Yeti is a 26-year-old Asian elephant who has spent almost all of his his life working in the circus, entertaining many thousands of people – some would call this “stupid tricks.” He has never lived outside of the circus, and his natural habitat in India was long ago destroyed by development and global warming.
He was trained and cared for the past 18 years by Linda and Harry, two elephant trainers who are married to one another. They adore Yeti, often have their meals with him, take him for long walks in the woods and around the circus grounds. Yeti was never trained with a bull hook, nor have the couple ever been accused of any kind of animal abuse. In fact, they are well known and much admired for the loving care they have given Yeti.
In the wake of Ringling Bros. decision to stop using elephants in the circus due to the growing number of protests and ordinances and legal actions taken against them – the circus has never been convicted of abusing any of it’s elephants – other, smaller, circuses are following suit. Scores of elephants will be out of work over the next year or so. The circus, say Ringling Bros. officials, simply got tired of fending off claims – and the accompanying legal costs – that circus work for elephants was somehow cruel.
Early next year, Linda and Harry will be out of work, so will Yeti. “They don’t understand,” Harry wrote me. “Yeti is happy, loved, he has no other life, he loves entertaining, Asian elephants are domesticated animals who have been working with people for thousands of years. We would never harm him or treat him roughly. There is nowhere for him to go, it is insanely naive to think these elephants will all go to preserves where they will be fed the rest of their lives. Unless we can find a home for him – we have been trying unsuccessfully for months – he will most likely be killed, as will many other elephants. Is this somebody’s idea of humane?”
Actually it is, many people in the animal world have worked for years to remove the elephants from circuses – they consider circus work abuse, just as people in New York City believe it is cruel for draft horses to pull light carriages in Central Park.
Harry and Linda are devastated, the work with elephants are their lives and livelihood, and soon Yeti will be traumatized, removed from the only life and people he has ever known, and almost certainly, killed. Very few, if any, of the people who say they support the rights of animals- or those who have been cheering the Ringling Bros. decision – have put much time and energy into wondering what will become of him when he is removed from his lifetime work.
We need a better understanding of animal ethics than this.
Yesterday, I wrote about Arthur the slaughtered work horse and how his life and death spoke for the need for a new understanding of animal ethics as they relate to animal welfare and animal rights. The inspiration for the piece came from the controversy surrounding the New York Carriage Horses, which awakened me and many others to confusion over what is ethical and humane in the animal world. And to the deep love for animals that has made rational conversations about animal ethics so difficult.
The New York Carriage Horse controversy has focused my attention and that of animal lovers around the country on the ethical confusion over work for animals, the nature of abuse, and the growing urgency of keeping animals in our world and our everyday lives, rather than simply removing them from human contact and interaction. Domesticated animals that do not find work and meaning for people are vanishing from the world, at a horrific rate.
In a rational and ethical world, what should have happened in the carriage horse controversy?
__The animal rights groups concerned about the horses welfare should have contacted the mayor, the police department and the representatives of the carriage trade and asked to meet with them all about their concerns. The mayor would have summoned the various parties and their representatives, listened to everyone and come to a decision about whether or not there was a problem.
The discussion should have included the animal rights groups, members of the carriage trade, behaviorists, biologists, veterinarians, horse and animal trainers. It should also have included the children and tourists and city residents who have said the horses are important to them.
__From the outset, the mayor should have made it clear that there was no justification for harassing the drivers, vandalizing the stables, intimidating tourists or children riding in the carriages. No harassment of the drivers would be tolerated by the police or city officials. Everyone would have had a chance to speak their piece, the best available experts on equine health and behavior would be invited and consulted and listened to.
__In an ethical sense, the purpose of the talks would be to determine the best interests of the horses. Their welfare would not be resolved through warring press conferences and blogs, but in civil negotiations and in consultation with the best experts and their opinions.
