16 December

Animal Rights And Abuse: The Border Collie And The Carriage Horse

by Jon Katz
Border Collie And Horse
Border Collie And Horse

The carriage horse controversy has raged back and forth all year, animal rights organizations trading accusation and insults with the carriage trade.

The mayor’s proposed ban has met ferocious opposition, most notably from labor unions, newspapers and business organizations in New York City who are outraged at the proposed elimination of more than 300 jobs and who bristle at the overreach of a mayor who wants to shut down a well-regulated and prosperous business that has operated for more than a century in the heart of New York, mostly, it seems,  because one of his major campaign contributors does not like it.

Those are valid objections to the ban, and they seem to be resonating with every single age, gender, racial and ethnic group in the normally fractious city. At least 66 per cent of New Yorkers oppose the mayor’s ban, according to recent polls.  Last week I attended a rally for the carriage horses at City Hall, it was vocal and well-attended. The focus was on saving jobs, there was strong representation from the Chamber Of Commerce and the Teamsters Union.

At the animal rights rally that preceded it, the focus was on their very new idea of animal abuse and the belief that animals like  horses as animals  no longer belong in New York City.

It was curious, but I didn’t see a lot of animal lovers at either rally (oddly, it does not seem as if the animal rights people like animals or people much), I continue to believe the urgent issues in this controversy that affect the future of animals are still not being widely debated or understood. And they speak more directly than any of the rally speakers to the rights and the welfare of animals. I was sorry to see that there were few people speaking about the real lives of animals. Perhaps another rally for another time. It is a conversation that urgently needs to happen in New York City and elsewhere. It has not happened yet.

New Yorkers are handicapped, the media there seems to know or care little about animals, and few of the city’s residents – most dramatically the animal rights activists – seem to know anything about animals who are not dogs or cats. It is the welfare of the animals themselves and the truth about their true nature that sometimes seems to get lost in the warring press conferences, statements and rallies in New York.

Outside of New York, animal lovers are awakening to the significance of the carriage horses and their fate. At stake is what abuse really is and what animal welfare means. The animal ideologists in New York are openly xenophobic about animals, especially those that are not pets. They believe all animals are victims or potential victims, and that animals like the carriage horses are simply not safe around human beings or urban environments, they must all be removed to protected preserves. They believe work for animals is exploitive, cruel and abusive.

When people ask me about it, I invoke the parable of the border collie and the carriage horse, because these animals are so similar but are perceived in such radically different ways. Maybe when considered together, they can bridge the divide.

I have been a life-time supporter of the animal rights movement until this year, when I saw it’s excesses, cruelty, financial corruption and moral inversions so clearly on display in New York. To understand the carriage horse controversy, one needs to understand the real issues affecting animals. They are not worried about jobs or business. They are struggling to survive, they need to be understood for what they are, not for what we project them to be.

The animal rights groups say the ban is necessary to stop the abuse of horses. They say the horses are unhappy and yearn for the freedom of the wild, for green pastures and social companionship. Assuming that they are sincere, and are not simply acting as agents for the real estate interests who drool over the West Side stables, as many New Yorkers believe, then people need to understand what is abuse for animals and what working animals like carriage horses and border collies (I have owned border collies for 15 years and written seven books about them) really need.

Animal abuse is a crime everywhere in the United States, it is against the law to neglect or mistreat animals to the point of grievous injury, suffering or neglect. It is illegal to deny shelter, food, water or medical care to animals in need. No legal jurisdiction anywhere in the United States considers it abuse for working animals to work – for border collies to herd sheep, for horses to pull carriages, for bomb-sniffing dogs to search for bombs, for seeing eye dogs to guide the visually impaired, for donkeys to haul wood and goods, for ponies to give rides to children, for elephants to be in a circus, for animals to be used in movies.

The claim that it is abuse for draft horses to pull light carriages on asphalt in Central Park – central to the mayor’s claim that the carriage trade is “immoral” – comes completely outside of the law, tradition, expert belief and common experience. I know of no reputable trainer or behaviorist or veterinarian who believes it is cruel for the carriage horses to do this work.

In fact, the carriage horses embody the very opposite of abuse by any acceptable legal or moral definition. By every account, they are fed, sheltered, regulated, given regular medical care and work, considered essential for the health and well-being of animals like this. “Happy” and “sad” are words animal rights people use, but not words that people who know animals use. Animals are neither happy or sad, they are content or uneasy. Generally speaking, animals that are fed and sheltered and well-treated are content, they do not make career choices or aspire to other kinds of lives.

And this is where the border collie comes in. In the animal world, and in the still rational sectors of the animal rights movement, it is actually considered cruel and abusive for border collies to be deprived of work. Reputable breeders warn border collie buyers not to get border collies if they do not have work for them to do, it is considered cruel for border collies to be confined in homes or apartments without work. These dogs will literally go insane – the opposite of content – if they have nothing to do.

