22 October 2014

Bernie And The Carriage Trade: Can A Horse Ever Have An Accident?

By: Jon Katz
Can A Carriage  Horse Have An Accident?

Can A Carriage Horse Have An Accident?

Some facts to consider: In December of 2013, according to the NYPD, 25 people died in New York City traffic accidents, 4,227 people were injured seriously enough to require medical attention or hospitalization. In that year, 16,059 pedestrians and cyclists were injured, 178 people were killed in traffic accidents. In December of 2013, there were 17,260 motor vehicle crashes in New York City, in that year there were a total of 203,260 total accidents and crashes in New York City.


This year, there have three incidents reported involving New York Carriage Horses running away or colliding with a motor vehicle. No person or horse was injured. The script is familiar by now, so rote and predictable as to almost be hollow, even dull. Over the weekend, a carriage horse named Bernie was being groomed at a stable, he broke loose and ran down a nearby street as police cars chased him and blocked him in a side alley. His owner came with a bucket of oats and walked him back to the stable. No one was hurt, the horse was checked by a veterinarian and returned to work the next morning.

The animal rights group NYClass, the group spearheading the drive to ban the carriage horses,  claimed the horse had been abused, that he was being washed with water that was too cold for a windy day in late October – this left many horse people with dropped jaws – and ran away to escape his torment. The group said Bernie's stroll proved that horses did not belong in New York City, and should be banned.

There was one departure from the normal script, and it came from New York City's  media, which later – much later, and after days of breathless videos and news reports  –  did some reporting and found that there was no water being applied to the horse, Bernie just broke from his tether and went for a ride.

All over the world, horses and donkeys have escaped from their stalls and pastures and taken a walk or a run for thousands of years. It is not considered major news – more important than the death and injuries of thousands of people – anywhere but New York City.

Bernie was not harmed, neither was anyone else. Across the city, in Brooklyn that day, a woman and her two small children were murdered in their apartment, a six-year old child was run down and killed by an unlicensed driver, a woman on the East Side was hit and killed by a runaway truck. Last year, in Central Park, close to where Bernie pulls his carriage, two children were killed by fallen trees.

Since twice as many people have been killed by trees in one year in Central Park as by horses, and no human being, no resident of New York City, has ever been killed by a carriage horse, runaway or not,  in the 150 years of the carriage trade, it makes sense for human rights groups to work  to ban trees from the park and keep the horses there.


How to make sense of the inverted morality and perspective in New York City when a carriage horse has an accident? Hardly anyone believes a thing the spokespeople for NYClass say about these accidents anymore, they have been caught in so many lies and distortions about the carriage trade and the horses.

In their telling, the horses are always abused, but never really are. The plot always thins, but is never corrected.

Soon Bernie's photo will appear on the NYClass website, he will be added to the gallery of exploited animals, and lots of good-hearted animal lovers will send the group some money. More than a half-million dollars of their money went to politicians in New York City in the past few years (another half-million to try and build those vintage electric cars), according to city campaign d monitoring groups.

If NYClass has saved the life or improved the life of one single animal, there is no record of it. Go look for  yourself, see if you can find one.


So here is the issue facing the horses and animals in general:

Can a carriage horse ever have an accident? Trees can, cars and bicycles can, children and buses can, so can taxicabs and pedicabs, planes and garbage trucks, motorcyclists and pedestrians. Lots of them, many thousands. The carriage horse controversy highlights  many problems in the way we look at animals, one of them is what the author and animal behaviorist Temple Grandin calls the "zero tolerance" people who call themselves animal regulators and activists have for people who live and work with animals. Up until the 1960's and 1970's, she writes, the people responsible for regulating the welfare of animals actually knew something about them, they lived and worked with them. The brought reality and perspective to issues relating to animal welfar.

That is no longer true, today regulators and activists know little about the animals they are protecting – just consider the statement that  it is abusive to groom a horse in windy weather, or that it is abuse for working animals to work  –  she cites the meatpacking industry, where the rule is no animal ever gets hurt, under any circumstances. "I constantly argue, " she writes, "that what we really need to do to protect animals is to set high standards. People can live up to high standards, but they can't live up to perfection."

Neither can the carriage trade. Horses will get sick and fall down. They will sometimes be frightened by a crane or startling sound (as they are on farms and rescue preserves), they will slip their harnesses, one horse will one day hurt someone, even kill someone, as so many cars, busses, trucks, bicyclists and people do every day in New York City. It is the cultural equivalent of cruel and unusual punishment, the worst kind of double standard,  to think that of all the cars and people and bicycles and motorcyles and trucks in New York City, only horses must never have an accident or a problem.

The carriage trade is the most heavily regulated animal trade in America, there are literally hundreds of regulations and five separate city agencies who monitor them constantly, the city has set high standards for them. And according to the regulators, the carriage trade has met them, no carriage owner or driver is facing any kind of charge of neglect or abuse today.

The carriage trade ought not to be asked to set standards of perfection that can never be met – no cab driver in New York could survive that standard –  and that no one else in the city is asked to meet. That is not moral, and from the lawyers I've spoken with, it is not legal either.


