Exploring the human and greater-than-human world

Three Springs

rimorainbowbody:

Extraordinarily written account of life as Sherpas serving the Everest expedition culture and the many tendrils this (exploitative?) business weaves through villages, families, and consciousnesses. Brought me back to my research and filming days in the Himalayas, and the same trepidation about what right and responsibility I had to be there.

Originally posted on whathasgood:

threesprings3

JEMIMA DIKI SHERPA

When there are gatherings in our valley, the women sit with the women and the men sit with the men, and the children tear about evading adult arms that reach out to obstruct their fun. The men form a long line on low benches along the front wall of the house, patriarchs sitting at the end closest to the fireplace with the wide-legged weariness of ageing masculinity; down through the established householders with their roars of laughter, past the young fathers bouncing sticky toddlers on their laps, through the self-conscious new and prospective grooms, to the awkward youths who cram together and snicker and mutter and jostle each other.

Everyone wears down jackets.

In such a line as this, a gambler would have good odds that any man, picked at random, has stood atop of Everest; chances better still that he has been partway up the mountain…

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Redemptive capital is not just about saving the horses or horse racing, it is about redeeming our relationship with horses and the larger-than-human world.

Redemptive capital is not just about saving the horses or horse racing, it is about redeeming our relationship with horses and the larger-than-human world.

 

I finally got the nerve to watch the latest PETA undercover investigation video about Thoroughbred racehorse trainer Steven Asmussen’s less-than-humane training practices. PETA has a history of launching anti-Thoroughbred horseracing campaigns in the lead-up to the Kentucky Derby, when the world’s eye trains on Churchill Downs in what Hunter S. Thompson described as “the whole doomed atavistic culture that makes the Kentucky Derby what it is.”

Whether or not the timing of this video was meant to color people’s perceptions of this “decadent and depraved” cultural phenomenon come the first Saturday in May is not my claim to stake.  But I will stake another kind of claim in response to PETA’s video, one based on my own anthropological research on Thoroughbred horse racing, and it comes in the form of two words.

Redemptive capital.

If we focus on only the dark side of Thoroughbred racing (some, like PETA, would say that is all there is) we only see syringes and shockers as the number one “tools of the trade” (PETA video minute, 9:07).  I can still hear D. Wayne Lucas, who got his start in Quarter Horse racing (which happens to be a culture I grew up in) talking about how it sounded like “a full-blown orchestra” at the starting gates at Ruidoso in New Mexico, so many trainers and jockeys were using electric shock to jolt their horses out of the starting gates (starting at 7:00).  Then to hear Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens joking over dinner and candlelight about how he shocked himself after using one of these devices on a horse (6:47), it could have been read as appropriate karma if it weren’t so utterly disappointing.  I promptly “unfollowed” him on Twitter, but not before I saw his page’s feed: silent on his appearance the PETA video.

If there is only a dark side to racing, then we only see serums and powders of questionable legitimacy (like tyroxine and Lasix) shooting into equine veins (3:45) or up their nostrils (1:07).  If there is only darkness, we only see what literally emerges from such illegitimate practices: fluid shooting out of horses’ joints to the point of drawing exclamation from veterinarians (1:44), and hooves degraded to “nubs” (2:12) that even super glue cannot fix (2:57).  During my anthropological research in the heart of Kentucky’s Thoroughbred country in 2011 – the same year that Nehro, a horse profiled in the PETA video (starting at 2:06), came in second in the Kentucky Derby – I often heard “no hoof, no horse” (a similar refrain can be heard at 2:25 in the PETA video).  This ultimately proved true for Nehro, as he succumbed to colic (3:05) in what assistant trainer Scott Blasi (who is not lacking in any choice words throughout the video) called the “most violent fucking death I have ever seen” (3:13).

Given the horse’s struggle with staying afoot, colic (the twisting and blockage of a horse’s intestines) was perhaps a result from his debilitated condition, and most certainly a blessing in disguise: it put him out of his misery.  “They should have retired him from racing last year,” one of Nehro’s exercise riders comments on PETA’s hidden camera (3:20).  And when he says “they” it is not just Asmussen and his training retinue who is implicated, but owner Ahmed Zayat as well.

Which brings me to the claim I wish to stake here, and in doing so, I wish to shine a light into the dark side of Thoroughbred horseracing of which PETA has made many so thoroughly aware.  For others, such as myself, this video is only another reminder of how unfortunate too many horses (and humans [8:02]; also see Dr. Heidi Castenada’s work) are within the vaunted world of Thoroughbred horseracing.  As racing elite Bill Casner, co-founder of WinStar Farms and KEEP (Kentucky Equine Education Project), opined in the Thoroughbred Daily News in regards to the PETA video: “Until our value system changes and horses are treated like the living, breathing, majestic animals that they are, we will continue to diminish as an industry until we no longer exist.”

During the year I spent in Kentucky’s Bluegrass, the hub of Thoroughbred breeding and racing for North America, if not the world, I studied an off-shoot culture of Thoroughbred racing: the rescue, retirement, and/or rehabilitation of former racehorses.  But instead of finding organizations like PETA who were dead-set against racing and wanted to send it the way of greyhound racing, I found an unexpected, at times productive/at times counterproductive relationship between “rescue” efforts and racing.  There wasn’t just a dark side, nor was there just the limelight, but something more complex and less polemical than the battling images PETA and racing proffered.

Some horses I encountered in my study had been pulled directly out of “kill pens” where they were held at auctions in US until their shipment to slaughter plants in either Canada or Mexico (despite efforts to bring the business back into full swing to the US starting in 2011 nothing has been established yet save for the Bravo plant in New Jersey which slaughters horses for zoo meat).  Some had been conscientiously retired by their trainers, even before taking a step out of the starting gate in an official race. Some had been passed down the line, from graded stakes races to becoming a so-called “rat” (8:03) in claiming races before they were retired with organizations like the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (which had its own share of controversy during my research stint with them). Some had retired as “warhorses” (horses that earn $500,000 or more in their lifetime), enabled by fans, former owners or breeders who had followed their career not only out of joy for the sport, but also to make sure these horses did not disappear into what anti-horse slaughter activists call “the slaughter pipeline.”

Every horse had a story they carried with them.  Some spoke with a paper trail of vet records or bloodlines that could be looked up on Equineline.com; most only had their bodies and behavior to communicate where they had been.  And for some, the faint, but still-legible traces of their Jockey Club racing registration tattoo on their upper lip was the only thing that meant the difference between being shipped to slaughter or finding sanctuary and eventual adoption.

