“The human response to the horse suggests that as he was evolving in relationship to us, we were adapting to him…”
Last week a video appeared on YouTube showing a man cursing animal rights activists, then leading a friendly, fit-looking horse out of a pen, and shooting it dead with a single pistol shot between its eyes. (The horse was so tame it quietly stepped toward the pistol, and dipped its head to receive a scratch, in the moment before the shot
Tim Sappington is employed by a meatpacking company that has proposed to start slaughtering horses in New Mexico, bringing the practice back to American soil. The video inflamed opponents to the slaughterhouse. Rick De Los Santos, owner of Valley Meat Company, said he received so many threatening phone calls that he hired a security company to protect himself and his business.
In New Mexico, no law prevents a man from killing his own horse if the act is carried out humanely. Local officials declared that Sappington did kill humanely. However it’s hard to imagine that anyone who saw the video, felt anything but anger at the man and sorrow for the horse. In 21st-century America, at least, killing a horse for meat, or to prove it can be done “humanely,” breaks a compact that has grown stronger even as the horse has disappeared from most of our lives.
Check the news on any given day there’s a good chance you’ll see something about a horse. Last summer it was Ann Romney’s dressage champion Rafalca, which Steven Colbert playfully mocked for its performance in Olympic “horse prancing.” After Rafalca came a runaway carriage horse in Manhattan. More recently a horsemeat scandal swallowed-up the Swedish meatball business at all the in-store eateries operated by IKEA.
Beyond the news, horses show up regularly in our art. After a solid Broadway run and a Tony award for best play, War Horse is selling-out a national tour. The portrait show dubbed “most beautiful” of the season by The New York Times is Charlotte Dumas’s exhibit of photos Army horses at Arlington National Cemetery. In March artist Nick Cave thrilled commuters with performances of dancers on horse costumes at Grand Central Station.
Cave and Dumas are direct descendants of Paleolithic artists who painted images of dashing horses inside caves in France and scraped the image of one out of topsoil in Oxfordshire. Ancients considered the horse an important subject because it was so much a part of daily life. No animal has served us more thoroughly — as athlete, transport, tool, and warrior – or more reliably. All this service was rendered thanks to human intervention. We made the horse a partner above all others in the animal world. We also made it dependent on us for its well-being.
The industrial revolution began, for most of us, the end of contact with horses. But distant as we may be from everyday interaction with them, the horse still evokes deep emotions that are more wide-ranging and visceral than what we feel in response to any other animal. Dogs may move us to fear, affection, or admiration. In rare moments certain breeds will even act heroically on our behalf. But we do not need a special moment to be moved by the horse. Even people who fear them marvel at the sight of such a large and powerful creature acting in such close relationship with relatively puny human beings.
For millennia, people have anthropomorphized the horse and it’s now almost impossible for us to avoid reading some feeling into a snort, a twitch, or the blink of an eye. Current research supports at least some of our interpretations. From Iain Douglas-Hamilton’s study of grieving elephants to The Emotional Lives of Animals by Marc Bekoff, the argument for the idea that other species experience deep feelings gets stronger every day. Those of us who have experienced the varied “personalities” of animals know this research will eventually lead to a general agreement that many species have feelings similar to ours. From this realization it is a short step to profound questions about our duty to the animals we have domesticated.
The human response to the horse suggests that as he was evolving in relationship to us, we were adapting to him. Survival of the fittest might well have included survival of those humans who could work with the horse. Human beings who excelled at the care and training of horses enjoyed obvious advantages and were more likely to thrive and, consequently, love the horse.
If we have evolved to bond with the horse on an emotional level, then our feelings explain this animal’s continuing presence on our streets, in the pages of the newspapers, and in our art. This relationship also explains why one of the few recent bipartisan initiatives in Congress is a proposed ban on both horse slaughter and the export of American horses to countries where they may be killed for meat. In the House, the bill was sponsored by Republican Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania and Democrat Jan Schakowsky. In the Senate it was proposed by Republican Lindsey Graham and Democrat Mary Landrieu, who noted “there’s no humane way to slaughter a horse.”
Considering their innate wariness and sharp senses, there may not be a humane way to slaughter horses, which is why the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, The Animal Welfare Institute and the American Humane Society support the proposed bans. Polls show a consistent majority of Americans also oppose horse slaughter. Local community opposition led to the closing of the last three horse slaughterhouses in the country in 2007. However in recent months Valley Meat’s effort to resume the practice in the United States has brought the prospect of horse slaughter into the public area…(CONTINUED)
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- Animal Lovers Gag on Horse Meat Proposal (rtfitchauthor.com)
- Online video of horse shooting sparks outrage (horsetalk.co.nz)
- Bid in New Mexico to have horse meat declared “unqualified” (horsetalk.co.nz)
- US summit on ending horse slaughter this month (horsetalk.co.nz)
- HSUS boss condemns Oklahoma slaughter move (horsetalk.co.nz)
- Oklahoma to allow slaughter of horses for meat (usnews.nbcnews.com)
- Roswell Man Posts Horrifying Video Message to Animal Activists (lolwutpolitics.wordpress.com)
- Prospective Wyoming horse slaughterhouse investors watch national scene (trib.com)
- Reinstate a National Ban on the Slaughter of Horses! (saveanimalstoday.com)