17 February

The Carriage Horses: If They Can Do It To Them…

by Jon Katz
Criminalizing The Carriage Horses
Criminalizing The Carriage Horses

Mr. Schine was my high school history teacher, he was a ferociously conservative Republican, a kind man, a great teacher. He taught me many things, one of the most important was the story he told about Pete Seeger, the folk singer who died a couple of weeks ago. Mr. Schine didn’t agree with much of anything Pete Seeger believed, but he respected him for his willingness to go to jail rather than co-operate with the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was investigating alleged Communist ties to the arts in America.

Seeger, Mr. Schine told us, could have avoided jail simply by pleading the Fifth Amendment, but he refused, saying he had done nothing wrong and would not turn over the names of his friends who had also done nothing wrong and were in no way “un-American.”

Seeger said it was important for him to stand up for his beliefs, he said “if they can do this to me, then they can do this to you.” It was a profoundly important stand, said Mr. Schine, the essence of patriotism. Seeger was sentenced to a year in jail, the sentence was overturned on appeal. Many liberals and conservatives have looked back and praised Seeger for his stand, at the time unpopular and much denigrated.

It was a different time, before the plague of the “left” and the “right” shrunk so many American minds. Conservatives could like some liberal ideas, liberals could like some conservative ideas, they talked to one another all the time, respected different things about each other. Mr. Schine didn’t accept labels, he thought for himself, he would not be watching cable news today.  People who disagreed with one another were not demons or criminals, they were fellow citizens in a common purpose. Journalists actually left their offices and checked things out. The point, Mr. Schine told us, was that when we begin criminalizing things because they are different from what we think or believe, then we are all in danger.

If they could do it to Pete Seeger, he taught us,  then one day they could do it us. It would be nice if we learned about mobs and hysterias, but we quickly forget them. They seem an inevitable part of the democratic experience, they pop up again and again, preaching righteousness and anger and hate. History teaches us there are very few Pete Seegers.

I think of this story often as I delve into the painful controversy over the New York Carriage Horses. Horses are not people, the carriage trade is not Communism, but there are some principles that are bigger than the issues in front of us and this is one of them, at least for me and for the many anguished animal lovers I am hearing from, but who never seem to be heard.

The politicians and people described as animal rights activists in New York City have formed something of a new media mob, they are after the Carriage Horse Industry, they are criminalizing the ideas, behaviors, beliefs and practices that are hundreds, if not thousands of years old, and they are doing it in the ugliest, least compassionate and most unthinking possible way.

Throughout American history, there have been these kinds of cultural and political hysterias, from the Salem witches to the Communists to the Japanese-Americans corralled into prison camps during World War II.  This new one tends to view animals narrowly, not as equals but as dependents, creatures in need of pity and rescue and saving from the deprivations of people. And the people who have a different view of animals must then be abusers,  monsters and criminals.

When the political-media machine gets whipped up, as they have regarding the carriage horses, there is not much to stop them, surely not the hapless carriage horse industry and their 200 plus horses. When this sort of thing happens, it is usually some time before we will look back and cringe and wonder how those beautiful horses – they seem part of the park – could have been driven away in this manner, the people who owned them brushed so roughly aside.  For many thousands of years, people have loved carriage horses, worked with them lived with them and loved them, sometimes mistreated and abused them. There are carriage horse associations in our country and others, the horses are an enduring interest and hobby, a passion for some.

The furor over the carriage horses has all the earmarks of a hysteria: an uncontrollable outburst of fear, anger characterized by irrationality or lack of reason. Hysterias and social media go well together, Facebook is perhaps the world’s leading transmitter of hysterias, and you will find a trove of rage against the carriage horses there, hysteria and rage are perhaps the most shared emotions on the Internet.

Never in all the history of carriage horses were the people who owned them considered greedy, thieving, cold-blooded abusers. Never were they treated like criminals, run out of business, ignored by political leaders,  told how to sell their horses, when to work them, walk them, how to live with them, how many vacation days (five weeks) to make them take.  There is some record of mistreatment and overwork, no notion anywhere that work itself was abuse. The mayor of New York, an ally of the animal rights movement there, has likened the care of horses to “water-boarding,” a form of torture, he refuses to acknowledge the carriage horse industry, he will not talk to them or visit their stables.

The city’s new mayor and City Council is considering legislation that would ban the horses and make it a crime to sell the horses for any purpose but rescue or pets.  This is the first time in history that I can find that a government agency told the owners of animals – considered private property in every state in the nation –   what they must do with them, where they must go. A driver arrested for failing to treat a horse’s foot infection last December was charged under domestic violence statutes, the courts issued an “order of protection” for the horse, an order meant to protect spouses and children from violence.