Within all these stories, be they discursive, embodied, or both, came one unifying element: these horses were saved for a reason – they were not just “disposable commodities” (3:37).  Sometimes the reason was because they stood out as Thoroughbreds in a herd of auction horses predominantly consisting of Quarter Horses and Paint Horses (the two most likely breeds to go to slaughter), and given how romanticized horses of the Thoroughbred persuasion are (just watch the films “Seabiscuit” or “Secretariat” for evidence), their breed identity thus saved them.  Other horses stand out because they are still sound, that is, they still “have a hoof” so there is still a horse left to ride.  Others are salvageable because of a kind disposition or a look in their eye that says they would be a perfect “kid horse.”  And others are deemed worth saving because they gave so much to their human owners that it was the least these Homo sapiens sapiens could do for Equus feras caballus.

In processing my research, I gave a name to all these reasons, and their associated attributes, for why certain horses are saved – and I am not just talking about from slaughter, but from other relationships that draw these horses into abusive or neglected situations with humans.  Relationships such as those cultivated at Asmussen’s training stables.  What ultimately can save a horse is his or her “redemptive capital” – anything a human reads into a horse that says, “this should not be taken for granted, this should not be depleted” and, most importantly, “this is worth my investment, not just in money, but in humane-ity.”

Perhaps the greatest horror we witness when we watch PETA’s undercover video is not the footage I’ve already mentioned, or the additional footage of a terrible pin-firing job (5:14), the voyeuristic scene where we overhear New York state’s “top horseracing veterinarian” admit that Lasix is a “performance enhancer” (4:59), or the discussion of shock wave therapy that is speculated to be so painful to the horses that Blasi “can’t believe them f—king sons of bitches can take it” (5:36), but the ongoing, systematic disregard and depletion of these horses’ redemptive capital.  By disgracing these horses, not only is Thoroughbred racing disgraced, but our human ability – no, responsibility – to be humane is.  Redemptive capital is not just about saving the horses or horse racing, it is about redeeming our relationship with horses and the larger-than-human world.  And it begins with an investment we cannot measure in cash and profits alone, but where our conscience can finally match our culture’s fixation on capital.  And it begins, so to speak, where it is darkest before the dawn.

As historian of science and philosopher of human-animal relations, Donna J. Haraway, advises us: “Species interdependence is the name of the worlding game on earth, and that game must be one of response and respect” (2008:19).  Where there was once only decadence and depravity, as Hunter S. Thompson chided us and PETA has now reminded us – is it now possible for some response, respect, and redemption for racing?  Perhaps we will see, come the first Saturday in May.

It is the year of the horse, after all.

Windhorse

(Author’s Note: I wrote this short story back in early 2007 as a way to come to terms with the death of my childhood horse.  I am republishing it here, seven years later, in commemoration of 2014 being the Year of the Horse.)

Windhorse

Burr

The horse that gave me wings during my childhood is dying.  He is going to be buried in the pasture of friends who took him in after he turned up lame.  A pasture perched on the edge of the great big sea of the Colorado Great Plains.  I imagine his spirit galloping with the force of the wind, and someday I will climb upon his back and ride with him once again.

 

I was housesitting out at my parents’ ranch the morning Christmas 2006 bloomed, the first “white” Christmas we had since I was a little girl.  My parents were out in north-central California, visiting my brother and his family.  My grandmother, who I would be celebrating the day with later over brunch and dinner, was at her house in downtown Boulder.  With my human family dispersed, I had my animal family instead.  Brio and Willa, two black labs from a long lineage of labs bred at my parents’ ranch, sneezed and shook their ears expectantly the second they saw my eyes were open.  Wishbone, a Border Collie / Golden Retriever mix I was watching for a married couple that consisted of two of my best friends, simply gazed steadily at me, a slight, non-threatening curl in his lip that spoke of expectations as well.  When I arose from bed, Wish let out his characteristic speak-squeal, Willa bounced on her front feet, and Brio’s slapping tail sent her backend sideways, knocking into the other dogs.

The bedroom door opened, and the race began – first to the front door of the house.  Waiting for me to unlock and open it was almost unbearable with Brio now joining Wish in a much less cute rendition of squealing, and Willa bouncing, bouncing, bouncing.  Now on the opposite side of the glass front door, I was watched with the intensity of first year medical students in their first anatomy class: “now she’s putting on the shoes: we’re waiting for the left one to go on – oh, it’s on!  Now for the gloves – why does she have to wait and put every single finger in?!”  Once prepped for venturing outside into an environment with at least two feet of snow on the ground, I opened the front door.  More squealing and jumping.  I was followed like a rock star down the front walk, across the driveway to the garage, fans squealing and jumping on me the entire way.  I entered the garage through the “human” door, and a hush fell over the crowd.  Suddenly, the garage door roared open, and the fans bum-rushed into the garage like it was Wembley Stadium.  Willa grabbed one of the sticks she kept handy in a bucket full of sticks.  Brio was now screaming.  Wishbone, ever the gentlemen in his natural, all-body tuxedo coat, observed my actions silently with a more pronounced lip curl, as though he was about to start singing “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” as I dished up their breakfasts.

For the labs, breakfast was over in two gulps – one for the green beans they ate to keep the weight off their hips, and one for the dry food that was, well, just more food.  Wishbone ate his dry food without complaint, but keep eyeing me to see if I was getting ready to serve up dessert: dried pigs’ ears.  Once Wish was finished, it was time to “sit, SIT!”  Only until all three dogs were sitting before me, did I grab the red bag that contained dessert.  At the sound of the plastic crunching in my hands, all three dogs leap up with excitement: Willa bouncing, Brio tilted sideways, and Wishbone with his Elvis sneer.  “Sit, SIT!” I commanded, and they obeyed.  First Willa – she grabbed the pig’s ear delicately with her mouth and bolted out of the garage.  Brio snapped up the ear like she was auditioning for the Discovery Channel.  Wishbone allowed the ear to hover in front of his mouth, his sneer simultaneously registered disbelief and delight, and then he took it, wondering what good fortune he had acquired to be dog-sat by Aunt Tamar.  “Merry Christmas!” I cried after the departing dogs, each seeking a space in the snow to savor the crispy, greasy remnants of a pig’s external hearing devices.

As I picked up the dogs’ dishes, I heard a sound inaudible to most human beings.  A second later, my cat, Hootie, shimmered into the eating area and took her place on the shelf where she was fed.  A little dry food and a full can of “Savory Salmon Mix” in her dish (it was Christmas), she vocalized her cat-specific appreciation and dug in.  I returned the compliment in a dialect incomprehensible to both her and me (it just felt intuitive) and left the garage to feed the horses.

