Hattie McCarren, an African-American single mother in New Orleans who cares for four children and six grandchildren – she is 63 now – did not intend to leave New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina approached. When the hurricane bore down on the city and officials belatedly realized how severe the storm would be, they issued a mandatory evacuation order and Hattie hurriedly piled her extended family into a battered old mini-van and left her dog Gus, a Lab/Shepherd mix behind. She expected to return in a day or so, she left food for him and water on the second floor.
Dogs were not allowed in the evacuation shelters.
It was almost a month before Hattie returned, and there was no sign of Gus. Many pet owners left their animals, fully intending to return. People without resources – people like Hattie – were forced onto buses or the trucks of volunteers and barred from bringing any animals. Tens of thousands of domesticated pets were abandoned in New Orleans. In the weeks following Katrina, hundreds of rescue and animal rights volunteers poured into the city, searching for these animals, feeding and rescuing them and ultimately, putting many thousands up for adoption.
It took Hattie two years to find her much loved dog Gus and two more to get him back. The same people who rushed to save her dog refused to return him to her. She not only lost her home, she was plunged into the angry and arrogant world of animal rights
I talked to Hattie this weekend, I found her story and that of so many others online, and through the powerful NPR documentary MINE, which documents the story of thousands of people who experienced the same nightmare. These were mostly poor New Orleans residents who were victimized first by Katrina, and then again by people claiming to be acting in the interests of the rights of animals. The shocked producers of the documentary said it often seemed that some elements of the rescue movement did not care much about people, just animals. That is a familiar observation to anyone who follows the New York carriage horses and their story.
“I didn’t have much money,” Hattie told me, “but I never stopped looking for Gus, we spent hundreds of dollars looking for him, people in the neighborhood got together, we hired this young lawyer to help us out, lot of us were looking for our dogs and cats, hoping and praying they was alive.” She found him through an animal registry set up by the Red Cross, he had his name and rabies ID when found.
Then she said, to her shock, she learned she had to go to court to get Gus back. She had been tagged as an animal abuser.
Hattie is deeply religious, she has had a dog all of her life. “I gave thanks to the Lord when we found Gus,” she said, “it was a miracle, it was such a happy day for all of us. I was ready to cook grits, Gus loved his grits in the morning, and some fresh chicken liver too. But it was too soon for me to be happy, the fight was just starting.”
Hattie’s story, and many hundreds like it draw attention to the new reality of animal rights: in a growing number of cases, the carriage horses prominent among them, the animal rights and rescue cultures have evolved into a government-tolerated kind of cultural militia answerable only to themselves, and with a self-appointed police, judge and jury ethos that has gone gone out of control. It functions beyond law, reason or humanity. It is, in a growing number of cases, a rogue culture, not a benign force for helping animals.
I talked to Hattie’s lawyer in New Orleans. “It was surreal,” he said,”these people had no right to seize someone else’s property, turn it over to someone else, and refused to return it. That is just not the law anywhere in America.” This is a lesson the mayor of New York might soon be learning for himself.
In Hattie’s case and many others that are being documented, animal rights organizations, with the help of naive and money-hungry politicians are trampling on the human and civil rights of animal owners and lovers and with people who earn their living working with animals or farming with them. I am encountering and receiving stories like Hattie’s every single day from all over the country, I can barely process them.
When Hattie finally located Gus, he was living in a home outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the rescue volunteers who had found him wandering the streets of New Orleans took him and put him up for adoption. When Gus was taken to a vet, it was discovered that he had heart worm, not uncommon in the South. The rescue group told Hattie that because Gus had heart worm, he had clearly been abused, she was guilty of neglect. They refused to return him to her, they said she was not fit to own a dog.
They said if she applied for another dog, they would refuse to give her one.
It took Hattie and her lawyer – and more contributions from family and friends – nearly another two years to get Gus back. Many others were not so lucky. “People around the country opened their homes to Katrina dogs and cats, giving them loving homes and bonding with them,” reported the documentary. “It was convenient for adoptive families to imagine that the animals had been abandoned by their owners, or that their owners had been neglectful.” Some people interviewed even went to far as to say Katrina was the best thing that could have happened to these dogs and cats. This is also familiar language to the New York carriage horse drivers, several animal rights officials have been quoted as saying that the horses would be better off dead than pulling carriages in New York.
As many people are coming to see and know, there is an elitist, sometimes even racist, strain in the attitudes and decisions of some animal rescuers and animal rights workers – they consider themselves to be progressive. Increasingly, they are establishing criteria for owning and keeping animals – dogs, cats, horses, chickens and sheep – that favor the wealthy and penalize working class people. They are establishing new and unexamined criteria for abuse, adoption and cruelty without any process of law or any kind of negotiation or dialogue with animal owners and lovers.
I have received scores of messages from people refused adoptions – even of older dogs who have languished in shelters for months and years – because their property is not large enough, far enough from traffic, equipped with big fences, or they can’t commit to expensive medical practices and procedures. In some cases, the elderly are refused adoptions because it isn’t clear how long they might live or how far they can walk each day.
