Friday, June 05, 2009

What about horse-drawn carriages?

Along with zoos, circuses and pet shops, horse-drawn carriages are among the seemingly innocuous industries that employ animals for entertainment in abusive ways. The romantic depiction of white stallions in Woody Allen’s Manhattan or Carrie Bradshaw’s last date with Big has made the industry a popular tourist attraction. A new documentary, Blinders: the truth behind the tradition, exposes some of the underhanded cruelties of horse-drawn carriages in New York City. Director Donny Moss said in an interview with Animal Voices that the documentary “peals back the facade” of the industry to reveal “a gruesome tradition."

Moss discusses how these horses - instinctively anxious prey animals that flee with stimuli - have to constantly maneuver through the crowded and dangerous streets of New York. Many are constantly in fear of their surroundings and they often react in dangerous ways. Their hooves and bodies wear out from the exhaustive work they do on concrete they were not made to walk on. When it comes time for them to “retire,” most are loaded onto transport trucks and endure long trips to Mexico or Canada for slaughter (an inadvertent negative effect of the ban on horse slaughter in the United States).

The practices of horse-drawn carriages are by no means as abusive as any segment of the meat industry, nor do these horses constitute a significant chunk of animal employment. While some advocates may view this as an obscure issue that we should dismiss for the sake of greater abuses, it seems this could be an easy way to force people to confront their relationships with animals at large. For starters, when we consider whether we should devote our resources to a given cause, we often view our political capital as a finite resource that should affect the greatest number of animals in the worst conditions. This leaves out the root of the problem, which is the mindset of humans toward animals. Given that horses on the street are visible to New Yorkers on a daily basis, this industry is one way that humans build their conception of the place for animals in our world. In this instance, the horses are visually equated to the taxis or limos on the street. They are unmistakably machine-like commodities.

Identifying the horses as individuals with interests – an aim of the film as it singles out a few of the horses’ stories – reformulates the horse-drawn carriage image as one of domination and exploitation. Through small, micropolitical gestures—such as telling a friend about the true state of horses as you pass by one—or confrontational and visible demonstrations, we can disrupt the iconic image of a calm and pleasant horse ride.

This is also an industry with which we can reasonably expect success. It is much easier to create change in consumer preferences with regard to a tourist attraction than it is to create one in regard to daily lifestyle habits such as food choices. If people have strong negative associations with horse-drawn carriages and view it as both scrupulous and hazardous, a natural boycott of the industry can easily emerge. Despite numerous petitions urging a ban, Mayor Bloomberg is on the record saying that he supports the tradition because tourists like it. A little outreach could go a long way to ban this practice and create some compassion for animals.

Watch the trailer of Blinders:

The entire documentary is available for free on youtube here.


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