Ladore, a black Quarter Hourse mare who was the last in my mother’s lineage of race horses, pawed the green gate to her corral in anticipation.  Her daughter, Rosie, a spunky paint horse with brown and white body markings and a shock of black mane and eyes, gave me her “What’s up, T-mar?” neigh, which I followed with a song, again intelligible only to the intuition, that carried the melody of an old Duran Duran song.  George, another paint horse (this time with the shock of one blue eye and terrible trail riding abilities) straddled the snowy ground and peed once he saw me coming.  Egypt, a solid bay gelding as fast a lightning, put on his Scrooge face, tucking his ears back, his eyes clouding with ill humor.  When my dad’s new horse, a towering Fox Trotter by the name of “Chilly,” emerged from the barn and entered Egypt’s radius, Egypt shot his neck out like a Saharan cobra and nipped at Chilly.  Chilly, who I call “Chilly-horse-asuarus” because of his dinosaur like stature, side-jumped from Egypt, good humor and hunger still flashing in his eyes.

“Merry Christmas!”  I cried, and all I got back was “I’m hungry!” neighs, foot-stomping, post-elimination groans, and ears that would not face forward until breakfast was served.  Each horse got two flakes of grass hay, rounded out by a Christmas treat – a short pour of grain.  I threw the hay first, yelling at Egypt as he chased George and Chilly around after each round of hay was thrown enough for the three of them.  When I emerged from the barn with the bucket of grain, each horse must have known exactly what I was doing, because they had forgotten about the hay and were at the fence, watching my every move.  Commando training would not have prepared me for what it took to distribute the grain – I was dodging horse teeth and rear ends like a ninja.  Good thing I can pack a verbal punch, because for as long as I have known these horses – even Chilly caught on immediately – they knew I meant business through voice power alone.  And they knew that I had nothing but love and respect for them too – enough carrots in the middle of the night after coming home from enough beers formed us a bond that was unbreakable.

Horses fed, I began walking back to the house, preceded by dogs who found no greater joy in life than living in the moment where they could simultaneously dive through snow like a porpoise and strain the snow through their mouths like a baleen whale.  Once at the house, I began strapping on my cross-country ski boots, again watched like an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy.”  When I emerged with skis and poles in hand, you would have thought I was one big walking pig’s ears at the response I got from my fan club: squealing, screaming, bouncing – I felt like Bono at Madison Square Garden.  Strapped in, we headed west, across the bridge over the creek that cut through my parents’ backyard, and to a trail on “open space” – land set aside by the city of Boulder to never be developed – except for grazing, cross-country skiing, and a wickedly enforced dog control program.  Sometimes I was so nervous about what constituted bad behavior about my dogs that when I saw them pee on “open space” I wondered if I should be collecting it lest it should be considered polluting substance.

Once we crossed the creek and the western-most pasture on my parents’ ranch, I ducked through the wires of the fence separating their property from “open space,” and suddenly I was exactly that, on open space.  The front range of the Rocky Mountains rose before me as it characteristically does in Boulder – jabs of red sandstone in the shape of the flat face of a pressing iron, myriad frosted trees, bluebird sky, and the contours of a mountain range that I had witnessed so many times at so many different times of day at so many different points in life that I have come to regard this eight mile track of mountains and foothills from Eldorado Canyon to Flagstaff Mountain as an altar upon which I have laid countless prayers and dreams.  As I paused to wish the mountains and open space a merry Christmas, dogs were porpoising past me, seeking a beginning to our trek on Christmas morning.

A fresh snow had fallen, about six inches, on Christmas Eve, covering up the trail that had been there just yesterday.  I had been on this trail so many times, though, that I could eye ball a path in the generic canvas of the fresh snow.  Nothing gives you a greater workout, however, than breaking trail.  Luckily, Brio is the type of dog who likes to trail blaze, and so I followed in the wake of her footsteps except when I snagged a rock or thought she was going off course.  We climbed steadily, the mountains’ presence becoming closer and more palpable with our approach.    I thought of all the different ways I had seen this trail.  What it is like when you first heard the Meadowlark in the spring, sitting on a dried head of a yucca blossom, singing greenness into the spikes of the plant.  When the bluebirds flit down the wire on the fence as you approach, then realize that you are going their way, so they take off and fly at length in a way only birds can do.  Or when you are heading home on a glorious run, the sun having just sent, sending rays of light onto the bellies of clouds that make you think of the aura borealis; the type of sunset that you are so enthralled by that you don’t watch where you are going as closely as you normally do, and you clip your foot on a rock; and when you finally get around to picking yourself up from the ensuing fall, you realize you have torn your hamstring so badly you think you have broken your leg from the pain you feel.  It was exactly this kind of fall I took on this very trail about four months prior that had kept me from coming out here in the ritualistic way I once had.  But today, instead of breaking my leg, I was breaking trail, my breath as laborious as it would be if I were on a good run.

I wanted to make it to a spot I usually turned around on a short run, but as I watched the dogs dive and disappear, dive and disappear in the snow, I knew that the trail only got deeper and that I was ready to turn around.  “We earned our turns!”  I exclaimed as I turned around and glided out on the trail I had just cut for us.  A moment later the dogs were passing me like dolphins next to a sailboat.  I sailed down the trail, the dense crunch I repeatedly heard on the way up was replaced by the shimmer of skis across sugary snow.  As we went through a family of Pondersosa Pine, I suddenly smelled their vanilla perfume on the wings of an incredibly pleasant, soft, warm breeze.  Growing up in Boulder, one of the strongest memories I have of the natural world at wintertime is the unlikely combination of fresh snowfall being kissed by a “Chinook” a warm breeze.  I figured I had not noticed the Chinook on my way up the trail because I was not traveling in the direction of the wind – but had I not been traveling west, toward the mountains, and slightly south where most Chinnok winds come from?  I paused to consider the unexpected warmth of the wind and found myself at the top of a ski-able little hill.  The dogs did not know what to do with me as I careened down the hill – Brio dodged my path on the way down just in time.  But by the second try, they got the picture, and while I glided alongside the streams of the wind, they dove and tumbled down hill with joy only a dog can communicate in their own particular body language.  After a few more times up and down that small hill below the pine tree family, we set out for home, the Chinook guiding us the entire way.

