Horses And Animal Rights
As I write this, animal protestors in New York City are gathering at the Upper West Side condominium of actor Liam Neeson to end cruelty to animals by being cruel to Liam Neeson and his neighbors, a familiar irony of the people who call themselves supporters of animal rights. It's not exactly clear how shouting at Liam Neeson and his neighbors will advance the rights of animals – has one animal been give one new right in this long and costly campaign? But then, it seems like little about the campaign against the carriage horses has much to do with the rights of animals.
If the fate of the carriage horses is widely understood to be a bellweather for the rights of animals all over America to remain in our towns and cities, it is also a template for the future of the animal rights movement – if they can't do it in New York, they are unlikely to do it anywhere. And they are failing miserably in New York.
For the sake of animals, this is a movement that desperately needs to change, and the prognosis is not good. If there is one thing about this ideology, it is that it never changes, listens, learns or negotiates. The real message of the carriage horses may well be that the animal rights movement in its current incarnation is doomed to irrelevance and failure, alienating one segment of the animal world after another, utterly disconnected from ordinary people, stuck in this narrow and rigid ideology, shouting forever at people who do not hear them or agree with their message.
Thought just a few months ago to be invincible, they are struggling in the most public and spectacular of ways, reduced to yelling at the windows of movie stars in guarded condominiums. Their campaign against the carriage horses is a study in arrogance, misjudgment, hostility and fantasy.
Those $160,000 cruelty-free, eco-friendly fake vintage electric cars could well be more significant than anyone imagined, a monument to the end of the animal rights movement as we have come to know it. It's too bad, this movement has done a lot of good for some animals, they could do a lot more good if they woke up and tried to understand why they have failed so badly in New York.
But today, this may be the least likeable and persuasive social movement in modern American history. Take a look for yourself at some members of this animal rights group demonstrating against the carriage horses in New York's Central Park as they shout at drivers and tourists and try to frighten the horses. Take a look at a video of the leader of the movement to ban the horses threatening to punch a New York Daily News photographer in the face while introducing the fake vintage car he spent a half-million dollars building.
I've met and communicated with a lot of animal rights workers and volunteers in recent years – my cow was a poster boy the Humane Society – and especially in recent weeks. I've talked to some of them, read their websites, seen their videos, heard their plans for the carriage horses, and also heard countless stories about them.
I need to be honest here. I like rights for animals, but I don't like many of the people I see in this movement. They aren't generous or compassionate, most of them seem to have never been around animals that are not pets and don't know the first thing about what real animals need, and I never – ever – get the feeling they really like animals as anything but symbols of victimization and abuse, or even want them around. Everywhere they go, the animals seem to disappear, the people seem to get hurt.
I believe there are two sides to everything, but the very idea of animal rights as practiced in New York and many other cities is a tragedy, a disappointment and a failure to anyone who loves animals. They are not credible, they do not care about facts, cannot be reasoned with, they seem to have no empathy for the people they attack, frighten, or hurt. They are outraged by disagreement (they are protesting at Liam Neeson's condo this weekend, they say, because they are "sick and tired" of his disagreeing with them, thus is it all right to invade his privacy and home and disrupt his neighbors.) They actually believe it is cruel for working animals to work.
And they actually believe that more shouting and name-calling will gain them sympathy and support. They are increasingly self-righteous and obnoxious, their agenda is surreal and narcissistic, and it is, of course, the animals who always pay.
If one steps back a bit and looks at the events of the last few weeks, it seems clear that the animal rights movement is in much more trouble than the horses. It might consider urgently changing its tactics and philosophy, its agenda is just loopy. So are it's goals and ethics. If it is ever to be more than a loud and nasty fringe movement, it needs to change, and soon. It turns out the long and expensive campaign against the carriage horses has virtually no support outside of the movement itself. Another self-referential bubble, just like those on cable news and in Congress. Ordinary citizens, labor unions, the business community, all three major newspapers, tourists and visitors, lovers of Central Park have all come out in favor of the horses, not the animal rights groups who have been hurling the cruelest insults at the carriage horse owners and drivers for years.
This has been hard on the people in the carriage trade, but it is shaping up to be a disaster for the animal rights movement. The carriage horses have pulled back the curtain on this loud and extreme sub-culture, and exposed it as being out of the mainstream, and without real influence beyond the politicians they fund. A paper tiger that makes a lot of noise and accuses a lot of people of a lot of things. That is unfortunate in many ways. The idea of real protection for animals deserves more than NYClass.
This is an evolving position for me. There are many people in the animal world who dislike the idea of animal rights, they would rather focus on what they like to call animal welfare.
I am not one of those people. I do believe in animal rights.
I have long believed that animals are in need of codified rights in our world. Human beings are the earth's most ruthless and destructive predators; we have slaughtered countless species, innumerable animals, including other people. We threaten the planet itself. All living things need protection from us. Why shouldn't animals?
