trade owners are begging for a debate, but no one – Maher included – will join them in having one. He doesn't need a "white glove" tour of the stables, he sniffs.
I'm not sure what the fairy tales are here that Maher is talking about? Horses joyfully roaming the wild in those pastures maybe?
The carriage horses don't work in the blazing sun, they cannot work in temperatures over 89 degrees. Many horses, mules and donkeys do work in the blazing sun, and all over the world, they have for centuries.
There are no reports of any respiratory problems among the carriage horses, and they walk alongside of buses and taxis, I have never seen them dodging any. Are we really to believe that it's okay for children to have their noses in exhaust pipes every single day in New York, but that the horses are too sad and fragile to survive it? And what, precisely, does Maher mean by "happy?" Is it his anthropomorphisizing belief that these horses are pining for the Old West, which they have never seen and where they have never been? Or are they, more likely, to be waiting for their oats and water and fresh hay back in the stables?
Maher does not seem to understand or know much about horses, nor does he seem to care much about facts. "One horse toppled in his carriage when he was side-swiped by a bus," he wrote, "ruining an otherwise beautiful evening for people visiting Central Park." There is nothing about Maher's description of the incident involving a horse named Spartacus that is true. The wheels of one carriage got tangled with the wheels of another and Spartacus fell over. He was on the ground for about two minutes, then he was helped up, no person or animal was injured. There was no bus involved in the incident or anywhere nearby, according to police, and it did not occur in the park, but in a plaza across from Fifth Avenue. It was not in the evening, but early afternoon, no one's visit to the Park was affected in any way.
Maher's notion of horse welfare in modern New York is also lacking in any historical perspective. It is far safer and better for the horses working in New York City today than it was a century ago. There were no paved streets, traffic police, horses died in collisions, fell into potholes, were attacked by rats and wolves, walked in sewage, dust and lived in filth, tormented by flies and insects, threatened by fire and raging disease. Thousands died every year in New York City, many simply were left to die where they fell, their bodies picked apart by dogs and rodents. Make no mistake about it, the carriage horses live good lives today.
It is important to note two relevant statistics – facts, not arguments. Several horses were involved in minor "spooking" incidents in the past several years – none were hurt, nor were any people. This out of millions of rides. Last year alone, more than 15,000 New Yorkers were injured in collisions of one kind or another. Statistically, horses are much calmer in the city than dogs, who bite thousands of New Yorkers each year, often severely.
My wish for the New York Carriage horses is that they provoke a true national discussion about the future of animals in America. I believe this is what the horses are calling upon us to do. New York City is the perfect place for this kind of dialogue.
But the people seeking to ban the horses do not seem to want to have this discussion, they simply want the horses removed from the nation's greatest city. Bill Maher doesn't want to talk about it, he just wants to abuse Liam Neeson for abusing the horses.
I guess that means we will simply have to have the conversation ourselves, and have faith that truth and fairness matter and will reveal themselves. It matters that 66 per cent of New York residents wish the horses to stay, along with every tourist, animal lover, and child in the world. A powerful army.
I am grateful to Bill Maher for speaking out, there are all kinds of ways to have a meaningful dialogue, even if you don't really want to.
– My new e-book "Who Speaks For The Carriage Horses: The Future Of Animals In Our World," is now available everywhere e-books are sold for $3.99.
My post office box – P.O. Box 205, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816 – has been crammed with messages over the past week or so. CD's, books, letters, post cards, donkey cards, stories and good wishes. I have not gotten through half of them yet, and they are still coming in. Today I got this card above from Susie Mintz, she made it herself, it included a quote from the poet Rumi which read: "The wound is the place where the Light enters you," and this touched me, I believe it is true. The wound is the place that brought light and healing to my wounded heart, and the light entered me all over.
As many of you know, I have experienced and written about fear for a very long time, much of my life seems, in retrospective, to have been one lone and continuous panic attack, I feared so many things so deeply. I was a valium addict for 30 years and underwent analysis, talking therapy and spiritual counseling. Open Heart Surgery is something to fear, and yet I did not, really, not compared to the many things I have been afraid of in my life.
I have always seen this surgery – from the very first – as an opportunity to understand my body, to get well and experience the rest of my life more fully. I was struggling for some time with loss of energy and difficulty walking. It is a miraculous thing to me that I never got tired writing, taking photos, or working on the blog. I am beginning to see that creativity kept my heart alive, my work did not damage it. It was on my walks that I began to struggle, that my heart began to fail.
If wounds are the place light enters us, then an open heart is the place for fear to come in as well. It is a fearful surgery. I have come face to face with a great fear – stopping my heart and rebuilding parts of it. It has changed me. I understand more clearly than ever that fear does not make one safe, it does not make one wise. It is simply a different form of disease, something that can cripple us, make us into a kind of slave, shut down our passion and ambition for life. Fear kills love, it is a lethal injection, I believe it breaks the heart as quickly as arterial disease.
In our world, we are constantly reminded to fear the world – it is violent, dangerous, coming apart. I do not choose to fear the world or speak poorly of it., I do not choose to live my life in fear.
My doctors keep telling me that fear is unhealthy for the heart, and I do sometimes wonder if a life lived in fear helped damage mine. I do not listen to people who speak in fear and alarm, I do not spend much time on their news of the world. My doctor told me before the surgery – she came in for a private talk – that there were risks attached by my operation, and she told me what they were. I wondered whether or not to share this sobering news with Maria and I wondered whether or not to say goodbye to Maria, to tell her how much I loved her and how much she meant to me, just in case.
I decided not to. It would just upset and frighten her, and besides, she knows how much I love her, it does not need to be said. I saw clearly in the hours before my operation that fear is, in fact, just a space to cross, a geography, an idea we carry in our heads, the way so many of us are taught to think. They seem to need us frightened, so that we will do the things they say we should do and buy all of the things they say we will need.
I am done with you, I said of fear as they wheeled me into the operating room. You have, I thought, never seemed smaller or more meaningless. If I am not afraid of this, then you have no hold on me.
So my heart is healing and beating well, and it is a stronger heart, I see that already. It is not a fearful heart, it wishes to be a big heart, loving and open to life. Charging up a steep hill on my walk today, I no longer felt my heart as something fragile and worrisome, it is my partner now, we go up those hills together, puffing like a tough little locomotive, we get stronger together every day, we trust each other a bit more with every new step, we beat the drum for life together.
If the wound is a place for the light to enter, perhaps it is also a place for fear to leave.
Maria is just getting back into the studio after the disruption caused by my surgery, and she is making some wonderful stuff. She finished a quilt today, a beautiful thing and also some hanging pieces that speak to our strange month. This one is called "It was when things get back to normal…" It is about normalcy, if such a thing is ever really possible. We both realized that at this time of year we would both be floating down the Battenkill River in our tubes. If things were normal…I don't know if she is selling this neat piece or not, you can check on her website. I think this is the first new piece since the surgery. I'm glad she's back at it.