30 January

The Central Park Horses: Through The Fog Of Emotion, Animals And Their Lives

by Jon Katz
Through The Fog Of Emotion
Through The Fog Of Emotion

For me, the plight of the embattled Central Park Horses, soon to be sent into rescue exile or worse, is beyond the polarized positions surrounding them, it is about  the agony of animals in the midst of an overcrowded world with fewer places for them and a warring and disconnected animal culture that doesn’t ever seem to really find ways help them, or even know what real help actually is. Everyone speaks about them and for them,  everyone exploits them in their own way to feel good about themselves, yet so few people have actually gone to the trouble to know them and what is best for them.

When I sort through the hyperbolic rhetoric of the people warring against the horses, their so-called advocates, I feel a disconnection, as one who loves animals and lives with them. The people who call themselves supporters of animal rights and the people who live with animals and say they love them seem perpetually at war, I wonder how this came to be, this notion that we must rescue animals but not permit them to live their lives.

What chance do the Central Park horses have, caught in the middle of a propaganda war, targeted by the Mayor, the City Council President, millionnaire-funded political organizations? What a strange conflict, when one of the most sensible people is an actor, Liam Neeson, who pleads that the removal of the horses is “criminal,” and concludes, after his own inquiry, that the effort to ban the horses is more about real estate than the horses themselves. Neeson is no celebrity loudmouth, he is a reluctant warrior, a notoriously grounded and thoughtful man.

The rhetoric of outrage is so familiar, it always leaves me wondering if you can really love animals while disliking people so much.

I get letters and e-mails every day, dozens, hundreds from horse and animal owners all over the world thanking me for writing about this, worried about the horses, baffled by the largely undocumented allegations of cruelty and abuse, by the mystery of it, this curious idea of urban people about what abuse is for animals, this myopic and mythic notion of a peaceable life for the horses, grazing in those long bulldozed pastures at those mostly imaginaryl rescue preserves. We seem to know, those of us who live with donkeys and horses, sheep and goats, dogs and cats, chickens and pigs, what the real story of the horses is going to be, yet more animals sacrificed in order to be saved from the evil and uncaring human beings that are a fixture of the animal rights movement. Horses do not live long in the wild, they succumb to weather, disease, starvation, predators, development, car and truck and other vehicle traffic, herd brutality, hunters,  infections, poison plants and weeds, lack of health care.

Few people who know working horses would imagine, even for a moment, that life in the outdoors  would be superior to being fed and cooled and heated in frequently cleaned stalls, with plenty of exercise, good food, and attention.

As with all issues in this painfully contentious era of American life, it’s hard to see past the increasingly “left” – “right” arguments about the horses, the cable news idea of dialogue, the warring ideologues who never listen or learn or change their minds. The only voiceless beings are the horses themselves, but that may be changing. I’m happy to share  two revealing stories about the horses. They are both, in their own way, powerful explorations of  their lives from ordinary people who seem to love horses, rescue them and know them. They do not write in the service of argument and propaganda, but from a credible (to me) and much more personal perspective.

I’m not sure I’ve ever written anything that had as much impact as my writing about these horses her on the blog, I doubt it will have any impact on the fate of the horses, but I am surprised by the thousands of shares and links of these columns to blogs all over the world. You just never know. Scores of people have asked me if I would send this columns on the horses to the New York Times, to be honest, I would not. I have no interest in being published there, my blog audience is the right place for me, it’s where I belong. Here I can write freely and openly.

The people who send me these messages also ought to know that there is absolutely no chance the New York Times would print a single one of my columns, if anyone at the paper was awake, this issue would never have gotten this far. In all of the thousands of stories and countless words written about these horses, the New York Times doesn’t seen to have deemed it worthwhile to send one reporter eight blocks from the Times building to find out what is really going on inside those stables. Either these horses are being “cruelly mistreated” (as the City Council President alleges) right under the paper’s nose, or they are yawning at one big lie. They don’t look so good either way. I was a reporter once, I used to go and find things out.

But I have two interesting pieces to share with you:

Christina Andersen  decided to find out. She studied Farm Animal Welfare at the University of Massachusetts where her professors talked a lot about the Central Park Horses, and their messages about them were so disturbing and negative that Christina joined a group to prohibit their use in New York. Christina knows and loves horses, and is a passionate animal lover, she got to know some of the horses and their trainers as well, her observations about them are telling, she found, as I did, that definitions of abuse vary wildly, and are often misguided. Her feelings have changed. One of her interesting conclusions – I felt the same thing when I saw the horses in the park two weeks ago – was that these horses do not in any way seem abused. They are at ease around their handlers, around the public. Anyone who has ever been around abused horses, donkeys or dogs, for that matter, knows that is rarely, if ever the case.  And Christina has helped to rescue some of the Park Horses when their work was done, she knows a lot about them, unlike the reporters covering the story in New York, they mostly quote people.