A few days later, when my family had reconstituted itself through grandmother, parents, daughter, and the barnyard menagerie, my dad informed me that Burrlito had died on Christmas Day.  Burrlito had been the horse I grew up with, and we had both been the same age.  He was 28 when he died – a good, long life for a horse.  We’d been out riding one day when I was in high school when he tore his hamstring and turned up lame.  We sent him out to pasture with some friends who had property on the prairie, close to the Colorado-Kansas border.  “Burr” had first been a Racing Quarter Horse, and then been brought into our family as a roping horse for my dad.  Then somehow we got the notion I could train him in Dressage, so at the age of twelve I was saved some of the horrors of adolescence by training a racehorse/rodeo horse/Quarter Horse to stick it to those warm blooded, predigreed horses and their riders.  Being first and foremost a racehorse, Burr had come to master his left-sided gait like a champ, so our only real issue in training had been his picking up his right gait.  He passed the higher levels of Dressage tests beautifully, but it was always when I asked for this fundamental, right-sided gait without any complexity that his racehorse instinct kicked in too greatly.  I remember getting so mad, so frustrated at him when we would ride on our own in our neighbors’ arena that he would just stop and not move an inch, no matter how much I urged him to go on – and this time I have to ashamedly say I had not yet mastered the firm-compassion of my voice-only power of persuasion.  It was as if he was saying: “I’ll do anything for you except to have you get your way through anger.”

Our best times, however, were when we would flaunt our training and just go ride.  I grew up in a neighborhood full of “bridle paths” and we had a particular route that took us to the top of a plateau that not only overlooked our entire neighborhood, but the entire Boulder Valley, including the contours of the mountain range that would later become so familiar and sacred to me.  We would take in the view, and then turn it loose.  Burrlito was first and foremost a racehorse, and on these occasions I would let him be that once again.  Not flying lead changes, no gathering trot from A to B, then a posting trot from X to Z.  Across that plateau, Burrlito would shift gears until he would “breeze” a term especially given to the gait racehorses achieve when they are going their ultimate fastest.  Tears would stream down my cheeks, and often I would let go of the reins and just hold on to his mane.  Back then, before the development of “open space” with trailheads, trail markers, and bags provided to pick up your dog’s doing, Burr and I ran until he just couldn’t go anymore.  Then we would turn around, and a slower run, we would come home.

When I heard Burr died on Christmas day, I thought back to the Christmas when I got my first Dressage riding bridle, complete with this bizarre bit called a “snaffle.”  I could not get my britches and boots on fast enough to go out with Burr and try it out.  Photos show us riding in the round-pen at our old house, me with embarrassingly styled bangs, and Burr with his head up high, wondering what the hell was in his mouth and what I wanted him to do with it.  Like I said, somehow we got good enough to place in our first show, but that was all we ever did.  I think preoccupations of being a teenager set in, and I suddenly became painfully aware that not only would I ever join “Pony Club” with a Quarter Horse with too small of hooves, but that I did not want to join “Pony Club” if it meant giving up Burr.  So instead, we stuck with trail riding.  When my parents’ moved to the ranch they live at now, I was a sophomore in high school.  I used to go over there after school and ride the horses.  One day, when I was riding Burr and a girlfriend of mine was riding Ladore, a thunderstorm came upon us – I won’t say “suddenly” because I am sure there were all the signs but we were just too young and ignorant to read them.  We were out pretty far on open space when the bolt of lightning hit next to us.  Ladore reared, but my friend hung on.  Burr “spooked” big time – it was like an entire lifetime of fear and emotion welled up in his legs and then exploded underneath us like a Christmas popper.  It was particularly concentrated in his back left leg, and when I finally got him to stop running, he could barely walk because of the hamstring he had pulled in that leg.  We trudged home in the pouring rain and constant lightning, I kept crying out and pleading to Burr as he kicked out his pained back leg each time he tried to step on it.  I cannot remember how I told my parents, I do not remember when I decision was made to send him to pasture.  I do know that I never saw him again.

When I found out all these years later that he was dying, I wanted to go with my dad to be with him when he put Burr down.  My dad cautioned me against doing so, asking me to remember Burr as the awesome athlete, teacher, explorer, and friend he had once been.  I did not have to decide, the weather decided for me, sending in a blizzard of the kind I had not seen since I was a young girl.  This was the day of the winter solstice.  We were marooned at the foot of the mountains for more than a week.  During a telephone conversation with my brother who is a horse veterinarian, I suggested that this blizzard, especially intense on the eastern prairie, might do dad’s job for him.  And it did, on Christmas Day.  So when I felt that Chinook, so uncanny and unexpected at first, it was perhaps Burrilto’s spirit finding his way home.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

 

INTERNATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE HORSE

Man O'War Statue and Memorial at the Kentucky Horse Park

Man O’War statue and memorial at the Kentucky Horse Park

IMG_0408

Secretariat statue at the Kentucky Horse Park

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today was the day to return to my old stompin’ grounds at the Kentucky Horse Park – namely the International Museum of the Horse and Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center.  I began the day by going to the museum.  As I made my way there from the main parking lot to the Visitor Center, I walked past the familiar landmarks of Man O’War’s memorial and gravesite to my left, and the statue of Secretariat depicted with his groom, Eddie Sweat, and jockey, Ron Turcotte.

IMG_0344When Man O’War passed in 1947 he was mourned by the nation, and the grief was even more acutely felt in the Bluegrass where he had stood stud at Faraway Farm.  His body was embalmed and laid in state for people to visit, and when it came time to bury him he was interred whole (considered the highest form of honor for a revered horse, for others are buried with only head and hoofs per the Celtic tradition, and then forms of corpse disposal vary from there – such things I have come to know by studying the implicit mortuary practices for horses considering the topic of slaughter).  As the decades went by, Man O’War’s resting place at Faraway Farm became a de facto memorial where people could pay homage to “the Mostest Horse” but it also started falling into disrepair.

First plans for the Man O'War Memorial at the Kentucky Horse Park

First plans for the Man O’War Memorial at the Kentucky Horse Park

With the advent of the Kentucky Horse Park in the 1970s, the idea then started percolating to move the horse’s body and memorial site there.  Then in 1977 his body was reinterred at the Park, but not without some controversy for it was discovered that a handle from his Thoroughbred-size casket and a bone from his tail were stolen in the process.  Both were eventually returned.  Man O’War does not rest in peace alone, however, at the Park as he is also surrounded by the graves of his offspring (like War Admiral, his great rivalry with Seabiscuit made popular by Laura Hillebrand’s book and the ensuing film by Gary Ross) and the African-American jockey that rode him to such fame, Issac Murphy.

 

I learned all this information, and gathered the supporting archival information that accompanies this recounting of Man O’War’s life and memorial, with all the time I spent at the International Museum of the Horse – particularly upstairs in the Mary Jane Gallaher Library and Research Archives.  This library was my ultimate destination today, as I had also spent about nine months working there as an archivist of the papers and photos bequeathed to the museum by Mary Aiken Littauer.  “Mary” as the museum director, Bill Cooke, and I referred fondly to her, was a famed hippologist (scholar of horses) back when Antiquity studies had yet been subsumed in anthropology/archaeology/Classical studies or rendered outmoded in a post-colonial world.  The months I spent with Mary proved to be the best education I could ask for in terms of the historical study of the horse.  I often remark that she mentored me from the grave.  Returning to the library and gazing upon the myriad light gray archival boxes into which safely transferred and databased letters, articles, journals, scrapbooks and photos (and still so much more work to be done!) was like a return to Mary’s tutelage.

