Shortly after college, I lay on my bed, with my cat next to me, reading an article about animal testing. I turned the page, and there was a photograph of a conscious cat with a metal cage over its head, and with screws/electrodes drilled into its brain. I don’t remember what the testing was for, or what the publication was, or why I was reading it. All I remember is that photograph. And in that moment, I became a vegetarian, animal cruelty becoming my cause.
I was passionate, eschewing products that tested on animals, moralizing about cruelty to animals, often quoting words frequently attributed to Peter Singer but which in fact were written by 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham: ”The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” (quoted in Pollan). That the animals that we eat suffer was to me, at that point, the only trenchant point.
So what, bored readers may be asking, the hell does this have to do with horseracing?
Earlier this year, the last horse slaughterhouse in this country was closed, due to the activism of passionate, committed people. Horse slaughter was found to be illegal by a variety of courts, and for months now, not a single horse in this country has gone to the slaughter house.
Great news, right? Well, maybe, not so much.
As the New York Times recently reported, an expected but unintended consequence of the closing of the last slaughterhouse now means that horses too broken down or unwanted to find a home are shipped to Canada and Mexico, to be slaughtered there. And some people argue that the horrific conditions on these journeys far exceed those suffered by horses when they were slaughtered domestically.
So what is a horse lover to do? What is a horse lover to think? What action can a horse lover take?
We can join the anti-slaughter cause, and unwillingly contribute to horses being packed on trailers to die painfully in another country.
We can work to end the transport of horses for slaughter, knowing that we are saving horses from long, hot, cramped, painful journeys to slaughterhouses in other countries where they will die in agony.
We can end both slaughter and transport, and wonder what will happen to all the horses left with people who no longer can or no longer want to take care of them.
As I wrote in an e-mail conversation with some TBA members recently, “Is a horrific death worse than a horrific life?” I don’t know…and that’s why I struggle with where I stand on this issue. Can death in a slaughterhouse be preferable to a prolonged, starved, painful life on a farm, owned by people who can no longer can take care of their horses? It’s not a question I’ve been able to make: by my actions sentencing horses to horrific slaughterhouse death, or by my actions sentencing horses to horrific slow starvation and degradation?
Folks who know me know that I’m always finding/fostering stray cats and re-locating them, and at first, I refused to take the cats I found to shelters that weren’t “no-kill.” Having now logged way too many hours in those places, I am no longer so strident; indefinite life in those cages is not preferable to a quiet, painless death by euthanasia. It breaks my heart to think about those cats being put down, but it breaks harder to think of them in those cages day after day.
And I’m not a vegetarian anymore; that choice lasted about a decade, after which, for various, mostly selfish reasons, I re-joined the ranks of the carnivores. Now, I make it a point to find meat that is raised and killed ethically, and I am fortunate enough to live in an urban area, with a Whole Foods not too far away; you can read their pledge to sell only meat that is raised, transported, and slaughtered humanely.
This topic is far too complicated to cover completely here; I haven’t touched on the responsibility of owners and breeders, and of how we might reduce the number of unwanted horses in our country. But for now, in my perfect world (and Patrick, Mr. Future Racing Commissioner, please do add this to your list), humane, affordable euthanasia would be the alternative that we don’t have now. We wouldn’t be forced to choose whether horses should suffer on farms, on trailers, or in slaughterhouses. It would be great if all the horses in this country could live a happy, hay-filled, gamboling life in a gorgeous pasture; as that’s not the case, the least we can do is find a way to end their lives pain-free, with dignity and peace.