29 October 2014

How Dogs Make Us Better People. Shutting Up.

By: Jon Katz
How Dogs Make Us Better People

How Dogs Make Us Better People

For the second day in a row, I have not scolded Lenore, corrected her or shouted at her on our walk as she forages for different smells, eats leavings and perhaps droppings or other things I find disturbing. For many years, I have shouted my dogs – border collies and Labs – as they eat feces or other matter that seems revolting to my human sensibilities.

Some years ago, a trainer told me that if I wished to have better dogs, I would have to become a better human being. She meant more patience, less frustrated, less angry. As someone who writes about dogs, I value the idea of positive reinforcement training, even as I believe that most humans are not all-positive and will stray into frustration and anger with their dogs. It is both inevitable and very human, I believe it has caused no harm to my dogs, or to Lenore, she and I have a great love affair going and she is a healthy, loving and grounded animal.

I want each dog, every animal I known and live with, to teach me something to make me better. Animals reveals our faults and shortcomings, our shallowness of vision and arrogance. For years, I have not been able to walk with Lenore without trying to get her to stop being a dog, stop being a Lab, become what a human likes me wishes a dog to be. This week I believe I have finally shed this conceit. As I pay less attention to Lenore and stop reinforcing her chowing down of waste matter, she is already doing less of it.

I know if I break through this for the next few months consistently – it will take that long – then she will do it much less, and it doesn't really matter to me if she does or doesn't. The issue comes from my own past, my own sense of dealing with cleanliness and hygiene, issues that often crop up with a chronic bedwetter like I was. Mostly, I want to enjoy my walks in the woods, I want my relationship with Lenore, as it is with my other dogs, to be calm and nourishing for both of us. This may sound like a small thing, but it is a big thing.

It is not a joke about dogs and poop, or Labs and the garbage they eat, it speaks to the very nature of our understanding and acceptance of the animals in our lives. It speaks to our ability to learn from our dogs and to grow as human beings. This is one of those issues that has plagued me for years, and I am happy  I am getting on top of it. My walk with Lenore this morning – she is one of the great dogs – was beautiful, easy and comfortable. I focused on Maria and saw beautiful things in the woods that I had missed. Lenore bounced along joyfully, coming when called, sitting when traffic appeared. It was what a walk with a dog should be, and it will get better still. Good on her for putting up with me, good on me for allowing her to make me better, that is when a relationship with a dog and a person really turns to gold.

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Posted In The Meadow

By: Jon Katz
Posted In The Meadow

Posted In The Meadow

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Burrhead

By: Jon Katz
Burrhead

Burrhead

We're not sure where he goes, but every morning, Simon greets us with a bray and a head full of burrs. This time it took a half an hour to pick all of the burrs and twigs out of his fur, one of the wonderful things about Simon is that he loves attention and holds still while we brush him and pick at him. We shut off the rear pasture yesterday, we think he's going out there, but you never know with donkeys, they can get into mischief anywhere. Odd, though, Lulu and Fanny ever have burrs on their head.

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Civil Rights: Carriage Horses, Equal Justice, Ebola, Double Standards.

By: Jon Katz
Equal Justice Under Law

Equal Justice Under Law

Civil and political rights, according to Wickipedia,  are a class of rights that protect individuals' freedom from infringement by governments, social organizations, and private individuals, and which ensure one's ability to participate in the civil and political life of the society and state without discrimination or repression.

I have always thought of the plight of the New York carriage trade as being as much of a civil rights issue as one involving the rights and welfare of animals. This week Nurse Kaci Hickox believed her civil rights were violated when she was ordered confined in quarantine for 21 days even though she was not ill. She believed her rights had been infringed upon by a panicked government. She hired a civil rights attorney –  Norman Siegel, formerly of the American Civil Liberties Union, rather than a civil attorney. She seemed to intuitively understand – as the carriage trade is perhaps beginning to understand – that she was involved in a civil rights controversy, not just a health controversy. And she had the courage and the sense of entitlement to pick up her dying Iphone and call CNN from her tent.

In doing so, she made some history.