On the websites of the groups working to ban the horses from New York – NY Class and the Coalition To Ban Carriage Horses, among others – there are all kinds of accusations against the Carriage Horse Industry which seems overwhelmed, at times, in even trying to respond to them: that the horses are underfed, de-hydrated, over-worked, kept in “cells” too small to lie down in, live in stables with no fire protection, at great risk from cars and trucks, contribute to global warming, harm the New York economy, slow rush hour traffic, rob tourists and over-charge them, pollute the parks with animal waste, cruelly abused and discarded. China, who does not have carriage horses, is cited as a model for animal rights. (Psssst: They eat dogs there.)

The fact that only one person in the history of the New York Carriage Trade was charged with abuse or that only one horse in 20 years has died in a traffic accident (as opposed to 155 New Yorkers in 2012 alone) seems somehow lost in the swirl of furious and righteous accusations. Beyond that, the owners and drivers have been subject to continuous harassment,  personal, public and often vicious abuse – picketed, yelled at in the streets, (the protestors make fun of one driver’s teeth) accused of being greedy murderers.

These attacks have brought the horses more scrutiny, they are under more regulation and observation than any animals I know of anywhere. Several times in the past few weeks, the police have forbid the carriage horses from going outside to work, citing ice and weather conditions even though schools have been open and traffic moving normally and there was no ice on the streets. The idea that the owner of a horse can no longer decide when they might go outside and/or work heralds a new chapter in the relationship between people, animals and governments. It would seem that government has already done as much or more as government ought to do when it comes to dictating the lives of people and their animals.

Many of these unsupported accusations are essentially criminal – abuse and neglect, theft and pollution. They are crimes, there are already laws forbidding them, although no one has ever been convicted of one. But the thing is,  if someone is seen as criminal, they don’t need to be empathized with, listened to, negotiated with or treated as human beings. A cowardly mayor has no need to speak with them.

The idea that the city government would mandate how I must sell my animals and to whom is disturbing. And think about it: anyone can put up a website about me  or you (some people have) and accuse me of all sorts of things that are not so. I was assaulted online for years because I euthanized a dog who bit three people, including a child. The attacks on the carriage horse industry have gone on for years, been relentless and widely disseminated on the Internet, where any accusation about anything is instantly shared. I always assumed government and the courts were a buffer against mobs and untruths and injustice. In New York City, the mobs seem to be government, we’ll see about the courts.

Believe me,  If they can do it to them, they can do it to you and me.  I can tell you that whatever you think of this issue, the people who own and ride the horses are quite human, just as you and I are, they deserve to be treated as human beings, they have a right to be heard. The mayor refuses to meet with them or speak to them, the leader of NY Class, the leaders of the movement to ban the horses, was a major campaign contributor to the mayor’s election campaign last year. Finally, says the group’s website, “we have a mayor who is one of us!” One of the truest statements on the site.

Why does this matter to me someone who is not a horse person and who has no connection of any kind with the Horse Carriage Industry? I’ve never even ridden a horse-drawn carriage, something I plan to remedy next week in New York.  The stakes in this issue are high, to anyone who owns an animal, or who believes individuals have some rights to their work and dignity, who believes relationships with animals can be personal and individual, who believes working animals need work and some other role in the world than being rescued. Or to anyone who believes people are entitled to some protection from the often hateful mobs that thrive on the Internet? It is the targets of mobs that most need support, the mobs never seem short-staffed.

One goal of this new animal rights movement is to keep animals like horses from working, to narrow their purpose to being rescued or living on farms and rescue facilities. That is a profound change in the way people and society view animals, it could help doom all animals who are not pets from living in cities or suburbs, where 90 per cent of Americans live. It may affect K-9 dogs, police horses, seeing-eye dogs, therapy dogs, border collies, any animal who works. New York is our biggest city, what it does matters. If it is cruel to allow working horses to work, why not other animals? If one precedent is set, why would it not lead to another.  This crusade, as the websites quite openly point out, is just beginning. And their ideology is quite clear: it is abuse when animals work.

