25 April

The Two-Minute Fall And Rise of Spartacus: When Truth Becomes Hysteria

by Jon Katz
De-Constructing A Lie
De-Constructing A Lie

On one afternoon in New York City last weekend, a a woman was mowed down and killed by a driver in an SUV, a homeless man was fatally struck by a car in Queens, and on the Upper East Side, a 63-year-old woman was run over by a cement truck, severing her left leg below the knee, according to police. That same afternoon, a hit-and-run driver in Brooklyn struck a nine-year-old boy on a bicycle, leaving him in a coma. The incidents were reported on an online traffic registry. No reporters went to the scene of any of these accidents; there were no photographs or videos posted online, no public officials made any statements about any of them, there were no protests by demonstrators from any organization of any kind.

Thursday, the carriage being pulled by a horse named Spartacus tipped over and Spartacus fell down. Several minutes later, he got up and rode home. It was a very different story.


(Note:  I want to say to the busy and distracted people reading the story of Spartacus recounted here that it seems that almost every single thing about this story as reported by several animal rights organizations, then widely disseminated by the New York media, and recounted below, has turned out to be false, including perhaps the identity and existence of the mythical Oklahoma “tourist” who is believed to have started it all. )

Thursday afternoon of this week,  shortly after noon, an incident occurred in Manhattan involving Spartacus, a 15-year-old draft horse. More than a dozen media outlets – some on radio, some on news blogs on the Internet – broke into their regular news coverage – several issued “bulletins” and “special reports” to report that a New York Carriage Horse was “spooked” by a bus, collapsed on Central Park South, was held down cruelly by carriage drivers seeking to save a carriage, and then forced, while limping,  to return to work. A tourist from Oklahoma, said the animal rights groups,  immediately e-mailed the photograph above to PETA (People For The Ethical Treatment Of Animals) and also NYClass, the leader of the move to ban the horses from New York.

The visitor allegedly texted that the incident was one of the worst animal abuse incidents he had ever witnessed. He said a bus came close to the horse and “spooked it (rightfully so I was also scared of how close the busses were to us.)” The horse,  said the tourist, bucked and started to run when it’s carriage went off the curb and pinned the animal to the ground.”

“The men (if that’s what we want to call them),”  the tourist reported, “proceeded to hold the horse down and save their carriage (yes, carriage, not horse) from further damage. He said the drivers  said they were refusing to cut the carriage away because they would have to pay for the damage, and the driver, he said, “clearly had no concern for the horse.”

Finally, said the tourist in a statement widely disseminated by PETA to news organizations for several hours on a score of New York media outlets, “the men proceed to strap the horse back into harnesses and continue to work even though he was clearly limping and hurt!!!”

I thought the tourist’s quotes were strange for a passerby. He sounded just like an animal rights protestor.  I contacted a New York reporter, a former journalism student of mine, he said no one outside of PETA spoke to this person, the reporter looked for him at the scene and at the animal rights demonstrations later that afternoon. Like me, he thought his quotes oddly familiar, very close to the rhetoric of the animal rights demonstrators and spokespeople he has spoken to. No one spoke to him, and there was, as of this writing, no evidence that he actually exists, at least not in the form of a disinterested Oklahoma tourist. I checked the MTA routes online, and busses don’t stop where the carriage horses line up. And the concerned tourist said he was close enough to overhear the driver’s speaking, but it seems he was not close enough to see that at least one of them was a woman.

I wonder if this person exists, and if he does, why he would take the trouble to contact PETA with his very inconclusive photograph, utter numerous statements that turn out to be completely untrue (no one at the scene, for example, reported any contact with busses), and then vanish without speaking to any reporters or contacting any news organizations. If he had witnessed the abuse he describes and felt strongly enough about it to contact PETA, why wouldn’t he also tell his story to news organizations eager to report it without any substantiation at all. Mike, the reporter, e-mailed me again this morning, “I can find no evidence that there is such a person,” he said. He said PETA would not respond to his questions about it.