Cover of The Blood-Horse exposing Ferdinand's death-by-slaughter in Japan

Cover of The Blood-Horse exposing Ferdinand’s death-by-slaughter in Japan

But on this day, I was on a search for different archival materials, this time from the extensive Blood-Horse collection the library houses.  In particular, I was looking for the full articles detailing the life and death of another red stallion: Ferdinand (whose son, Ferdy, I visited the day before at Blackburn).  While I had found a synopsis of Barbara Bayer’s earth-shattering article about Ferdinand’s eventual slaughter in Japan titled “Roses to Ruin” on the Internet, I wanted to find and photocopy a print version for my own research archives.  I also sought out her follow-up article six months later, detailing the fall-out and reactions she had experienced through the first article.  I found what I was looking for, and in addition to photocopying the articles I took photos of them, as I found the graphic design presentation of the “Roses to Ruin” article particularly aesthetically telling.  As I argue in the first chapter of my thesis, Ferdinand’s death in 2002 (along with another horse, Exceller, who was slaughtered in Sweden – but I don’t cover his story in an effort to keep my analysis local and specific to what I encountered in the field) was an origin story of sorts for the Thoroughbred ex-racehorse practices we see today.  While both private and non-profit efforts had been in place for decades prior to Ferdinand’s shocking death (even Man O’War’s owner toyed with the idea of turning the horse into a “hunter” if he didn’t prove a “racer”; and the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation started taking in horses in 1983), I see his death as a crucial moment where both the racing industry AND animal rights activists / horse welfare concerns merged through shared outrage and bewilderment.  That is not to say that this merging is complete and wholly amicable, but the point being is that two sides that did (and still do) often times see themselves at polar opposites were united – however tentatively and through different cultural meaning systems – by Ferdinand.

 

MAKER’S MARK SECRETARIAT CENTER

After a successful visit to the IMH, I headed to the hinterlands of the Park, passing the children’s playground where people could also take pony rides, the Dressage grounds and cross-country course where the Rolex Three Day Event would take place in little over a month, and the AllTech arena where just the week before the “Road to the Horse” – a natural horsemanship competition – had taken place.  Then, the black stitch of fences of the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center (MMSC) began, and I noticed they got a much larger, more visible sign announcing the facility grounds as I turned up the main drive that would take me first to the administrative offices.

 

As I pulled into a parking space, I noticed that the schooling ring now featured a variety of desensitization stations – like a ground bridge and a doorway with “spooky” streamers dangling from it that a horse would have to walk through and tolerate – in addition to the usual configuration of jumps and ground poles.  Entering the administrative offices through the front door, I asked for the director of MMSC, Susanna Thomas, and was informed that she was out in the barn with a prospective adopter.  I then made the familiar-to-my-bones walk from the offices outside to the barn, where I found Susanna with an intern and the prospective adopter in the stall of the horse of interest.  The horse was a giant of a chestnut filly (sometimes I forget how HUGE some Thoroughbreds can get as this girl was 17.2 [!!!] and all legs), but as Susanna and the intern put her through the paces in the schooling ring as yet another snowstorm hit, dinnertime was imminent, and her buddies were in the adjacent, paddock I was very impressed by how she kept her cool and kept working and responding (though not without a raised head and hollow back at first).  For her part, the prospective adopter was still board even though she did not get to ride, and mentioned she was eager to return tomorrow and do some “joining up” work with the filly.

 

The Buchephalus Training Library at the Maker's Mark Secretariat Center

The Buchephalus Training Library at the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center

In between facilitating this adoption try out, I got some one-on-one time with Susanna where I caught her up with my research and she filled me in on the developments since I left in November 2011.  The biggest change, other than almost all the MMSC staff I knew during my fieldwork departing for other equestrian and work pursuits, was that MMSC had gained full, non-profit operational status from the TRF and thus had the whole administrative offices as their domain (save for one office set aside for the Brooke Foundation).  Consequently, MMSC now had the space to set up the Buchephalus Training Library, a project I helped out with a little bit during the final months of my fieldwork in the Bluegrass.  Susanna conceived of this library as a resource center for interns, staff, and visitors alike on the subject of horse training and care.  The Library had also been gifted a healthy archive of Blood-Horse magazines, and I noticed that MMSC too had copies of the editions that featured Ferdinand’s demise.

 

It was a whirlwind trip to MMSC as my next appointment-of-sorts was at a barn out past Hamburg Place and Man O’War Boulevard.  But before I left I got to see two familiar, unexpected faces.  The first came in the form of a toy Aussie Shepard named Tank.  He came coasting into the barn, foretelling the arrival of his owner/guardian (oh, the bobble of what word to use in this case) and on-call farm manager for MMSC, Tony.  As I called out to Tank using the nickname I’d given him, he curled into my arms for a brief second as I bent down to greet him, recognizing me, I believe, through the haze of time.  He then bounded away, ever and always independent, but would circle back from time to time.  As I also learned in the Bluegrass: horse people are also dog people.  And as science is slowly catching up and proving what we “animal people” have always intuited: horses and dogs don’t forget a person who has shown them love (and shared molasses horse treats).

 

 

Fly Lite watching Melissa as she makes feeding rounds on the farm

Fly Lite watching Melissa as she makes feeding rounds on the farm

FLY LITE

My last research reconnaissance of the day took me out to Morris Farm, reminding me of the thrill of discovering new, beautiful and fascinating places in the Bluegrass.  Here I was meeting the horse around which chapter two of my thesis is based, Fly Lite – or Fly, or “Fly Fly” as I often heard myself coo to her on my ad hoc interview audio recordings – and her significant other (again, I bobble with the terminology to describe the human-animal relationship in something other than owner/property terms), Melissa.  Melissa had been the adoptions and volunteer coordinator at MMSC during my fieldwork there, but had left to first serve as a working student at the farm where she now boarded Fly, and then to the Department of Music of the University of Kentucky based on her extraordinary career and gift with the flute and music education.