Temple Grandin has spent her life working for animal welfare and improving the lives of animals.
"People and animals are supposed to be together," she writes in her best-selling book Animals In Translation. "We spent a long time evolving together, and we used to be partners. Now people are cut off from animals unless they have a dog or cat."

And sadly, and as the carriage trade conflict demonstrates, people are increasingly ignorant of their true nature and need for well-being. People need animals, and animals need people. Banning the carriage horses because Bernie took a walk will not help one single animal in the world, it will take more than 200 horses out of safe and regulated environments and sent them into the holocaust afflicting horses all across America.

And if either species has taught the other anything in their long history together, is that we are imperfect beings in an unpredictable and sometimes dangerous world. Carriage horses are, by any factual account, the safest and most domesticable living things in New York City. They do no harm, and much good. Like their human partners, there will be incidents and accidents, future Bernie's who take a walk or go for a run.

They ought to live by the highest standards of care, but they and the people who work and live with them ought not be sacrificed to an unthinking and emotionalized fantasy of perfection.

Posted in General

Color And Light: Time Of The Change, Making My Own Color

By: Jon Katz
The Color And The Light

The Color And The Light

Up here, in upstate New York, it is the time of the Change, as the farmers say, when the nights suddenly turn cold, there is not enough grass for the animals, and the color and light begin to melt away. Our beautiful garden has turned barren, the mornings are grey, the sun appears, a tease, and then disappears behind clouds of gray. This is November weather. I love each season, and for a different reason. Autumn is so beautiful here, it is the writer's time, when I get so much work done, feel cozy in my office, wood stoves burning, dogs spread out, Maria in her studio.

The flowers have almost all died, soon the leaves will be raked. Different, different.

But I am a warrior for light, and this season is a challenge for me, I feel it in my heart, my spirit, my bones.  It is time for me to make my own color, my own light, inside and out. To sing my song in color, to bring color and light to my words, my poems, my books and photos, my blog. Light is not just a matter of seasons, but a thing of the heart and the spirit. I love to photograph the colorless winter pasture, there is a wonderful beauty to it.

Beauty is everywhere if you look for it, it surrounds me if I can only see it. Every year I learn to look for beauty in places where I have never seen it before, and this year will be no different. I began looking today.


Posted in General

Ma’s Life: The Real World Of Real Animals, Horses And Sheep

By: Jon Katz
The Real World Of Real Animals

The Real World Of Real Animals

The wrenching drama over the New York Carriage Horses has reminded me of the great urgency in talking about the real life of real animals, especially those that are not pets. Were the mayor and the animal rights groups of New York City to get their way and banish the horses, a great wrong would be done, both to animals and people. In New York City, there are powerful, educated people who believe it is cruel for a working horse to pull a carriage.

"People and animals are supposed to be together," wrote Temple Grandin in her best-sellilng book Animals In Translation. "We spent a great deal of time evolving together, and we used to be partners. Now people are cut off from animals unless they have a dog or a cat." It would be tragic to destroy the way of life of the carriage drivers, cut the horses off from people forever, and send these safe and healthy animals out into the catastrophe afflicting horses all over America now. Rescue farms are overwhelmed trying to cope with horses in need, and more than 155,000 horses are sent to slaughter each year.

On my farm, I encounter the real life of animals almost every day. We are encountering it once more with Ma, our biggest and oldest sheep. Ma has had a wild life, she was rescued from a farm in Vermont, went unshorn for years, nearly died giving birth to twin lambs this summer, and now, seems bewildered and in a great transition. We believe she is deteriorating both mentally and physically, coming towards her end.

When I wonder how a sheep is, the first thing I do is watch the border collie, the greatest readers of sheep on the earth. Red has ceased trying to herd Ma, he walks right past her, and she seems not to see him. They both have disconnected from the ancient and intuitive process of sheepherding. To me, this is the sign that Ma is nearing her end, the border collies know it before any human or animal knows it. Red knows it, Ma no longer exists for him in his efficient and intuitive way. Her lamb Deb has moved away from her as well, and grazes most of the time with the other sheep. Flock animals always move away from the sick, they will attract predators.

Writing this, I will shortly be flooded with messages that begin "I know you don't like advice, but…" and these messages will offer remedies, ideas and personal experiences. This ritual is familiar to me now.  I have learned a long time ago never to listen to people who know what you want and ignore it. They are not my friends or the friends of animals. But I am always honest about my life with animals, the horses remind me how important it is. Ma is not a pet, she is not a dog or a cat, we are not calling the vet unless we see her visibly suffering. She is comfortable, eating, moving well. She is just no longer behaving like a sheep.

There is this idea in the world that every animal can be saved, healed, can live forever and that we must fight as hard as we can, spend every penny we have, commit our body and soul to changing the nature of life, to alter the real world of real animals, to deny the very reality of life and death. Ma does not need to be rescued from her life. I am committed to behaving otherwise. As long as Ma is not suffering, we will let nature take it's natural course. Animals do not live in a "no-kill" world, they do not exist to make human beings feel better about themselves.

