22 September

Rethinking The Ethics of Animal Rescue

by Jon Katz
The Ethics Of Animal Rescue
The Ethics Of Animal Rescue

Two years ago, while taking photographs,  I met a 30-year- old horse named Arthur who belonged to an 88-year-old widower named James who was diagnosed with dementia and had to go live in a nursing home. James adored Arthur while he could, he gave him a wonderful life,  and lived with the sweet old horse for 25 years. James always planned, when the time came, to euthanize Arthur or, if that proved impossible, to send him to a nearby slaughterhouse. The local slaughterhouse was close by, and was well-known for being humane. Slaughter was quick and painless, the horse and animal owners were always invited to come and watch if they wished, for their own peace of mind and to accompany their animals on their final passage.

In James world, this was considered the ethical way for animals to die.

 James’s mind failed before he resolved Arthur’s fate. He had to leave his farm and could not bury Arthur there, as he hoped. The horse was too old to give away. James was not  aware that the people who claim to speak for the rights of animals had lobbied Congress and  state legislators to make the slaughterhouses of America  illegal. Many functioned in rural communities close to the people in their communities. The animal rights  groups were successful, there are no longer any horse slaughterhouses left in the United States.

But the number of horses without homes increased. The horses had to go somewhere. As often happens with issues relating to animals, no one had considered that the results of these good intentions would make the lives of the horses much, much worse.

  When James left his farm, Arthur was seized by local authorities, given to a rescue farm that could not afford to care for him and did not have room for him. In a story now familiar to horse rescuers, Arthur was brought to an auction house and bought by a  horse kill buyer (who worked for a slaughterhouse in Canada and Mexico, where horses are now sent to be killed.) Arthur, an old draft horse, was purchased for $200, taken to a feedlot where he was given little to eat, according to a relative of James who tracked his journey and tried to save him, put on a trailer and driven for 11 days through summer heat without ever once being allowed to move around or walk outside.

It is common knowledge in the horse world that these horses are treated harshly, the Mexican slaughterhouses in particular are not inclined to spend much money on fresh hay or water for horses that are about to be killed and sold as pet food, or even human food in some countries.

Arthur was jammed into a trailer with a dozen other horses, given little food or water, and transported in a way that evoked World War II concentration camps much more than the good life he had led.  The relative still has nightmares thinking of what Arthur’s last days were like, how terrified he must have been, and how lonely. When Arthur got to Mexico, he was released into a crowded corral, given little to eat, and stood out in the heat for days. He was finally killed by having a three-inch nail driven into his head.

Arthur deserved a better fate than this, especially at the hands of human beings who claim to love animals so much that we owe them perfect lives but must be taken far away to die harshly. We need a better and wiser understanding of animal ethics than making emotional decisions without considering their consequences:

And horses will have to die for some time, there are far too many to care for and far too few resources. There are hundreds of thousands of unwanted horses in the United States with no one to care for them – 150,000 will go to slaughter this year; there are millions of dogs and cats leading cruel and unnatural lives languishing in crates in no-kill shelters all over the county. Yet we are constantly rescuing more, there is no natural limit to the number of animals in need.

In America, we are hobbled by an animal rights movement and political lobby that has lost any sense of empathy or common sense when it comes to even discussing the welfare of animals.

Good breeders who promote the best traits in animals being harassed and persecuted and driven from business;  people are made to feel guilty for choosing their pets wisely and well. Dog lovers are afraid to ride with their pets in their cars. Farmers fear to have livestock visible from the road. Ponies are going to slaughter because it is now considered abuse for children to ride them; hundreds of elephants are being sentenced to almost certain death,  driven from the circuses by people who claim to love them and insist they are being horribly mistreated, and people are so drawn to rescuing things that they scour the country, even other countries, looking for dogs and other animals for people to rescue.

This notion of animal ethics is not sustainable nor humane, nor ethical. We need a better understanding of animal ethics:

__ We need to understand that is not cruel for working animals to work, but essential to their health and future survival. Working animals ought never to be put in danger by being forcibly driven from caring and  responsible homes with no clear sense of where they might go.

__ It is ethical to know fate of the animals we “save” from abuse when we take their work and security away from them. Too often, we simply pat ourselves on the back for being virtuous while the animals we supposedly have  helped go off to slaughter. We need to require the advocates of horse and animal and pony and other bans to know – and document –  precisely where banished animals like horses and elephants and ponies will go, who will care for them and how their care will be funded.

__It is unethical to dislocate and endanger safe and healthy animals while more than 9 billion animals suffer daily in sometimes horrendous conditions in giant industrial animal farms set up by  corporations who never seem to get harassed or raided, ticketed, shut down , or have their animals seized and re-homed. Meanwhile, farmers, animal lovers and private citizens are subjected to the raids and intrusions of the growing cadres of secret animal informers who patrol the country’s farms,  and the cities and suburbs and parking lots where people ride with their dogs.

An ethical animal rights or welfare system would target the people who truly abuse animals, and the animals who are truly abused, not those who do not. The New York carriage drivers, for example, are not the people who abuse animals, and the carriage horses are not the animals who are abused.

__We need a system of rescue that keeps animals in the lives and consciousness of everyday people and does not consistently send them off to isolation, lives of idleness at great costs, and almost certain extinction. Animals have the right to survive in our everyday lives, our people and children have the right to see them and know them. Domesticated animals with no work or connection with people vanish from the earth, that is their story and their history.