To pull people around in carriages all day, respond to the commands of human handlers, there has to be trust, and trust never comes easily with abuse. Read Christina’s report for yourself, it is on a website called Blue Star Equiculture, devoted to the welfare of horses and other animals, it was helpful to me and I am grateful to her for giving me permission to use it

How interesting that a new generation of bloggers are skipping all the posturing and rhetoric and going to see the horses themselves, while few reporters in New York have bothered to find out what it means for horses to be “healthy” and how the Central Park Horses are really being treated. “Abuse” is becoming a cheap word, it is used so frequently it is losing any meaning.

Michelle Young, writing in Untapped Cities visited one of the largest stables in New York, asked a lot of questions about the horse’s care, took some pictures which give a sense of the horses lives. The horses seem to be treated vastly better than most of the horses (or animals) in the world. In hot weather, they are sprayed with mists regularly to stay cool, in winter their stalls are heated, the stalls are mucked out every few hours, they are fed hay and grain, they are regularly inspected,  have instantly accessible veterinary care, are given substantial time off, kept inside on hot and very cold days. Animal lovers can read through Michelle’s matter of fact observations – she has her own opinions, but wisely sidesteps the debate – and draw their own conclusions.

If the struggle over the fate of the Central Park horses is not, in fact, about real estate – I can’t possibly know the truth of that – then it is, on the surface, and in the rhetoric, about abuse. But the most curious thing about the Central Park Horse tragedy, and it is becoming that, is that there is really no evidence at all anywhere of chronic mistreatment or abuse, very little that is specific, nor has anyone suggested anything resembling a motive for the Horse and Carriage Association drivers and owners to mistreat the animals whose health and well-being they depend on for a living in a closely supervised and overheated environment. Many weekends, the people seeking to ban the horses for their own good come to the Park and shout at the drivers. What kind of lunatic would mistreat an animal in that context?

One driver in the last five years has been charged with abuse – that was for not noticing or failing to treat infected hooves –  and sorting through the overheated language of the people who say they are for animal rights, it is clear that their definition of abuse differs radically from almost anyone who owns a horse or donkey or other animals and has lived with them.

None of my animals, not a one, is as meticulously cared for as the Central Park Horses, they all have to deal with heat and cold, they are not misted or living in heated stalls, they rarely get grain, and no one inspects my farm to make sure they are well cared for, and they are very well cared for. By the standards of the people driving the horses out of New York, my border collie Red ought to be taken from me and set free in those endless pastures out there, so he can not be worked with sheep and find his own food.  What I see in this discussion is quite familiar to me, having written eight books about animals so far, two more on the way, and lived with them for 15 years. In urban areas like New York – I see almost all of the people talking about banning the horses come from Brooklyn, along with the mayor and City Council President, where there are no animals and notions of abuse or often human projections of what animal life ought to be like – most frequently it is what human lives ought to be like.

There are powerful threads of anger and identification with victimization in the language and anger of this movement, it seems almost other-worldly, except the horses, who earn $19 million dollars a year and give scores of people employment are very much of this earth..

People who live with animals are always saying animals are not people, they don’t have the needs of people and this well-meaning but inverted projection of our lives onto animals has led to the over-medicating and overfeeding of animals, and the imprisoning of animals in crates for years  in “no-kill” facilities under the guise of mercy. Nature is wiser, it removes animals who can’t live in the world, shows them that mercy, human beings are the cruelest of all, we preserve them at all costs by any means so they can live the most unnatural, and often meaningless, lives.

People who enthusiastically support the crating of dogs in tiny crates (or small apartments) for all of their natural lives are protesting that the Central Park Horses are being treated cruelly because they live in stalls, and not on open ranges. They seem not to know that there are hardly any such ranges, or that most horses in rescue preserves live in small spaces where there is rarely open pasture, and little work or purpose to their lives.

There ought to be no mistake about what’s in stake for the Central Park Horses if the mayor and the people who say they are for animal rights in this case get their way, the horses face almost certain death and something almost worse – their removal from human society, another blow to the desperate need of animals to work and live among us. Everywhere, especially in America, animals are disappearing from our lives, and inevitably, from our world. Do they have the right to live with us? I believe in this right for the Central Park Horses: to survive and have purpose and meaning in the lives of human beings.

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