The animal rights movement is necessary and important. The entry of vast corporations into the agricultural, food and service industries has triggered a terrible panoply of suffering – cows who live only on concrete, who are slaughtered rather than medicated, pigs, chickens, goats, sheep who live in the worst imaginable conditions, confined in the smallest spaces, killed in the most inhumane of ways. The carriage horses do not belong in that category, their lives are demonstrably better than almost any Amazon warehouse worker.
The writer Henry Beston launched the animal rights movement decades ago by calling for a wiser and more mystical concept of animals. That has not yet occurred, it is more important than ever, and the animal rights movement seems to have no contribution to make to this very worthy goal. In their world, every animal is abused, every human an abuser.
As the carriage horse controversy has demonstrated, the movement by that name cannot survive or be effective in its current form. New York is one of the toughest battlegrounds in the animal wars, yet some draft and farm horses have trounced some of the most powerful forces ever assembled against a group of animals and their owners – the mayor, the City Council President, a lazy and media, a coalition of wealthy animal rights organizations, real estate developers. The first assault on the horses has collapsed like a punctured balloon. In the animal wars, it is the Battle Of Bull Run, a rout.
In so doing, the horses have revealed the great Achilles heel of this movement – it has few ideas for helping animals, does not help many, does not tell the truth, is disconnected from ordinary people, is hated by the agricultural and animal world, and wants almost all animals who are not pets to go away. It abhors the idea of animals working, a key to their survival, and is disliked by almost everyone outside of its own boundaries that it comes in contact with. A New Yorker journalist told me the spokespeople for the animal rights groups there are the most arrogant people he has ever contacted. That is not a great blueprint for the future.
The animal rights movement as it is called today has two potent weapons – money and hubris. The first enables them to get to politicians, the second defeatsthem in the public space almost every time.
And the carriage horse controversy has called attention to the moral rot at the center of this movement: with some notable exceptions, the animal rights movement in America is not a movement that is helping animals; it is killing them and driving them away from people. It makes it more and more difficult every day for people to have animals, afford them, keep them. It refuses to listen, learn, compromise, or even communicate beyond shouting at people on the street or insulting them online. Check out any of their websites.
Winston Churchill wrote that he would never pick on anyone less powerful than he was, but it seems that almost everyone targeted by these groups is smaller and less powerful than they are – carriage horse drivers, farmers, people seeking to adopt dogs people who offer pony rides to children, students who raise chickens for food.
A young man in Brooklyn told me this week that he was denied the opportunity to adopt a shelter dog in the city three times in recent months – once because he did not make enough money – the shelter also said his credit rating was too low, once because he works in a full-time job, once because his apartment house has no fenced-in yard. A life-long lover of dogs, it was a crushing and humiliating experience.
The shelter is full of dogs that have no homes. Dogs have always been den animals; they spent most of their lives centering and sleeping, as do cats, they can easily live meaningful lives when left by themselves for the duration for a work day. They can and often are alone for much of the day. It is simply another form of abuse that keeps a dog from a loving home because his human has suffered financial reverses or because he or she has a job. The animal rights culture sometimes seems to have left the real world. These increasingly stringent roadblocks for people seeking pets further estranges people from the idea of animal rights.
If I were worried about animal rights, I think I would wonder we can make it easier for people like this young man to get a dog, not harder. There are 12 million dogs in shelters in America. Are we fighting for the right of dogs to be imprisoned?
The horse carriage story has gone national, it has struck a deep chord, perhaps because stories like it occur all over the country every day. "I feel as if anyone with a an animal can be attacked in this awful way," Cynthia wrote me from Indiana. "We have no rights, no way to protect ourselves from them."
And these stories pour into my inbox every day:
–A Los Angeles animal trainer e-mailed me this week that he had to send five horses to slaughter last month because Hollywood no longer want animals in their movies. Producers and directors who use animals in movies are the subjects of so many relentless attacks by animal rights groups claiming - often after natural illnesses - that this work is abusive that the movie industry is simply giving up on using them. "We just don't need the aggravation," he said, "we expected to be praised for keeping animals in this work, but we are instead just attacked."
This harassment costs many dogs, horses and donkeys their lives in the name of giving them their rights, just as the groups in New York are content to kill the horses in order to save them. The movie animal trainer says she can no longer afford to keep these animals, since the work for them has been drastically reduced.
–A farmer in Kansas wrote me a letter saying he killed his meat rabbits rather than pay for a surveillance system to prevent animal rights activists from breaking into his barn one more time to try to free them, threatening his customers, putting photos of himself and his family on websites labeling them killers and animal abusers. His family has raised and sold rabbits for food for generations, he is giving it up, his insurance company is threatening to cancel his insurance policy.
A New York City Council member – clearly anxious – agreed to speak to me on a recent trip to Central Park, he said that just about every city councilman has come to hate and fear the animal rights lobbyists, even those who say they will vote with them.