Do people like Hattie have the right to adopt and live with dogs if they are held responsible for their care and welfare?
These increasingly Draconian decisions – Cook County, Illinois (Chicago) has passed legislation forbidden people from buying dogs from breeders – splits animal ownership and access along class and economic lines. It doesn’t help the millions of dogs languishing in “no-kill” shelters for years sometimes, either. Shelter dogs are the only way many people can have animals in their lives, and the only way many dogs can find homes when wealthy people don’t adopt them.
People are often told they can’t adopt one of the millions of needy animals in shelters because they work (James Epstein, a publishing assistant, in Boston was denied a dog because he works and lives alone. He should have lied, he said.) Preemptive and expensive medicines that were once considered optional choices and are now mandatory, no longer choices but indicators of cruelty and abuse. The people most affected are people without access to politicians, expensive websites and fund-raising campaigns and who have a difficult time standing up to the well-organized, lavishly funded coalition of organizations who make all kinds of decisions without any kind of accountability.
“I could not understand how these people in Michigan could try and take Gus away from me” said Hattie, happy to have Gus finally back in her life, thanks to a judge. She was afraid to send me a photograph of Gus, she said, because she thought the animal rights people would come and take him away again. Hattie reminds me that need a movement for animals that people support, not fear. And that helps people, not persecutes them.
“They told me they worked for animal rights – how could they tell me that I was not fit to raise my dog? They made me feel so bad. And then, to not get him back because he had the heart worm. I don’t have no hundreds of dollars for heart worm pills, but if I’d know he had it I would have raised the money somehow. I did when he came back. He is my dog, nobody had the right to take my home and my dog from me. I won’t lie down for that.”
The rescue and animal rights movements are both grounded in good intentions and great need. They have moved far away from their original mandates and good intentions, they have become something no one imagined and few people quite grasp. They break into farms and research facilities, intimidate and threaten students who study poultry farming, attack people who disagree with them, harass them online, pressure movie producers into killing animals rather than subjecting their companies to relentless attacks, they hound circuses and county fairs, people whose ponies ride kids around farmer’s markets. They seek everywhere to banish animals who work and deprive their owners of subsistence, it seems increasingly clear that they are killing many more animals than they are helping.
When the public is consulted, it seems they have a radically different agenda than the animal rights groups. More than 62 per cent of New York City residents want the horses to stay in New York.
The mystical carriage horses have awakened a new kind of social movement. They are awakening people to the need to reclaim the idea of animal rights and offer animals greater roles in the world than living on rescue preserves, where they will eat hay and drop manure for the rest of their lives. Or simply vanish from the world.
More and more animals like horses are being abandoned, sent to slaughter or simply not acquired in America because there are not enough rescue facilities on the earth for all the animals who will need them if they have no connection with people, no work to do, and the regulations and restrictions for keep them make it unsustainable for many people, especially the middle-class and the poor.
Money, as always, has become a significant factor in the care and future of animals. Groups like PETA, the A.S.P.C.A. and the H.S.U.S. are coming increasingly under fire for the enormous salaries of their executives, the money they are pouring into political coffers, their manipulation of images and emotions to collect donations.
Animal rights have become one of the most effective money-laundering operations in American life, the money often thrown away to campaign against elephants in circuses, or develop things like those ridiculous electric vintage cars for Central Park that would have easily paid to save a thousand horses from slaughter or for a great outdoor space or grazing area for the carriage horses in New York City.
Who, after all, is against rescuing animals? Or opposed to the rights of animals? How many animal lovers are able or willing to resist the hundreds of thousands of money-making images of abused, starving, suffering dogs, cats and carriage horses that flood social media every day and raise enormous amounts of money to pay for rescue and animal rights executive salaries, high-tech websites and blogs, and to donate to lawmakers happy to ban breeders, horses, circus animals, farm animals, pets, pony rides and other work and interaction that actually keeps animals alive and in our world.
Stories like Hattie’s remind us that the real rights of animals are deeply entwined with the real rights of human beings. One cannot exist without the other. Animals can only survive and prosper when they are connected to human beings who understand them and their lives. Animals will never have rights if the rights of the people who own them are not protected as well. There is no right for animals greater than the most basic: to exist alongside of us, to share the joys and travails of the world.
No secret and privately-funded organization ought to get to unilaterally decide who gets to have an animal and who doesn’t, or to exclude loving and worthy people because they don’t have lots of money. They do not get to arbitrarily and outside of the law decide – in collusion with mayors and millionaires – that they will redefine abuse to fit the impulse of the movement, or the whims of celebrities and wealthy people looking for causes.
For me, Hattie is a worthy symbol of this extra-legal social movement in the same way Rosa Parks became a powerful symbol of the civil rights movement. Make no mistake about it, civil rights are as much an issue with animals as they were and are with people. The civil rights of the New York Carriage Horse drivers and owners are being violated almost every day of their lives, in many different ways.
Hattie’s rights were also trampled upon, and she had the courage and the will to stand up and say just what the carriage horse drivers are saying, and in the very same words: enough, you can’t take my animal away from me without cause, you cannot tell me how to live.