If he does exist, I’m sure the animal rights organizations will want to offer him to the public and media, his story of animal abuse is quite awful and ought to be heard in greater detail. If there is no evidence that he exists, why is he being quoted?


The mayor of New York City told reporters that the incident proved that carriage horses should not be in New York City traffic where there are busses and cars. It is not, he said, humane. The executive director of the animal rights organization  NY Class, said in a statement that the driver could have gotten Spartacus up on his feet in “two seconds” but was more interested in saving the carriage then the horse. The carriage trade cares nothing about the horses, she said, the horses are “just a commodity.” PETA issued a statement on their website saying “a horse named Spartacus was pinned under a carriage in a horrifying accident outside the Plaza Hotel.” Animal rights demonstrators showed up very quickly; their protests were all over the evening newscasts.

They seemed almost gleeful, a horse abuse story, just in the nick of time.

The fall of Spartacus is compelling on many levels, it helps us understand the politics of animal abuse, the fall of journalism in the  digital age,  how animals are exploited for financial and political gain by people who claim to be their advocates.

The rise and fall of Spartacus also shows us how easy and manipulative it is to disseminate images of injured animals to people. Most Americans have become utterly disconnected from the real lives of real animals.

The most striking thing about the version of events reported above in New York City most of the day yesterday – and continuing throughout the night and this morning –  is that they are either a gross distortion and misrepresentation of a very insignificant accident or a a complete fabrication.  The only fact reported in the early story that was true was that there had been an incident involving two carriages and that a horse  (and his carriage) had fallen down and then, got up. That was about it. The incident was not only not horrifying, it was not even especially interesting.

It revealed nothing about the safety or viability of carriage horses in New York one way or the other, it had nothing to do with traffic, abuse or the health of animals. On a horse or rescue farm, it would probably have not made it past the conversation at dinner. I’ve had equines on my farm fall down several times. Unless there is something broken, you take your time and help them to get up. Life occurs, then goes on.

Both the New York City Police and the MTA, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, said no busses were involved in any accident involving a carriage horse, there were none near Spartacus when the accident occurred. A number of eyewitnesses, including Christina Hansen, a carriage driver and spokesperson for the carriage trade and someone I know well  (she is also a person I have found to be truthful in all of her many statements to me during lots of research on the horses) were present when the incident occurred. The horse was not “spooked” at any time, she said, but was remarkably calm throughout. The wheel of his carriage caught in the rear wheel of the carriage in front, and the carriage overturned causing the horse to fall on the ground.

Spartacus, she said, was on the ground for between two and three minutes.

Hansen, an eyewitness and historian and equine authority,   was not quoted in any of the early stories or breathless accounts of  the incident, mostly from the unnamed and strangely hostile- to -the -carriage trade Oklahoma tourist. In the heat of the moment, and while transmitting a single photograph, he managed to portray New York City and it’s busses as incompatible with horses, and  the entire carriage trade industry as greedy and uncaring, mirroring precisely the arguments of the organizations trying to ban them. That’s a lot of political messaging in a hurry, sent before he disappeared or could be interviewed.

Hansen said the “tourists” account was inaccurate in almost every detail other than that Spartacus fell. She said an unattended horse that was not tied to a pole pulled out from behind, clipping the back wheel of Spartacus’s carriage. He then went up on the sidewalk, tipping the carriage over. There was no vehicle of any kind involved and the carriage did not fall on the horse or trap him.

Allie Feldman, the executive direct of NY Class – she was not present –  took off from the “tourist’s” message and said the carriage driver was clearly more interested in saving the carriage than the horse. No one seems to have asked her how she could possibly know the driver’s motives, since she was not present, does not know the driver or the horse, did not speak to anyone who was involved.

She said the incident involving Spartacus was “tragic,” a quote widely disseminated all over the city Thursday afternoon in stories and headlines. Although this quote appeared all over the Internet, I did not understand it. Something that is tragic pertains to a “dreadful, calamitous, disastrous, or fatal” event. I’m not sure how a horse falling down and getting up meets the definition..