Two powerful governors retreated abruptly the next morning from their demand that she be quarantined for nearly a month, and she was immediately released. It seemed that the very appearance of Siegel, a famous attorney,  on television supporting Kaci Hickox's claim that the government had violated her rights seemed to send the politicians scurrying for cover. Truth loves the light, and sends ignorance packing.

In the United States, the idea that government could arbitrarily and with little or no cause imprison someone in a tent without any guidelines, due process or evidence, is still a big deal, even in the midst of panic and confusion. There are two sides to every argument, including this one, but the plight of Kaci Hickox touched something deeper in our consciousness even than Ebola. And she highlighted what is so wrong and disturbing – and important – about the carriage horse controversy.

If the actions of the two governor's was troubling and controversial, just consider the idea that the mayor of New York can take a lot of money from a wealthy private individual who has arbitrarily decided that he has the right to speak for other people's animals and then vow to shut down a law-abiding and well regulated industry – the carriage trade – without any guidelines, due process or evidence. If he persists, the mayor of New York and his colleagues in the animal rights movement may soon learn the lesson the governor's of New Jersey and New York just learned. Pressed to the wall, or into a tent, people will fight for their rights.

I don't know the mayor of New York City, but I see along with everyone else that he is positioning himself as a great and progressive national leader, and I suppose we may get to see if he can turn himself into another political pretzel, all things to all people. Ruining the lives of hundreds of people without cause and sending hundreds of animals into danger in the name of animal welfare is not a progressive position in my mind. It undercuts his very identity as a political leader and a caring human being. He has no trouble calling out other politicians who abuse the rights of people, even as he becomes one of them.

New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio quickly – and ironically – took up Kaci Hickox's cause, saying government had, in fact, overreached, and that her treatment was "shameful." I wondered, watching this drama unfold, if the mayor had any grasp at all of the giant hole he and his supporters in the animal rights movement were digging for themselves as they continue to promise that the people in the carriage trade will be out of work, their property seized, their 150-year-old industry banished. Does he have a clue, I wondered, that the carriage drivers have the same case as Kaci Hickox, perhaps much bigger and better?

Hickox at least had a brief bout of fever when she arrived in the United States in a midst of a worsening global epidemic, none of the five agencies that regulate the carriage trade have lodged any complaints against them at all. No human being in New York City has ever been killed by a carriage horse, even as many thousands a year are killed, maimed or injured in motor vehicle accidents (many more people – about 7,000 more,  are hurt each year than have yet died of Ebola in all of Africa). In the past year, more than 5,000 cases of alleged animal abuse were reported to authorities in New York City, not a single one was filed against a carriage horse.

The issue of civil rights generally comes up in America when the public is panicked, when mobs form, when government leaders pander or hide, and the rights of people are in danger and need to be protected. I am not an attorney, but if you consider the civil rights issues involved in the carriage horse controversy, the Kaci Hickox case seems almost minor. Nobody is claiming she is greedy, cruel, dishonest,  less than human or trying to take her work and way of life from her.

If not a panic, the notion that the horses are being mistreated and abused by their very existence working in the city is a hysteria, unsupported by any authority, expertise or law. It is the belief of a tiny minority of citizens, supported by an angry and obsessive millionaire who has joined up with a powerful politician to infringe on the rights of law-abiding private individuals – the carriage horse owners and drivers.

It is very difficult for me to imagine the mayor or the animal rights groups being foolish enough to let their outrageous and unwarranted assault on the carriage trade to go to trial or get near a judge – the carriage trade should only be so lucky – but I can only imagine the feast a lawyer like Norman Siegel might have getting deBlasio and the architects of the anti-carriage trade ban on a witness stand under oath, and asking them to talk about money and evidence and their understanding of horses.

You could fill a theater with the equine and rescue and veterinary experts, writers, neighbors and animal lovers who have flocked to New York City all year and who have – to a one – pronounced the carriage horses content, happy and healthy. In the animal world, the mayor and his ban are considered so irrational and unknowing as to nearly be insane. There is, in fact, no reputable behaviorist, horse trainer or animal expert who believes it is cruel for a work horse to pull a light carriage in Central Park. These are the safest horses on the earth, the ones least in need of rescue. The only evidence that exists for this claim are the emotionalized fantasies of people – far outside of the world of people who actually know about animals – who have come to believe there are no real differences between horses and human children.