Potentially, this movement can criminalize the ways in which many of us live with our animals. My border collie works in all kinds of conditions, all day long. If I were subject to the laws being imposed on the horse carriage industry, I would be an animal abuser, I could be ordered to sell Red only to rescue organizations or people who promised to keep him from working and live only as a pet. He works a lot harder and under much worse conditions than the Central Park horses. If they can do it to them…

The relationship between people and animals is an intensely personal thing, this is a massive intrusion of government power and authority into a realm governments have avoided for all of human history, the movement goes far beyond the legal definitions of cruelty – none of the owners have been charged with abuse, one driver in 150 years. This is a movement to determine by statute and at the behest of ideologically driven political organizations what the role of all the animals in our lives and world must be. And it is a very narrow role, rejected by every animal lover I know. It also strikes me as a selfish role, it is about making people feel good, not what gives animals good lives and genuine rights. The right to only live on a rescue farm is, to me, just another kind of abuse.

The websites of NYClass and The Coalition To Ban Carriage Horses are unethical and nasy, filled with unsubstantiated accusations, rumors and innuendo. They do not permit outside comment or dissent, they are not held unaccountable for what they say, they never correct or clarify their many misstatements, although they have said them so often and intensely that many of these ideas now routinely make their way into the media and public discussions of the carriage horses fate. Big lies work.
The history of American mobs is not pretty, very few people or organizations have ever successfully weathered their assaults.  Mr. Schine and I both loved the writings of Thomas Paine, one of the most passionate writers and spirits behind the American Revolution.

“He what would make his own liberty secure,”  wrote Paine, “must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.” I am not a member of the carriage horse industry, I am not a joiner. I need to squawk about what I feel is so oppressive and thoughtless here.

There have been carriage horses for thousands of years, many people love these horses, care for them, follow them as an interest or hobby. It is not a simple or profitable line of work, some people do it for money, others for love, some for both. The people in this industry have one way of looking at animals and work, the people who call themselves animal rights activists have another. The people in the carriage horse industry have broken no laws, in a just and civil society these differences ought to be worked out in an open and democratic way, hopefully by political leaders who can rise about rigid dogma. Instead, they are being tarred in the most reckless way and are about to be driven out of business.

Mobs are never civil or democratic, there are two sides (at least) to every issue. The rhetoric and distortions of these particular groups is offensive. Their strategy is quite clear, to demonize, even criminalize their target so that no negotiation is possible. No wonder the carriage horse industry is so bewildered they have only begun to fight back, perhaps too late for them and their horses. They seem to keep waiting for their political leaders – in theory, the mayor is their mayor too – and the institutions of journalism and justice and public opinion to join the fray and challenge the mobs, but that is not happening now any more than it happened for the Salem witches or Pete Seeger. People in New York don’t seem to care about the horses,  they and their media are not paying much attention, that may be the horses ultimate undoing.

Good people can differ on this question of whether the Carriage Horses belong in New York City, it is an important debate and discussion to have. But it ought to be done in the right way, not by a howling and irresponsible mob of people who seem to know nothing about animals and who appear to have bought themselves a mayor. The survival of animals in our world depends on human beings finding new ways for them to live and work with us, especially in crowded cities and suburbs. It is at least worth a discussion.  It might be working with therapy dogs or finding ways to make life in New York City safer for the horses so many people love to see there. It might be creating special traffic lanes for them or building new stables close to or in Central Park. It might be deciding there is no place for them in New York any longer. What a shame to resolve it in this way, another win for the howling mob.

For me, there is also this question of individuality. The carriage industry has existed in New York for a long time, many people love to work in this trade, lead different kinds of lives, loves if individuality, connection with animals, work outside. In the corporate nation, does everyone have to live in a risk-free box, playing it safe, following other people’s ideas of what it is to live? Does government really get to tell us what law-abiding work we can choose to have?  Without the horses and their owners and their drivers, New York will be a less romantic, more antiseptic, bloodless and soulless place.  Idiosyncratic people driven out for trucks and condos and the politically correct. Does that matter at all?

In a free society, there ought to be many ways in which people look at the role of animals in our lives, not just one. If New York City bans the Central Park horses in so unjust and thuggish a way, it isn’t just the carriage horse industry that will pay for it, it means the new view of animals as piteous, abused and dependent will take even deeper root, and there will be nothing in our world for animals to do but vanish from out midst and be relegated to the new ghettos of the animal rights movement – no-kill shelters, rescue farms, the lush grasses of the rich, the mythical wild pastures where they all should go.

In the meantime, I’ll get down to New York and take a ride for myself, and I’ll think of Pete Seeger and Mr. Schine and Thomas Paine and their powerful messages which echo through time and are as meaningful today as they were many years ago. Liberty needs tending, then and now.  If they can do it to them, they can do it to me. And you.

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