#21 Weird horse girls
Do we love to hate them?
Last weekend, which was quiet and rainy, I read a piece in the New Yorker called The Elephant in the Courtroom by Lawrence Wright. The protagonist of the essay is Happy, the Asian elephant who along with 7 other baby elephants was kidnapped from Thailand in the 70’s. There was Grumpy, and Sleepy and all the other pachyderm namesakes of the 7 dwarves. They’re all dead now, and it’s just Happy left in the Bronx Zoo, where she’s been in a 1-acre enclosure since 1977. Mostly she sways from side to side, stands with her back to people and occasionally eats something. Only 2 of her 5 behaviours are “natural”. She seems depressed, at the very least, she is not thriving.
The focus of the essay is a petition by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) to have Happy declared a non-human person under a writ of habeas corpus (a recourse in law through which a person can report an unlawful detention). NhRP believe that Happy should be released from her small enclosure to a sanctuary where she can roam and socialise and live out the rest of her days in a more elephant appropriate way. I’ll cut to the chase, NhRP lost the case, Happy remains at the Bronx Zoo, swaying from side to side. Justice Tuitt wrote, “[Happy] is an intelligent, autonomous being who should be treated with respect and dignity, and who may be entitled to liberty. Nonetheless, we are constrained by the caselaw to find that Happy is not a ‘person’ and is not being illegally imprisoned.”
The essay is sprawling and multifarious, but it begs a central question. Do animals deserve rights? Not just the right to survive (a roof over their head and food) but the right to thrive, to be happy and free and safe from harm? And most pressing of all, are we as humans, the ultimate gatekeepers, willing to give them that right?
In the piece, the Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer shares his disappointment about the slow progress of animal rights, “There’s been relatively little progress in terms of real, on-the-ground change in the treatment of animals…there is still a lot of pretty horrible stuff going on—on the whole, I’m somewhat disappointed that we haven’t moved faster.” Apart from feeling really sad for Singer, who doubtlessly hoped his work would inspire far greater change, it got me thinking about the way we view the act of caring about animals. I don’t mean caring about your own very specific pet, with her flat face and her wardrobe of polyester animal costumes. I mean caring about animals in a general way, a way that is reflected more nebulously in the way that you feel, the way that you broadcast your feelings and then more concretely, in the choices that you make.
It was the first day of year 7 and I was on the school bus when a pretty blonde girl who I’d gone to primary school with leaned over my seat and said, don’t tell anyone you like horses, it’s not cool to like horses. I was shocked. Shocked that she’d think I might be stupid enough to make such a faux pas, because if there was one thing I knew deep in my 12 year old waters, it was that contrary to what The Saddle Club might have you believe, liking horses (or any animals) with more than just a cursory appreciation of their existence, was not cool. You kept that stuff to yourself, lest you get yourself a nickname like “weird horse girl”. Duh!
It may just be the voice of a bitter and semi-closeted animal lover, one who knows dog breeds as obscure as Catahoula Leopard Dogs and Dandie Dinmont Terriers, but I do think it’s worth noting the rich folklore of weird animal people; crazy cat ladies, weird horse girls, strange women who bottle feed puppies and hoard Disney memorabilia. We’ve all met one and they inhabit the shadowy corners of our culture like witches and stamp collectors. The irony that when we picture these people, we mostly picture women, who we snootily look down on for liking animals far too much, is certainly not lost on me. And it’s probably worthy of its own thesis. Gender aside, it seems wholly reasonable to suggest that we reserve a special kind of nose-wrinkling for animal people. But sneaker heads and music aficionados, go off.
When I was 17, I watched a documentary called Earthlings. Narrated by Joaquin Phoenix and heaving in its lofty depiction of all the cruelty to all the animals, there are scenes I will never forget, that make me retch just to hazily recall them.
I cried myself to sleep every night for about a week after watching it, and never ate meat again (except for all the times I snuck roast lamb out of the fridge and poured my boyfriend’s bacon juice on my toast). But ideologically, I never ate meat again.
These days I’m an imperfect vegan, occasionally I’ll eat a cheezel, but generally, I don’t eat food that was made by or from an animal. It’s really not that hard, they have Magnums for that now.
And for the last 10ish years of animal flesh eschewing, I’ve noted the eyebrow raising, the hand wringing, the “but I could never give up seafood!” on shriek-y repeat. And beyond that, the thick and fast lines of questioning, “what if you were starving on a desert island?”, “Don’t you know we evolved to need meat?” “Don’t you think plants have feelings too?”
It’s clear to me, that in the main, veganism is still casually detested, not as a restaurant theme or as an easy-going plant based ideal offered in the form of a soy burger, but as an actual human value system. It’s so often marked as extreme, unnecessary and too much.
But wait, the pig getting gassed to death in Laverton so you can laugh with your boyfriend in your sunny kitchen while you fry up its flesh five days later is not extreme? Ok, ok.
This scene is made all the worse with the current outbreak of Japanese Encephalitis directly linked to factory farms where pigs are raised for meat, and yet no one’s talking about the small pink elephant in the room. Just chuck some more DEET on and think of England, I guess.
All of this makes me wonder if we harbour a little bit of contempt for animals? Of course, we love our Spoodles, sanitised and allergy-free, bred to stifling perfection with their loose curls and affable grins. But what about the animal great unwashed? The cows and the monkeys and the horses and the hippos? It’s nice to see them on an Attenborough documentary or in a field on our way to a coastal airbnb, but if we don’t hate them a little, why are we all so inert and indifferent in the face of their extinction and overwhelming death? It’s not even that we idly twiddle our thumbs as bad things happen, it’s that we fund a great deal of violence and terror towards them. And we know it.
Whether it’s our preferred animal tested mascara or a regularly eaten $22 burger, almost any inane distraction will do to divert us from what we know to be true; we’re doing an awful thing to someone with a face and a heart, and a desire to be alive in the world.