 

Due to the inclimate weather riding was out of the question, so Melissa and I simply chatted in the barn as she took Fly out to groom her.  Fly had once been boarded at MMSC while Melissa was employed there, and as such Fly became a mascot alongside Ferdy.  From what I gathered, Fly, however, represented horses that had been labeled for slaughter (as she herself had been pulled from a slaughter-bound pen at New Holland auction) but then had been rescued and consequently flourished under the “right” kind of relationship (ownership?).  But while I had known Melissa and Fly at MMSC, they both were still struggling with their relationship, particularly in the ring and at competitions.  Then when Melissa and Fly moved to a new farm and trainer, an incredible transformation took place.  No longer juggling work duties and bringing the stress of her job to her riding and training moments with Fly, both horse and rider had gained spatial and thus cognitive and emotional autonomy from the outside factors that seemed to hinder their relationship and competitive development.  As Melissa told me, her first few months as simply a working student on the farm brought a lot of harmony to her life and thus her relationship with Fly.  For the first time, they could just focus on each other and their goal of getting better at shows.  By this time, I had left the field but could follow their progress via Facebook.  Particularly last summer during the height of the show season, I watched two completely different creatures emerge and dominate competitions at the beginner novice level.  Their newly found synchronicity and success was so profound that they were awarded the Thoroughbred Incentive Program High Point Dressage Award by the American Jockey Club, among many other accolades.

 

Peppermints for Fly Fly

Peppermints for Fly Fly

My time with Melissa and Fly drew to a close as the weather began to turn and as dinner plans that involved take-out from Windy Corner Market were impending.  After an ample helping of peppermints as thanks for helping me craft chapter two in my thesis, I bade Fly Fly goodbye.  Melissa walked me out to the schooling ring where the trainer of the farm (and breakthrough trainer for Melissa and Fly), Whitney Morris, was giving a lesson.  During a break in her instructions, Melissa shouted an introduction between us.  I am always fascinated by private trainers who have come to appreciate and specialize in off-track-Thoroughbreds (OTTBs), for I will never get it out of my head what Melissa told me during one of our interviews about how OTTBs are also perceived as by some in the show world: “track trash.”  If such an attitude had taken hold with the likes of Fly, none of us would have gathered together, reunited, on a day like today.

 

Monday, 24 March 2013

SAM’S RESTAURANT

Waking up to a wintery morning with about an inch of snow on the ground and more swirling through the air, I drove to Sam’s Restaurant – a mainstay diner on the currently under-construction Georgetown Road in Scott County – to meet with Linda Dyer, current farm manager for the TRF farm at Blackburn Correctional Complex and former research participant.  “Ms. Linda,” as the men call her back at Blackburn, is one of those people who remain friendly, warm, and relatable despite the passage of time.  And Sam’s is the kind of restaurant, it seems, that too remains the same despite the passage of time.  As I entered, I glanced at the same décor of jockey silks and racing stable insignias exhibited on the walls, and threaded my way past the smoking section (3/4 of the restaurant) and curious stares from the locals to the back, portioned-off section where I found Linda siting in a booth with a cup of cocoa.

TRF sign at Blackburn Correctional ComplexBLACKBURN CORRECTIONAL COMPLEX

After a meal of biscuits and gravy for me, and soup and more cups of cocoa for Linda (this hot food, along with her five layers of clothing, a testament to the cold I was about to experience back out at the Blackburn farm), we departed for Blackburn.  Our arrival at the barn coincided with the men clearing count, and soon after they made their way down the hill from the main correctional grounds, they clustered in the warm classroom in the kind of desks I remembered sitting in during junior high.  Bundled in full body, Carthart jumpsuits, thick work boots and wool caps, they sat politely facing me as I took a seat behind the teacher’s desk and began telling them about my research.  I shared with them the idea I had come up with called “redemptive capital” and how I saw it applied to both the men in the TRF program – called “Second Chances” – and the horses that went through the reschooling program at Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center.  The bulk of my presentation – and our ensuing discussion – however, was about horse slaughter.  One man asked me why there wasn’t more federal government intervention, to which I responded that there were efforts underway to create laws against horse slaughter and to better ensure equine welfare, but given the current political (and cultural) climate I sensed that animal-based issues such as horse slaughter were often secondary to human concerns.  I ended, perhaps with too much reiteration, but I always do that when I really want to get a point across, that the next time they handled their horses they might think about all the issues and history they carry.

With that, our time in the classroom concluded and we all stepped out into the chilly, windswept barn corridor.  The men immediately went about their chores: bringing the more cold-vulnerable horses in for the night.  One of those horses was Ferdinand’s Star – or Ferdy – a horse I write extensively about in the first chapter of my thesis.  Ferdy’s dad was the famed Thoroughbred racehorse Ferdinand who, after an unsuccessful career at stud (breeding) in Japan eventually was “disposed of” via slaughter.  Ferdy, who was most likely out of Ferdinand’s last North American foal crop before he was sent to Japan in 1995, was taken in by the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center as an anti-horse slaughter mascot and schooling horse before he was retired at Blackburn in the fall of 2011 (but not first without a stint at Old Friends Farm – that’s in the conclusion of my thesis).  Through Ferdy, I am able to present a history and analysis of Thoroughbred racing (via his daddy’s once-illustrious career), equine humane mascots (including Beautiful Jim Key, Black Beauty, Joey from War Horse, and Snowman), and hippophagy (horse meat-eating) and equine slaughter in Japan, Europe, and North America (yes, all that in the first chapter!).  In thanks, I fed Ferdy all the peppermints he wanted, and many of the men commented on how “smart” he was.

Then the day ended as the men said goodbye – “Goodbye Ms. Anthropologist!” – and started trekking up the hill.  Linda and I lingered a little longer in the barn, but even with the doors closed it was mighty cold.  When I couldn’t take the chill any longer, I bade her goodbye and wished her well, reassuring her (and myself) that I would always have reason to come back to Kentucky.  With that, I stepped out into the falling snow, swirling three different ways according to the wind patterns that frequent the grounds at Blackburn, and rumbled away in my truck.

Statue of Distorted Humor outside Winstar Stallion Complex

My next destination was Winstar Farm.  During my fieldwork, I enlisted the help of a research assistant, Amanda, who at the time had served as an intern at the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center and was an Equine Sciences major at the University of Kentucky.  She has since graduated from both and now works in the yearling division at Winstar.  I gravitated towards Amanda as a research assistant because she was young, curious, intelligent, and involved in both the racing and OTTB world of the Bluegrass, for not only did / had she work at various racing / breeding farms, she also was passionate about OTTBs and owned one herself.  I also saw myself in her (and it wasn’t just the mutuality of blond, curly hair) – a Self that would have become had I pursued horses exclusively and not eventually through the lens of anthropology.  Amanda reminded me of what pure enthusiasm and commitment to horse-craziness was, and her thoughtful, if not at times mercurial, engagement with the Bluegrass horse world offered me insight not yet tainted by industry politics and adult pretense.  It also helped that she rescued the cutest pitbull I’ve ever loved on, a lithe, partial-brindle coated girl with a smile bigger than her body (really, I am not exaggerating much when I say that).