There were other witnesses, but none of them were quoted in most of the media reports. Jane Dorman, a reader of my blog and a visitor to the city who was looking to take a carriage ride e-mailed me last night and said she was present, unlike most of the people who were talking about it.

She was stunned to see the news reports on television and online when she returned to her hotel room. “They were quoting all of these people who weren’t there. I was; a bunch of drivers rushed right away to help the horse, they were very concerned about him; they talked to him, gave  him carrots, gently got the harness off him, made sure he was ready to stand up, they got him out of there right away and said they were taking him back to the stable. It was all over in a few minutes.  I could not believe the event I saw was the one I saw on TV and read about. That was much more frightening to me than the horse falling – you could see he was fine. But the lying, wow, you have to see it to believe it.

Jane was getting a lesson in modern media and also a window into the dynamics of the carriage horse controversy. If the supposed Oklahoma tourist had not taken his cell phone picture and send it off to NY Class, there would probably have been no stories about Spartacus, no bulletins, mayoral statements or demonstrations.

Dorman, who owns a horse ranch in Michigan, told me she texted two news organizations and NYClass to relate what she had seen, but no one answered her or seemed interested in quoting her. What she told me is essentially what was eventually confirmed by almost everyone involved.

Hansen and the drivers said they kept the horse on the ground so that they could safely remove his harness. It is common practice when equines fall to keep the animal down, to keep their heads down. Horses can do great harm to themselves if they try to stand up in a panic.  If the horse had gotten up too quickly, said Tony Serano, the driver, he could have been injured, equine veterinarians support what he did. Salerno said Spartacus remained calm, and he fed him pieces of a carrot to keep him still. It is not true, said anyone involved,  that the horse was either limping or returned to work.

Spartacus was taken immediately back to his stable on the West Side and examined by a police veterinarian, who pronounced him healthy and unscathed. There was not a scratch on the horse, said the veterinarian, whose stable was immediately opened to public view for anyone to come and see for themselves.

The mayor and the animal rights organizations pushing the carriage ban have been taken a beating lately – polls of New Yorkers, the city’s three newspapers and a number of labor unions and business groups all show there is enormous opposition to the proposed ban, and the proponents were excited and well-prepared when offered a “horrible” and “tragic” incident reported by a phantom with a cell phone. Yesterday, they seemed almost desperate for something tragic to happen.

“The one yesterday was not the first one – it was one in a long line of accidents,” said Mayor deBlasio. “And it’s for a very simple reason – horses don’t belong on the streets of New York City.” The mayor has not yet learned that accidents happen everywhere, and the horses have fewer of them than most horses anywhere.  If this is the kind of incident he is talking about, the horses ought to be here for a long time. Four carriage horses have died as the result of accidents in the past thirty years, while undertaking more than 3 million rides – no human fatalities ever, no horse deaths in the past 20 years. Last year, more than 15,000 New Yorkers were taken to hospitals as the result of collisions with motor vehicles, bicycles, trucks and busses  in New York.

There is no evidence that Serano did anything wrong, he seems to have done everything right, only to be accused of caring more for his carriage than his horse.  It does seem that the horses are a commodity.  It is important to remember that the animal rights organizations invoking horse abuse – NYClass, the A.S.P.C.A., the U.S. Humane Society, have drawn many volunteers and celebrities and raised millions of dollars in New York portraying the carriage horses as abused in a long and ugly campaign. They have used the money to give millions of dollars to politicians, to construct prototypes of the much reviled eco-friendly vintage electric cars and make themselves significant players in New York politics in the process.

The animal rights movement is  widely credited with electing Mayor deBlasio and de-railing his major opponent, a former City Council President who opposed the horse ban. The carriage horse controversy is at the epicenter of their recent rise to power and influence, they appear determined to keep it going. I am a supporter of animal rights, I am an advocate for animals, and they are not well served when they are used and portrayed in the way Spartacus was this week.

It is worthwhile to understand and de-construct this incident, even if the New York media may not do it, because it tells us so much about this story and the ways in which animals are being exploited and threatened by people claiming to be speaking for their rights.