– First, there is the issue of infringement by government. The people in the carriage trade have scrupulously and almost without exception followed the many hundreds of regulations imposed upon them to protect the carriage horses. No one in the carriage trade is currently even accused of breaking any laws, violating any regulations, committing any crimes. It is difficult to imagine that in the era of the  deBlasio administration,  violators and abusers would not be eagerly brought to justice.

The assault against them is the very definition of arbitrary and unwarranted intrusion by government. Government, according to John Locke and Thomas Jefferson (they invented the idea of democratic government) exists first and foremost to protect freedom and property, not to take it away because a politician is close friends with an animal rights ideologue and took a lot of money from him in his election campaign. The mayor is right when he claims the quarantine of Kaci Hickox was an abuse of governmental authority. He might try listening to himself.

One of the foundations of our legal system is equal justice under the law. It is not always attainable, but there is no question it is the goal and ideal. How can the government actions against Kaci Hickox be an intrusive overreach, but the utterly baseless assault on the carriage trade a moral step to defend the rights of animals?

–  Fairness and justice. In court, an enterprising lawyer might also pursue the mysterious and still secret influence of money on the effort to shut down the carriage trade. Animals lovers all over the country have given millions of dollars to animal rights organizations in New York in the belief – thoroughly debunked this year – that the carriage horses were being abused. The money did not go to help horses or animal in need, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been funneled to politicians, including enormous amounts of money that went to the campaign of Mayor deBlasio.

I have been researching this story for nearly a year, and I cannot find any evidence that NYClass, the animal rights group spearheading the campaign against the horses, has ever directly assisted a single animal or it's owner, yet the group appears to have spent millions of dollars in donated money – a conservative estimate – to elect Mayor deBlasio and other politicians and ban the carriage horses. Perhaps under oath, the people in this organization could explain what their true agenda is? They refuse to tell reporters.

– People and property. A central element of the move to ban the horses is the promise – by the mayor, the City Council President and the animal rights groups involved – that every single horse will be sent to a horse rescue facility and live out their lives in comfort and safety. Aside from the fact that the groups will not name these farms, and from the reality and tragedy of equine life today – more than 155,000 horses are sent to slaughter each year in America, and equine rescue farms are desperately overcrowded and underfunded  – I wonder how the mayor and his supporters can justify their assumption that they can seize the horses from their owners and decide where they ought to go?

The horses are private property, an important asset in the lives of the middle-class working families who own and work with them. Does the mayor really think he can seize horses that are not, by any rational standard, in need of rescue, and send them to rescue farms that may or may not exist? Can the mayor seize the material property of any business he and his friends don't like and banish them from the city without cause?

The Ebola crises and it's connection this week to New York City brought into focus the importance of civil rights in our lives, and the urgent need of relief for the people in the carriage trade, who are not only conducting their business in a humane and legal way, but have suffered cruel and relentless  harassment for years, accused of foul crimes, dehumanized and slandered. That is, in itself, a violation of civil rights, and it is a disgrace that the media and political community have permitted it and condoned it – even enabled it – for so long. There is a mountain of evidence that can prove well beyond any reasonable doubt that these people are innocent of the crimes they have been accused of committing. And make no mistake about it, abuse is not an argument or opinion, it is a crime.

The civil rights of the people in the carriage trade have been trampled in a more menacing way than Kaci Hickox's have.

They have lost their  their right to participate in the political and civic life of the city, the right of every citizen. The animal rights groups will not speak to the carriage trade or visit their stables. The mayor has refused to speak with them, visit their stables, or meet with or negotiate with or listen to a single one of their representatives (he regularly has tea and pate and goes to dinner parties with the head of PETA in New York, a close ally and a friend, and the leaders of NYClass.). The people in the carriage trade have not been shown a single piece of evidence to justify their banning and persecution,  or given the chance to respond to the many accusations made against them, nor have they been permitted to participate in discussions about their horses, their future or their welfare.