When I got to Amanda’s house on the farm, we were soon joined by the assistant stallion manager who then took us to tour the new $6 million dollar stallion complex.  Having been to the old, impressive complex more than a few times before – a weird, reoccurring serendipity in my research has been all my chances to visit Winstar’s stallion operations, which only increases my crush on Tiznow -  I was curious to see how this new facility would compare.  After a short drive in more swirling snow, we pulled up to a building that resembled more a glossy mansion and that was three times the size of the old complex.  Stepping inside, we were met by an interior just freshly completed and gleaming with glossy wood and marble finishes.  Winstar’s insignia was etched on glass doors leading into offices and conference rooms, and trophy cases sparkled and beckoned.

IMG_4740

Distorted Humor awaiting his turn in the breeding shed.

After taking in this breathtaking interior, we exited into the second portion of the complex where the stallions were kept.  Soft, porous brick-like flooring caught our steps through our circumambulation first across the spacious stallion show floor and then into the hall of stalls housing the stallions that had been brought up either for breeding or respite from the weather.  My heartthrob Tiznow was there, but all eyes were on Distorted Humor as he waited in his stall, held by a stallion assistant donning a protective vest and hat.  That could only mean one thing: “DH” was about to get his swerve on (meaning, he was about to breed).  When it was time, DH was led out of his stall.  The horny fellow at first pranced in anticipation, then as he was about to cross into the breezeway into the first of two (TWO) breeding sheds he reared up, the excitement perhaps getting the best of him.  I won’t even mention the fifth leg that jangled between his hind legs the whole time (whoops, I just did).  He then entered the breeding floor, soft and fluffy with polytrack, and met his lady by first sniffing her out and signaling his approval with an outstretched neck and pointed, curled upper lip.  Then, he was all business, and so efficient with his business at that, that comments flew around like “can you believe he is 20 years old?”  Apparently the “old” man still had “it.”  Finished with his duties for the day, DH exited the breeding shed a contented horse.  We met him in the spacious stallion show floor where I fed him peppermint after peppermint, an equine version of the post-copulation cigarette.

With research so focused on the post-production of racehorses – meaning those who don’t make the successful transition into breeding careers but end up in a limbo state that threatens with the outcome of slaughter – you might wonder how I morally and ethically negotiate visits to high-scale, high-volume breeding operations such as Winstar.  One answer is that visiting these “production” based farms is a part of what is unique about this particular research project on horse rescue, for I have found that here in the Bluegrass horse rescue practices particular to Thoroughbreds – and the meaningful cultural worlds that emanate from them – are formed in relation, not strict opposition, to the racing and breeding world.  It is an uncanny partnership that both helps rescue / retirement / retraining operations, while at the same time constraining and inhibiting them.  To understand how the 3 R’s of Thoroughbred ex-racehorses are facilitated – while at the same time limited – by this relationship to what we could call the fourth R – racing – you’ll just have to read my thesis…

My writing on the remaining last Day in Kentucky to follow tomorrow.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

KEYNOTE ADDRESS

The last day of the conference began with a keynote address by Kenneth Shapiro: “Whither Human-Animal Studies?”  Dr. Shapiro began by talking about the history of the field according to which disciplines chronologically engaged with human-animal studies.  Philosophy was noted as one such first discipline, then Social Science, Humanities, and finally Natural Sciences.  He then went on to detail the publishing history of human-animal studies, beginning with a plethora of journals and book series (incredible resources to stumble upon for a junior scholar such as myself).  I’ll note just a few here: (journals) AntennaeHumanimaliaJournal for Critical Animal StudiesJournal of Animal Law and Ethics, and Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science; (book series) Temple University PressUniversity of Chicago / Reaktion PressUniversity of Minnesota PressColumbia University Press, and Rodopi Press.

Considering this history, Dr. Shapiro went on to address a key dynamic at work in the field of human-animal studies (which we were about to explore in many different names and emphases): are we tending toward fragmentation or unity within the diversity of being such an interdisciplinary-engaged field?  To work with this key question, we went through the various names and faces of “human-animal studies” – I list and describe them below, albeit in shorthand and with a smudge of naïveté to some:

Anthrozoology – started by chemist in South Africa ~1987

Human-animal studies  – social science to humanities; relationships; encourages advocacy

Animal welfare science – ethics theory applied to welfare of animals; enrichment of animals

Companion animal benefits – AAT; very human centered; nonadvocate for animals

Ecofeminism – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecofeminism

Animal studies – humanities; early name 1960s-1970s pre-clinical studies; continental thought / posthumanism; esoteric, high language to learn

Critical animal studies – Steve Best, Richard Cline, etc.; institutional critique; unpack praxis for capitalist base; liberationist

Trans-species psychology – applying human psychology to animals; neo-Darwinian; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans-species_psychology

Animality – claim: animal studies too limited by good for animals; need good for humans too; social construction of animals, ie “jungle”

Animism – Graham Harvey

Dr. Shapiro then fielded questions and comments from the audience of scholars.  A general theme ran through all the reactions to his keynote: what is the future of the university, and where would animal studies, etc. fit within it?  Many recognized that the current structure of universities – namely with stand-alone departments – was slowly changing as technology was allowing for students to “attend” more classes online, watch lectures from professors at other universities, and so forth.  Would such a burgeoning academic climate further foster the fragmentation of interdisciplinary fields such as animal studies, or would interdisciplinary fields be better adapted to such “flipped” classrooms?

CONTRADICTIONS

After the morning keynote address, the conference broke into various panels and I attended one entitled “Contradictions.”  Here, I listened to (and Tweeted about) presentations ranging from circuses refashioning themselves as vehicles as elephant conservation (Jessica Bell), questioning the “natural” in “horsemanship” (Ann McKinnon), and the link between commercial horse slaughter and rodeo horse cloning in North America (Jeannette Vaught).

Using critical discourse analysis on articles about elephants in circuses from 2007-2012, Bell critiqued the “New Naturalization” – the process of justifying a cultural practice by claiming it as natural – she saw evident in circus discourse about the captivity and treatment of elephants.  Citing Jane Desmond, Bell pointed out that the boundary between humans and animals is never as innocent as some would believe or want it to be.  An amateur Dressage rider based in the Okanagan region of British Columbia, McKinnon too troubled the human-animal boundary, this time exploring the question of communication vs. coercion in the Dressage training of horses.  Lastly, and most fascinating to my own research, Vaught presented from a chapter in her thesis on the relationship between veterinary medicine and the sport of rodeo focusing on the cloning of a particular barrel-racing horse and its link to commercial horse slaughter.  An American Studies Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, Vaught honed in on the figure of mares’ ovaries as the “site” of connection.  And this connection wasn’t just between species or spaces, it was also that between ideologies and technologies: economic worth, patriotism and citizenship, scientific progress, and humane management of equine pain.