This is not a controversial position, and no border collie advocate, some of whom are also animal rights activists, would consider it abusive for these dogs to work hard herding sheep, and in all kinds of weather. People love to watch these dogs work on TV or at the many herding trials held all over the country, they do not seem to understand that seeing the carriage horses work is no different. There is great joy in seeing an animal do what an animal is bred and meant to do. My border collie Red is not regulated, he does not get five weeks of vacation, he works in the summer and the winter, day or night, snow or sun.

Providing that kind of work for a border collie in the animal world is considered noble, even heroic. The people in the carriage trade have done the same thing for the carriage horses, most of whom would be long gone to slaughter if they were not pulling carriages in New York.

The horses have a much lighter and more constricted and regulated workload than a border collie, but this light work for the huge carriage horses is considered by many in New York to be abuse, something so intolerable that hundreds of people might lose their work and way of life, and the horses sent into the horrific maelstrom of horse slaughter and crisis ongoing in the United States.

The border collie and the draft horse are at different ends of the same spectrum. What applies to one applies to the other in most ways. Initially, the mayor and his supporters in the animal rights movement argued that the horses were being abused, this argument collapsed after scores of veterinarians, behaviorists, journalists and trainers accepted the stable owner’s invitation to come to the stables and see for themselves. I was one of those people. Even the mayor has dropped the claim of abuse, the argument has shifted now to the cruelty inherent in the horses being exposed to awful city fumes and endangering the public if they get spooked or panicked.

The new arguments are not faring much better, since no horse is known to suffer from respiratory disease, according to regular veterinary checks, and no human being has ever been killed by a carriage horse, not one in 150 years. Hundreds of people in New York die each year in motor vehicle and bicycle accidents.

The life of the border collie offers guidance and insight for well-meaning animal lovers seeking to get to the real issues for animals in the carriage horse controversy, those beyond jobs and business regulation. Draft horses are the border collies of the equine world, unlike many horses they have been bred to work with people for thousands of years, almost all of that time doing labor that is dramatically harder and more intense than anything a carriage horse ever has to do in Central Park in our time.

They have never lived in the wild and being so large and vulnerable, would not last long there, they would starve to death or be eaten. It is not freedom that they need, it is care and work.

Equine advocates will testify, as will border collie breeders, that it is actually cruel for carriage horses to be denied work and activity, just as it is cruel for border collies to be denied work. Denying work to working animals is in many ways the new abuse. It is an awful thing to see, working animals will become sluggish, overweight and disoriented without work.  I believe this so strongly that when I got my first border collie, I bought some sheep and then bought a farm in upstate New York. I love this breed and was do determined to give them the lives they deserve, that I have sheep still, and Red works with them every day of his life. He is a therapy dog to boot, he works almost all of the time. And his work is celebrated, not condemned, by everyone who sees it.

I can’t imagine a crueler fate for him than to be banished to a rescue farm where he had nothing to do all day but sit around a pasture and eat. Like the famed horse trainer Buck Brannaman (the inspiration for the movie “Horse Whisperer”), I can’t imagine a worse fate for a carriage horse, especially in the name of animal rights. This notion of what a horse needs is, in my view, is a demonstrably ignorant and emotionalized fantasy.

Red would deteriorate rapidly from lack of exercise, focus, work and connection with human beings. This is what he was bred to do, what he needs to do to be healthy and sound. There are three substantial differences between a carriage horse and a border collie. Carriage horses are bigger and stronger, they are not as smart as a border collie or as intense, and they are much better suited to urban life.

The famed biologist Jared Diamond has written that working horses, of all the animals in the world, including dogs and cats, are the best animals suited to live and work in urban environments. They are the “most domesticable” because of their gentle nature, their herding instincts, their tolerance for other species, their connection to human beings, and their genetic appetite for work. Many people have told me they know the carriage horses are sad because they stand in line with their heads down and a rear leg cocked. They simply do not know that this is the relaxed – content – position of a horse. Horses that are abused or frightened or restless do not stand like that and do not look like that.

Diamond writes that a phenomenon he calls  “creeping normality” keeps us from seeing things like environmental degradation, or the loss of animals from the natural world. Instead of banning horses, a moral government would be working hard to keep them safe and present among us. The problem in the animal rights movement, and in many urban communities disconnected from the animal world, is that people no longer know the difference between a border collie and a carriage horse, nor do they know what makes them so much alike.

In the carriage horse controversy, I like to think I am supporting the horses, I like to think I am supporting the carriage drivers. I hope I am. I am also supporting my own right to live with my animals in freedom and in serenity, so long as I do not mistreat or abuse them.

If the carriage  horses are being abused, then so is Red. If they can ban the carriage horses, and the elephants, and the ponies, and the horses in Hollywood, then they will one day come for Red and all of the animals who work with us and who have shared the joys and travails of the would with us since the dawn of time. They will all continue to disappear. I see now that for reasons I don’t quite comprehend, this is the goal of the modern-day animal rights movement, not a side affect. Every animal is a victim, every human an abuser.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that personal freedom is as fragile as it is precious. It can die in a swift stroke, or it can suffer death by “a thousand cuts.”  I believe the social movement that calls itself an animal rights movement is diminishing our personal freedom to live with animals, and that the right of animals to live and work in our world is dying by a thousand cuts. That is why the carriage horse controversy is so important. 

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