__In this case, an impartial and honest broker – a mayor, ideally – would have heard almost unanimous testimony from experts that the horses were healthy and well cared for, the industry was popular and was abiding by the rules and regulations covering their industry. More than a score of veterinarians, veterinary associations, trainers and behaviorists and many more animal lovers came to the stables, examined the horses and pronounced them healthy and content and safe. In an ethical and rational society, that would have ended the argument about banning them.
What should have followed that phase? In a rational and ethical world, people who say they are for the rights of animals would have been asked to offer ideas on making the horses good and safe lives even safer and better. I imagine there is always room for improvement, the carriage trade has said they are open to any suggestions on behalf of the horses welfare and will meet with anyone at any time.
The animal rights groups seeking to ban them – including the mayor – said they would never meet with anyone in the carriage trade at any time, they would not consult with experts, visit the stables, talk about any ways of bettering the horses.
There are many obvious ways to make the horses healty and safe in New York City. The city could mark off horse traffic lanes, as they have for bicyclists and joggers. They could built stables on the far West Side, or even use some buildings in Central Park. They could negotiate deals with developers to build new, closer, bigger and more modern stables in exchange for West Side development rights, now worth billions of dollars.
They could get rid of some of the cars, pedicabs and taxis that flood the park all day and threaten almost every living thing that walks, rides or drives there. Several pedestrians have been killed in recent months by speeding bicyclists (two children were killed in the park last year by falling trees.) No person in New York has ever been killed by a carriage horse, not one in 150 years.
The city government, having heard all of the arguments, and in consultation with an interested and much-lobbied City Council, could agree on some ideas that would make the lives of the carriage horses safer and better, and guarantee that they would remain in New York. In terms of animal ethics, this would be the best outcome of the controversy. In terms of human ethics, it would challenge the carriage trade to focus on the welfare of the horses even more than they have, and also permit them to live in security, peace and dignity.
This is perhaps, a central ethical tenet: treating the people who live with animals and work with them as well as the animals. The two are closely tied to one another, one cannot be treated ethically if the other is not.
What place should non-human animals have in an acceptable moral system?
Animals exist on the borderline of our moral constructs; the result is that we sometimes find ourselves according them a strong moral status, while at other times denying them any kind of moral status at all.
For example, public outrage is strong when knowledge of “puppy mills” or other kinds of abuse are made known. The feeling generally is that dogs deserve much more consideration than the operators of such places give them. In the carriage trade controversy, the animal rights groups were outraged when a horse fell down, got sick, or ran away from a stable.
When it was pointed out, over and over again, that such incidents were inevitable, that conditions in factory farms are far worse than any condition in any New York Horse stable, and that equine accidents are extraordinarily rare, especially in comparison with the accidents that befall people in the city, the usual response was that didn’t matter, accidents are inevitable for people, but any accident involving a horse is unacceptable and inhumane.
In the case of the carriage horse controversy, the people in the carriage trade – the horse and stable owners, the drivers and their families were given no consideration at all. That was, to me, a moral and ethical failing.
The mayor, who claims to be a progressive political leaders, missed a great moral opportunity to make it clear that animals like horses had a place in New York City, both in terms of history and contemporary life. He could also have committed the city to recognizing the great environmental symbol the horses could be, working in a city nearly overwhelmed by growth and machines. He could have chosen to say that animals are as important to us as cars and pedicabs and condos.
That would have been as powerful an ethical statement on behalf of animals as one could imagine.
Ethics are crucial when it comes to animals, because they cannot speak and think for themselves, therefore it must be done for them. That is precisely why animals cannot be accorded the same rights as human beings, because they cannot give voice or true thought to their own welfare.
Our sense of ethics will determine whether or not they remain in our world and how they live. Ethics is essentially the branch of human conduct that creates argues, defends and recommends concept of right and wrong.
The carriage horse controversy shows us why our ideas about animal ethics and animal rights have failed animals like Arthur and Yeti and nearly killed hundreds of healthy draft horses in Manhattan. We need a better understanding of animal ethics than the animal rights movement has been able to offer us.