Before I went to see the carriage horses in New York City last week, I talked with an equine veterinary specialist, a friend, I asked her what she looked for when she examined a horse or donkey for signs of abuse. She said the symptoms were clear – apathy, loss of appetite, deterioration of the coat and hooves, disconnection from the environment, from other equines – an unfocused gaze, lack of response to stimulus, skittishness, shyness around people.
“It is easy enough to see,” she said, “there are physical symptoms of deterioration and abuse, there are behavioral symptoms, it is not hard to spot.” I double-checked her list against those in two books I have used while researching my next book, which is on donkeys, particularly my donkey Simon, who was himself neglected and abused before coming to me. I had seen every one of those symptoms in him when he came to my farm, nearly starved and near death.
In the several hours I spent in two stables, I saw more than 40 of the horses, I didn’t see a single symptom of abuse on a single one, surprising after reading so many allegations of insufferable and chronic overwork and mistreatment. The horses I saw were alert, responsive, their coats were strong and shiny, their eyes clear, they seem very drawn to people, willing to be touched, brushed and handled. Abuse is not a hard thing to see in animals, they have no guile.
The charges of abuse seem almost hysterically exaggerated, even dishonest, perhaps that is why there are so many other accusations flying around, (the drivers steal money, gouge tourists, the horses can’t lie down, the suffering of the animals is incalculable, the horses are routinely hit by trucks and cars). The focal points of the move to ban the horses seems to shift. Much of the opposition to the existence of the horses – especially among politicians like the city’s mayor – seems to be that it is cruel for the horses to have to work. A New York Assemblywoman who describes herself as an animal rights activist has told reporters the “aim is to not have these horses work.” This thinking is dumbfounding to almost any farmer or anyone else who has anything to do with working animals.
There is something wrong with this movement, or perhaps there is just something wrong with me.
Is it abuse for Seeing Eye Dogs to spend their lives guiding humans around city streets rather than romping in open fields? Is it cruel to ask border collies to herd sheep and race around vast fields in heat and cold for hours on end, taking sheep out at dawn and bringing them back at dusk? Is it abusive for Labrador Retrievers and many mixed breed dogs to work as therapy dogs in nursing homes and veterans hospitals? In New York, I saw a dozen bomb-sniffing dogs working in the train station, hunting for explosives. It is really the thinking of the mayor, City Council members and animal rights activists that this constitutes abuse and mistreatment? It is one thing to raise thoughtful questions about the role of animals in urban environments, it is quite another to stick your head up your ass during the debate and keep it there.
Almost all of the animal I mentioned above live and work in New York City every day. They do remarkable work, they are a wondrous testament to the way animals can evolve to learn to be with us in the modern world, as their natural lives and roles habitats vanish due to our selfishness and greed. Animals across the spectrum are doing new work for people, insuring them survival in a difficult world and giving us the benefit of their amazing instincts and skills. It ought not be animals rights groups that are driving them away from us, there are enough commercial, environmental and cultural forces doing that.
I wonder if the mayor, who has no animals of his own, will seek to ban the horses of the New York Police Department, don’t they live in stables and stalls and navigate the harsh streets of New York? If it is cruel for the carriage horses to work, is it humane for police horses to face hostile crowds, terrorists and disturbed human beings?
It seems unjust to me for the carriage horse owners and riders to be accused of abuse and mistreatment, they have no motive or purpose in doing that, they are closer to their horses than any protester shouting in the streets. If these charges are true, why is no one being charged and prosecuted? It is, to me, a profoundly unthinking position to equate work with abuse when it comes to animals, some dogs, donkeys, horses – even birds – have been bred for centuries to work with people, there has often been mistreatment, but more than that is the most glorious chapter in the history of animals and humans, different species working together for so many good things. It is the most natural thing in the world for working animals to work.