It is hard to follow the line of reasoning that suggests and accepts the idea these the carriage owners or drivers would abuse a horse in full view of thousands of people in one of New York City’s most trafficked tourist locations in the midst of a heated controversy over the future of their industry when any mistake or incident is surely going to be pounced upon as a justification to put them out work and end their way of life.

That is beyond cruel, it would be insane. It makes no sense at all. Is it really plausible that a carriage driver would tell a strange tourist in New York with scores of people standing around that he didn’t care about his fallen horse, he only cared about the cost of the carriage? And that he would put a limping animal back to work in front of hundreds of cellphones with cameras and video capability?

The truth matters in this story, there is a lot at stake.  There is a 150-year-old popular tradition on the line, more than 300 jobs, and the fate of 200 working horses. It’s worth a phone call or two.

I called the New York Police Department and the Metropolitan Transit Authority and I learned in several minutes that there was no bus involved, there was no accident, there was not even a police report. The horse was not injured in any way; he was not abused in any way, he was not forced to work limping, or at all, in fact he was not limping. No human beings or passersby or tourists were hurt, no harm was done other than to rattle the nerves of an excitable Oklahoma tourist who might not even exist. Even the carriage was not harmed.

I talked with a friend who has a horse farm in Saratoga Springs and I asked her how many horses are injured in accidents on her farm, she says it is quite common for horses to stumble or fall, injure themselves on fences, to be spooked by birds or strange objects and hurt themselves running away. She said it was standard practice when a horse in harness falls to keep them down until the harness is clear and certain they won’t harm themselves by getting up too quickly – their legs can be fragile, they can sometimes twist or break getting up the wrong way. I called our equine vet who said the same thing. “The drivers did the right thing,” she said, “they were putting the horse first. The last thing you want to do is cause more damage.”

The emotional power of injured animal images might explain why we never see images of the many New Yorkers – nearly 300 a year – who are killed in real accidents, and who don’t get right up like Spartacus and walk away.

If we saw photos of the people injured and killed in those accidents that week in New York, the mayor would be re-arranging his priorities very quickly, perhaps getting to the comparatively much safer horses later. For me, the big story for Friday is not Spartacus, who is getting some time off, but why the mayor, the people at PETA and NYClass all reported things that were not true. Why they made so many statements that proved to be false, why so many news organizations mindlessly repeated them. New York City is trying to decide if domesticated animals that are not pets can remain in cities and among people. Hysterias like the one that swept the city yesterday are not helpful.

In the real world, in cities, on farms, on animal preserves life happens, accidents occur all the time, the horses are no more immune than the rest of us. They just get a lot more media coverage than the many more accidents that occur to people.

There are, in fact, two sides to everything, concerns about the carriage horses are legitimate, it is important to have a debate about them. But the story of the rise fall of Spartacus was not a debate, it was a hysteria fueled by new technologies that make it easy to spread information, difficult for people to find out the truth. It is still there, if anyone wants to take the time to look for it.

– And what, I wondered, of that homeless man struck down, that woman who lost her leg on the Upper East Side, that child in a coma, in Brooklyn. Is the story of a healthy horse who fell down and got up more important than the lives of human beings who are grievously harmed and truly abused?

Just imagine when you think of the rise and fall of Spartacus would would happen if the photos of these poor injured and killed people were all over the Internet every day, if the eyewitnesses to their accidents were all over the news with their cellphone photos and videos. It would be traumatic for the people seeing those images, just as it is traumatic to see horses lying down in the street. It is dishonest to present these rare occurrences as representative of the lives of horses or other animals.

 These accidents were real tragedies involving real people, not phantom manifestations of cruelty manufactured  by the truly callous people for political gain. What we saw in New York City on Thursday is a culture that pays too much attention to the lies, and ignores the things that are true.

We know where Spartacus is, we know every detail of his mishap. We will never know what happened to that 63-year-old woman, who that homeless man was, how the boy in the coma is doing. There has not been not another word about any of them. They mayor made no comment about them, the media wrote no stories about them.

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