It might take weeks, months or years. Like Frieda, she will go up and down, and decide when and whether to leave the world. She will not get younger, she will not defy the terrible beauty that is the natural world of animals. That is the life of real animals, and I see writing about the horses that the very lives of animals depend on our coming to terms with it and understanding what it means.

Posted in General

Miss Minnie’s New Throne

By: Jon Katz
Miss Minnie's New Throne

Miss Minnie's New Throne

In the dead of winter, I imagine Minnie and Flo will spent their nights in the warm farmhouse. Minnie has always liked dark and safe places. Since her leg amputation, she favors tunnels she makes between the hay  bales. Saturday Maria and I went to the town dump, and we came across this ratty and tattered and beautiful old cushioned chair. We think it's quite old. We looked at each other and said at the same time – "Minnie" – so we hauled the chair home and dragged it into a corner of the big barn. We put an old sheepskin rug over it and sure enough, the next time we came into the barn, Minnie had made it her throne.

It's the perfect place for her, dry, warm and private, she can see the world coming. This is where she resides, Minnie on her throne.

Posted in General
21 October 2014

Friendship, Chapter Two: Opening Up. Here Comes Tai Chi

By: Jon Katz
Friendship, Chapter Two

Friendship, Chapter Two

I spent the afternoon Tuesday with two of the men I am closest two in the world, Red and Scott Carrino. It is time, I reluctantly admit, for the next chapter in our friendship, me and Scott. Two years ago, just after Scott opened the Round House Cafe, we began to talk. Scott very much wanted to be a writer, and I wanted to explore a method of movement and spirituality that would help my physical and mental health. So he and I entered in a compact, I would teach writing to him, he would teach me Tai Chi, the ancient Chinese spiritual practice of movement and meditation. Scott is a Tai Chi master teacher, I have written 27 books. It seems like a good arrangement.

In those two years, there was much chatter, bullshit, friendship, little teaching of any kind, hardly any Tai Chi, hardly any writing. We had a good time. We met at his farm, Pompanuck, and mine. We sat outside and talked, made maple syrup, sat with donkeys, had coffee in the cafe, went to dinner. If we didn't teach much to each other, we bonded  and one of the rarest things among men, a true friendship, began to flourish. I was kind of relieved that we weren't doing Tai Chi, I didn't think I would like it.

Perhaps we needed to learn to know and trust one another before we could learn from one another. That took awhile, we both have good reasons to mistrust people.

This fall, Scott became more serious about his writing, he has really opened up, publishing on the Creative Group at Bedlam Farm on Facebook and sharing some of his music and song lyrics. I can't say I had much to do with it, but the process of our talking helped to open him up, as it did me.

I kept telling him he didn't need to worry so much about what other people thought of his work, he needed to think about what he thought of it. Like so many people, he had shut down his writing because he thought it was no good and no one would want to read it. Writing, I said, is an internal, not an external experience, it is not about grammar and sentence structure, it is about feeling and authenticity. Writers write, first and foremost. It is not about what others think, it is about what we think. He is now seeing this for himself.

This week, Scott said it was time we honored the other side of the bargain, it was time for me to seriously consider Tai Chi and try and learn it. We had a serious talk about it today. It would be good for me, he said, as I have grown older, he  has noticed I am walking more stiffly, my range of motion could be enhanced and improved. It was good for peacefulness centering, there was nothing better for my heart after surgery, he said, than to make walking and movement easier, for me to be more balanced and centered. I felt awkward, I have never been athletic, always lived in my head.

It occurred to me, I told him today, that he was talking about Tai Chi to me the same way I was talking about writing to him. It didn't matter how it looked to others, it mattered how it felt. It was, perhaps, yet another thing I needed to open myself up to. It was internal, not external. If was about feeling, not athletics. It could help me open up my body in the same way Scott's writing has helped him open up his emotions and creativity – he is a song writer and a regular writer.

I saw that perhaps there was a place where our teachings to one another could meet, between my lessons and his. So I had my first real lesson today, it was an hour long, I learned three movements I will practice every day this week. For the past decade, I have undertaken a process of opening up. In my life, my marriage, my work, my photography, my spirituality and sense of self. I am doing all kinds of things I was never open to, and I believe the process of staying open – of keeping my mind from closing, I call that the first death, has  saved my soul and enriched my life.

I am resistant to Tai Chi, I'm not sure why, I have a hard time seeing myself doing it. It requires yet more willingness to be vulnerable and change, and I sometimes think if I were any more vulnerable, I'd split like an overripe melon. All the more reason to try.

For me, getting older is not about shutting down and closing my mind to new experience, it is not about squawking about the old days and bitching about young people, taxes and the cost of things. It is, in part, about opening up to things I never could do or was willing to do. Making friends. Finding intimacy. Meditating. Talking to horses. Spirit Dogs. Taking photographs. Entering cardiac rehab. Finding good friends. Finding love.  Being authentic.  Learning Tai Chi.

I'll let you know how it goes.


Posted in General