The Seeing Eye Dog often has a much harsher, less regulated and more circumscribed life than any carriage horse, a dog guiding the blind devotes him or herself to the safety and protection of their charge, they do not socialize, run and play when they wish, sun themselves on grassy knolls in the mythical wild. The bomb-sniffing dogs of Amtrak wear vests that say “Do Not Pet,” they spend hours in subterranean stations and in the backs of SUVs. ” Is that cruelty? Working animals do not seek to spend their lives on rescue farms, working horses have no understanding of life in the wild, no instincts for surviving there. Beyond that, countless dogs work supporting the emotional lives of increasingly pressured and disconnected Americans. This work is as valuable as any. Working animals are a gift to us, they are uplifting and healing, they brighten many lives and make them meaningful. They do incalculable good, it is a profoundly misguided thing to suggest they are being mistreated because they are asked to work.
Two weeks ago, I took my border collie Red, a therapy dog, to a veteran’s home. We saw Ted, a man who lost his legs in Iraq, who suffered severe brain trauma, who shakes and drools, and rarely speaks. When he saw Red, he pushed himself out of the wheelchair and into the floor, he threw his arms around my dog and sobbed and shook his head, he hugged Red for ten or fifteen minutes, the astonished dog, recovering, curled up in Ted’s lap on the linoleum floor, the two of them lay together in a powerful embrace of healing and emotion. The nurses begged Red and I to return. We will.
In reading through the naive statements of politicians and the angry accusations of people who call themselves defenders of animal rights, I saw no awareness of this profound connection between human, animals and work, of the possibilities for animals and humans to live together if this kind of work is encouraged, broadened, defended. The horses do a different kind of work, but I have seen the faces of children who ride in those carriages, and the tourists who visit New York and the young lovers who ride wide-eyed in one of the world’s most beautiful parks. It is meaningful work, beautiful work. Has anyone asked them whether they want to ride in those carriages or in “vintage electric carts.”
They support many jobs in New York, they generate a lot of money. Do they have any rights in this discussion? If the horses are banned, we will be be moving towards a system where a mayor and some well out-of-the-mainstream political organizations get to arbitrarily decide which “abused” animals get to survive in cities and which don’t. It seems under this reasoning, only governments get to own working animals and “abuse” them in the name of public welfare.
I cannot get my head around the idea that Red’s work or the Seeing Eye Dogs or work for the carriage horses – working animals – is in itself cruel. Red does not wish or need to be running in the wild, neither do carriage horses. Anyone who knows working animals know the real cruelty comes from depriving them of their work, not in their working. I am no libertarian, but I cherish individuality and the right of people and animals to live their lives (maybe I am a libertarian). Horses have a right to be in New York, people have the right to own and ride them, people have the right to see and ride them if they wish. It is not the business of politicians to inject themselves into people’s lives that way, it is the antithesis of progressive.
The people in the carriage industry have broken no laws, they treat their horses well, they are healthy and well cared for and monitored, there are many people who wish to live among them and ride in their carriages. I approached this story with some detachment, I love working animals and live with them, but I assumed there might be some validity to all of these charges and awful accusations.
I have to be honest, there do not seem to be many, if any.
The campaign against the carriage horses is cruel, distorted, misleading at every turn, now entwined with city politics, real estate and – this is evident again and again – a profound ignorance regarding the real lives of real animals. In America, there is a widening schism between people who have pets and people who live with animals. The horses are among the most visible and disturbing casualties of this conflict, this is a failure both of politics, the people who claim to speak for animals, and a lazy and manipulable media.
The truth is right out there for anyone to see, it is not hidden or hazy or buried deep beneath the surface. The stables are open and welcoming, the carriage owners and riders will talk to anyone, not the behavior of monsters and abusers. Anyone can walk into those stables – the mayor refuses to go – and see it. I did. Anyone can ride in those carriages, I have and I will. There is, for all the disconnection and media hype, still such a thing as right and wrong, we each much follow our own instincts in deciding which is which.
I was a reporter for more than two decades, I have lived with animals for nearly as long. The truest animal lovers on the earth are those who live and work with them. This thing is wrong.