It seems it costs a lot of money to get to talk directly to the mayor about carriage horses. A carriage driver and animal spiritualist – he often and at his own expense brings his horse to the seriously ill – approached the mayor at a civic event with his young son by his side, and asked him why he was persecuting the carriage trade. "Because," said the mayor, "your work is immoral." The mayor then turned his back and walked away.

It is difficult for me to imagine a more disturbing civil rights issue than the specter of a secretive millionaire teaming up with a powerful politician to take away the way of life, freedom, dignity and peace of mind of innocent and law-abiding people.

In the past year, many people in and outside of New York have a awakened to the civil rights implications of a carriage horse ban. The Ebola epidemic have brought it into even greater focus. Thomas Jefferson wrote that governments will always bear watching, their natural tendency is to overreach. George Washington write that government is not reason, it is force, a dangerous servant and a fearful master. Ronald Reagan said the first duty of government was to protect the people, not run their lives.

I was touched by Kaci Hickox's willingness – right or wrong –  to stand up against the most powerful people in government and assert her rights as a citizen.  I have seen the evolution this year of many of the people in the carriage trade. In January, they were discouraged, confused and uncertain. Like Kaci Hickox, they have come to understand that a great wrong has been done to them, and that they have the right to speak out against it.

The carriage horse have called upon them to speak for their own rights, and the true rights of animals.  They are rising to the call, the mayor has made the wrong choice, he has chosen to stumble and fall.

 

 

Posted in General
28 October 2014

Friendship: Tai Chi, Writing, Pain, Loss, Meaning

By: Jon Katz
Friendship, Loss, Tai Chi,  Writing

Friendship, Loss, Tai Chi, Writing

I call Tuesday our Friendship day, at 1 p.m., I drive out to Pompanuck Farms with Red and Scott and I meet for our Tai-Chi writing lessons. It was a beautiful day, soft and warm for late October, we sat outside. I was in a lot of pain today, and Scott's broken back was tender as well, we focused on writing, and then did as much Tai Chi as we could. I have learned four exercises now, and I do them before I write, there is so much going on with my body right now that I can't really tell if the Tai Chi is  having any effect on me but I will continue, we are just beginning.

Scott is at a critical point in his writing, he is struggling to write about some of the painful events in his early life, and it is chewing him up a bit. At some point, every writer wonders if his or her stories are important, and if anyone will ever care about them, Scott is at this point, I hope he breaks through, I think he will. Scott and I listen to one another, we trust one another. Trust is the foundation of learning, I think we are both teaching each other a lot, a rare thing among men.

I told  him writing, like Tai Chi, was internal, not external. It is about feeling and  honesty, if something wants to come out, it needs to come out. One has to set up a boundary, you write for yourself and  you hope it has meaning to others, but when you write, you write only for yourself, you cannot be thinking about what everyone else might feel or say. Creativity is a coming out, a leap of faith, it is neither simple nor easy, but it can be profoundly rewarding. Scott has had some hard experiences, some painful things to write about. Like many children who suffer greatly, he feels ashamed and afraid, all the more reason, perhaps to do it.

But writing, I told him, is personal, you have to want to do it, you have to own it yourself. Ultimately, it is his decision, surely not mine. Scott and I have been meeting like this for more than two years now, and our friendship has deepened and matured. It is the kind of friendship I have wanted for a long time, I think Scott has more friends than I have had, he is more open and accepting perhaps. And his life has been more stable, although he has done many different things, he has been in one place while I have been in a dozen or so.

I suspect we both have landed. My body needs Tai Chi, not just because of my surgery but also because it is, like writing, an internal path to a healthier body and a greater connection to spirit. I need these things, and I am hopeful. Tai Chi has not connected yet with my interior self, I don't quite get it and am not yet really comfortable doing it. Scott says this will come in time, be patient. I will if you will, he says. We shook and hugged on it. I talk to Scott almost every day, I spent a good chunk of my life in his cafe, the Round House. But Tuesdays at Pompanuck are special, the geography of friendship and connection, two friends teaching one another what they have learned, what the other is hungry to know.

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