"They are arrogant, nasty and obnoxious," he said, "there isn't one of us that wouldn't dump them in a minute if we thought it was safe…" In Chicago, legislators are proposing legislation that would make it illegal to get dogs from anywhere but an animal shelter. A pet store owner in San Antonio told me that he only sells dogs from reputable, AKC-approved breeders, but he is picketed every weekend and the city is seeking to close his business. In Santa Monica, children organized to stop animal rights protestors trying to shut down a farmer's market pony ride because they claim it is abuse for the ponies to give rides to children.
The current incarnation of the animal rights movement does not dwell too much on fact, as shocked New Yorkers are discovering, or on the law. They make up their own definitions of things like cruelty and abuse, they are applied so randomly and arbitrarily they really have no meaning anymore. "There is no doubt about it," an animal rights demonstrator told a California newspaper writing about her efforts to ban pony rides, "a pony giving rides to children and walking them in circles is being abused." I guess there is some doubt about it, resident got nearly 1,000 signatures in a couple of days calling for the pony rides to remain. I wonder if she has ever seen a horse that is truly abused.
But here we are back in New York City, after all this. The horses are not abused, traffic is not especially dangerous, they live long lives and are well cared for.
The myopia of this movement in New York City is stunning, especially in so sophisticated a place. They actually believed that every one of the carriage drivers would and should leap at the chance to drive a $160,000 "cruelty-free, eco-friendly" fake vintage car after their jobs were taken away and their horses seized, but they never asked a single one of them. They uniformly refuse to visit the horse stables, meet or touch the horses, meet or speak with the owners, talk to the drivers. Instead, they attack them online, in blogs and websites, gather every weekend to shout insults at them, try to provoke the horses into bolting by shouting at them and waving placards, and they call the tourists and children who ride in the carriages murderers and abusers.
No wonder their leader – the head of NYClass – wants to punch a female photographer who works for a paper whose editorial writers disagree with him in the mouth. He ought instead to have to class go to the stables, bow at the feet of the horses, and ask them to teach him humility and acceptance.And then go and apologize to the carriage drivers and his supporters for this bungled and wasteful campaign.
A veterinary association poll taken two months ago found that more than 70 per cent of pet and animal owners in America do not identify with the animal rights movement, do not believe it represents the interests of animals, and does not tell the truth about animals. The very term "animal rights" has become almost synonymous with anger, righteousness, vandalism and threats, the harassment of human beings and ignorance about animals and their lives. The very idea of rights for animals has become the object of ridicule and contempt.
All cross the country, the list of target animal people grows – from pony rides to chicken and dairy farmers to carriage horses, breeders of dogs, agricultural schools with working farms, animals in sport, outdoor cats, movies with animals in them. Some of these campaigns are just, many are not, most are completely random and indiscriminate, they just leave people shaking their heads.
There are many legitimate concerns about animals, real abuse, and their rights - corporate farms, the horrendous conditions facing chickens and cows and pigs supplying the fast-food outlets and franchises. Why are we seeing millions of dollars being spent to banish horses that are well-cared for, well-regulated, healthy and well-situated working with people? Why has the mayor of New York made this his most urgent priority? The carriage horses are the luckiest horses in the world, a true animal rights organization would give their owners awards for rescuing them from slaughter.
Recently, I spoke to an agricultural animal group in Ohio. To a person – farmers, academics, researchers, farm equipment suppliers – told me that they see animal rights organizations as an enemy of animals and farmers, not a friend to them or their animals. It is insane and self-destructive to exclude farmers from the consideration of animal rights, they have lived with animals longer and more closely than anyone, they know them well and care for them deeply.
The carriage horses have spotlighted the increasingly obvious reality that their tormentors are the avatars of an unthinking and extreme political ideology that can no longer relate to or understand the mainstream life of animals, and has little or no support among the general population. Almost three quarters of New York City residents reject their effort to ban the horses, this after years and millions of dollars of effort.The proposed ban has met fierce resistance from a broad spectrum of citizens, businesses, newspapers, trade unions and civic organizations in the city. The mayor says he will go through with the ban as soon as he can, he is likely to be in for another beating if he is foolish enough to try.
Organizations as out-of-touchland powerless cannot deliver on their promise to gain meaningful rights for animals. They have no credibility; they must ultimately fail unless they change. And they do not seem inclined to much soul-searching. The country does not seem to want them to assume the role of animal police in our lives, no one has awarded them that mandate or seems inclined to give it to them.
They coalition of animal rights groups are profoundly mistaken in alienating so many of the people who make it possible for animals to live in our world, who pay for them, care for them and give them the ultimate protection of being loved and necessary – the best real protection any animal can have in our world.
Is there any rational person with common sense who really believes the millions of dollars spent by NYClass, the A.S.P.C.A. and the United States Humane Society, and now the Mayor of New York, to drive the horses from New York has helped to improve the life of a single animal, or give a single right to any animal in the world?
The horses make it clear that we need a real animal rights movement. This one seems doomed, trounced by a bunch of allegedly abused and battered veteran farm and draft animals. These horses seem to have a lot of mojo, perhaps they can help us call up an animal rights movement that actually will rally support to fight for animals rights.