__ An ethical animal welfare movement must understand that there is no nature, no wild, for animals to return to any longer. There is no greater abuse of animals than the destruction of animal habitats all over the world, and we are all responsible for it. We need to acknowledge our own individual role in destroying the natural world rather than simply hating and harassing the people we blame for it, the people who work with animals, live with them, and  yes, are the ones who kill them and take them to slaughter.

There is no place for domesticated animals to go when we drive them away and claim work with humans is cruel and abusive. Climate change challenges us to re-think our animals about where and how animals can remain in our world, there is mythical space out there for the carriage horses, the ponies, or the elephants to go when they are driven from their work,  increasingly condemned as “abuse” or “stupid tricks.” Such tricks have uplifted and entertained human beings for thousands of years, a debt that can never be repaid.

We are condemning these animals – the ponies, the carriage horses, the elephants –  to a death much like Arthur’s. That is not an ethical solution to their dilemma.

__We need to make good and hard decisions about which animals can be saved, and which cannot.  Asian elephants and draft horses are not killer whales, who have never been domesticated or worked for long periods with people. Animals are different, they require different solutions and support. It is humane and ethical to free killer whales and return them to the ocean, it is merciful and possible. It is the cruelest kind of abuse to take carriage horses away from their human beings and force them onto rescue farms, where they will have no human contact, no work and nothing to do but eat hay and drop manure.

__Adoptable, healthy dogs with good temperaments are vanishing from many public shelters while rescue groups guickly take in adoptable dogs, often for people who can afford them, and leave others to pick from dogs that are often unhealthy, traumatized or troubled. Is this really humane or ethical? Our system of animal rescue, shelter and adoption routinely separate the poor the elderly and working people from animals, even though millions desperately need homes.

(A Cleveland man was denied the right to adopt a dog because he said he wanted to walk it off leash in the country sometimes, an elderly woman denied a cat because she wanted it to spend time in  her garden, a carpenter denied a dog because worked six or seven days a week, a New York carriage driver and his family were denied a dog because the shelter thought it was abuse for a horse to pull carriages.)

__It is unethical to force countless or damaged dogs into society that hurt people, especially children. According to the CDC, dog bites are now epidemic, increasing at the rate of 47 per cent a year. Most of these bites are on the faces and necks of small children, who are low to the ground. Many require treatment for  trauma and extensive and expensive facial surgery reconstruction. Some dogs cry out for rescue, some do not. Dogs do not make moral  decisions, it is never their fault when they harm someone. That does not mean they have to flood our crowded society while carriage horses – who never harm anyone – are sent away.

__It is unethical to manipulate people by claiming the only way to get a dog is to rescue one. There are many good ways to get a dog or cat, including rescuing one. It is ethical to acquire a dog in a careful and thoughtful way. It is ethical to get an animal in a way that is a wise and rational – and safe –  choice for people and their families. It is ethical to get a dog or cat that will be content and make his or her new family happy.

__We need an ethical understanding of the fact that good breeders – like good rescue organizations – promote the best traits in dogs: good temperament, healthy bodies and immune systems, loyalty and affection to people. It is not ethical to promote the adoption or purchase of dogs that hurt people or other animals. Try to remember where those photogenic and appealing herding dogs actually come from.

—It is unethical to fail to regulate breeders or rescue organizations. They breed and sell and place living beings. They should be supervised and overseen in the same way that the New York Carriage Horses are regulated, subject to inspections and the adoption of healthy breeding and living conditions. The best gift that many dogs and cats can be given – millions are abandoned, returned,  imprisoned in shelters for years, or lifetimes – may be to not come into the world at all.  If there are millions in shelters, then there are too many animals.

__The goal of any animal rights movement ought to be the promotion of health and safety for animals in our every day world, not their removal from society. It is unethical to make it ever more difficult for ordinary people – the poor, the working, the elderly – to adopt, purchase, or keep animals. It is unethical to seek to remove animals that are healthy and well cared for.

__It is unethical to use the love of animals as a pretext for hating and harming people. The people who live and live with animals are entitled to the same dignity and respect as dogs and cats and horses.

Ethics are important, they are the moral principles that govern a person’s or group’s or a society’s behavior.

The animal rescue impulse is noble, and has saved the lives of many animals. But like all social movements, it requires balance, thoughtfulness and nuance and perspective.

Our deep love for animals makes rational argument about the right and wrong way to treat them difficult.

And as of now, there is little rational argument about animal ethics, the current ethos argues that the lives of all animals are precious, animals have equal, even superior rights than human beings, and animals must be given perfect lives and kept alive at all costs by any means. This widespread and fiercely defended ideology is not, to me, ethical or merciful, it is actually causing much suffering to people and to animals, and greatly accelerating the disappearance of animals from their habitats and from ours, and thus from the world.

For me, the ethical standard for caring for animals is simple: We must do the best we can for each animal for as long as we can. And then, we must recognize our own limits and the limits of society, and act accordingly, according to individual circumstance and conscience. There is no single ethical standard for animal life. We cannot say every horse in the world needs to work or every horse in the world does not, this is part of an almost sacred contract between society and the animal world, and the individual and his animal.

Arthur the horse was a victim of our muddled notion of animal ethics. Our notions of animal rights and welfare failed him in the cruelest possible way. He was ultimately doomed and abandoned by a system of animal care that often exists to make people feel better, but that leaves animals to an awful fate.





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