DEATH AND THE ANIMAL

Next up was the panel I was on.  Moderated by Brett Mizelle, Dr. Mizelle kicked off the presentations with his paper “Killing Animals in American History: Celebrating Butchers and Slaughterhouses in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century.”  Most memorable, and almost inconceivable given present-day transparency (or lack thereof) of industrialized animal slaughter, was Mizelle’s coverage of U.S. slaughterhouse tourism in 1903.  For me, the image that summed up one of Mizelle’s points that “what was once common sense is now unthinkable” was a print of a little girl sitting on railing overlooking the slaughter of pigs (which happen to be Mizelle’s “animal” much like horses are mine).

After Mizelle’s presentation I was up with my paper: “Living and Dying with OTTBs: Redemptive Capital and Thoroughbred Ex-Racehorse Rescue in Kentucky’s Bluegrass.”  In this paper, I detailed my thesis research at two fieldsites and how they cope with the specter of horse slaughter in the horses they care for: the Maker’s Mark Secretariat Center (formerly run by the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation) and the horsemanship or “Second Chances” TRF program for inmates at Blackburn Correctional Complex.  If you would like a copy of this paper, complete with the images I used in my presentation, please contact me via my Academia.edu profile. (I also got a nice shout-out from Dr. DeMello in her blog here.)

After my presentation, Karen Raber gave a fascinating talk on early Renaissance anatomy art featuring horse dissections, “Equine Bodies, Equine Subjects in Carol Ruini’s ‘Anatomia del Cavallo.’”  Perhaps most compelling in her presentation was the link she made between Da Vinci’s “Rage Horses” and Ruini’s use of the (anatomized) aesthetics of the Rage Horse.  As Raber argued, taking the strength of the warhorse – the violence, strength, and agency associated with it – and presenting it flayed and held open with human hands (the Vesalius “godlike hands”) only helped to work against the naturalization of violence and animal struggle that vivisection practices counted on at the time.

To conclude the panel, Julia Schlosser (co-convener of the conference as well) explored the artworks of Craig Stecyk and Steve Baker.  The unifying figure in these artists works was the “roadkill” animal and the unifying theme was a critique of the impact roads (and all their ideological auras) were having on nonhuman animal life.  Stecyk’s work consisted of first finding dead animals on the road, skinning them, bronzing their innards (he had a portable caster in the back of his pick-up truck), re-furring them, and then adhering them back to the road.  Baker’s work consisted of juxtaposing photographs he took of dead animals on the road with fragments of images reproduced from famous, Western works of art.

CARING FOR, BY, AND WITH ANIMALS

This being the last panel of the day and weary from presenting my own work, my scant coverage of the papers presented in this panel was marked more by my fatigue than any lack of interest or enthusiasm in the presentations given.  First up was Susan Shaffer, Ph.D. student in the Religion and Nature program at the University of Florida, sharing her initial ideas about her forthcoming research on wild horses and feminist ethic-of-care theories (Shaffer has shared a copy of her paper with me and it would be most ideal to read it and give synopsis of it here at a future date).  Next was Karin Bump’s presentation on “A Perspective on Views of the Legitimacy of Living and Working with Horses.”  Using a three-tiered model of legitimacy – pragmatic, moral, and cognitive – Bump argued that the history of human-horse relationships in the past 100 years has evolved such that respect for horses needs to be more than pragmatic (what needs they serve for humans, and vice versa) and moral (which can still hold horses at an idealized distance) but elevate to the level of “cognitive legitimacy.”  What I took this to mean is that horses need to be understood and present in more facets of human social life as their roles have evolved away from work/pragmatic horses to… What are horses to us today?  What could they / should they become?

Friday, 22 March 2013

TEACHING WITH ANIMALS

The second day of the “Living with Animals” conference at Eastern Kentucky University started, for me at least, with the “Final Interdisciplinary Discussion of Teaching With Animals” panel.  It began with the head of the Animals Studies program at EKU, Robert W. Mitchell, presenting on how he helped create the Animal Studies major at EKU.  With self-depreciating humor and candid recall of the process, Mitchell first outlined the interdisciplinary foundations of this major – from Arts and Humanities, to Applied Sciences, to internships and/or study abroad programs, to electives, to capstone courses, I was frankly envious of the students taking this major.  Not only would they get an incredible foundation of animal studies through the lens of various disciplines and fields, but they would become well-versed in various disciplines through the uniting query of “the Animal.”  I was particularly heartened to hear anthropology classes hailed as crucial to this major, for one cannot question “the Animal” without questioning “what is Human?”  By relativizing, complicating, and nuancing what is taken for granted in “human” across cultures, students unpack their ontological and epistemological baggage to make room for deeper understandings of human-animal relationships.

After Dr. Mitchell’s highly informative and entertaining presentation – of which I’ve only provided a snapshot here – the panel proceedings really began as he joined colleagues Margo DeMello, Robert Mitchell, Kenneth Shapiro, and Kari Weil while Brett Mizelle moderated.  Dr. Mizelle posed thoughtful questions for the panelists that resorted in resourceful answers for us audience members: What works every time to get students engaged? And: How do you assess what students are learning / what skills get built?  Content and perspectives?  Assignments?  In response to the first question, key authors were cited such as Hal Herzog, Peter Singer and Tom Regan, and T.C. Boyle, as well as salient readings, such as The Dreaded Comparison by Marjorie Speigel.  In response to the second question, responses ranged from assigning projects to students where, after a semester of studying the history and critique of zoos, they were asked to design new habitats for zoos that were historically and theoretically informed.  Another panelist shared how students kept a journal that she would merely read to track their transformations and obfuscations without the anxiety of being graded for their explorations.

Perhaps something that arose most saliently in questions posed by the audience at the conclusion of the panel was the twofold concern: how do you deal with colleague and/or administrators who assume animal studies means getting a degree in animal activism?  And: When is a good time to share your personal perspectives / stances on human-animal relationships, animal welfare and activism?  The answer seemed to be that one must accept that animal studies, despite its ongoing and decades-long growth, is a relatively new venture for many scholars, much less universities.  And while animal studies does carry a component of questioning and intervening when it comes to issues of animal ethics, the answer was to let students (if not administrators and interdisciplinary colleagues) process these dynamics themselves.  One effective classroom method for this would be to set up a debate where students chose sides (such as to go vegan or remain a meat-eater) and, moreover, chose / be assigned a position one would not habitually take.  That is to say, a die-hard vegan would then have to consider the merits of meat-eating, and a meat-eater who might joke that s/he is a PETA member in the sense that s/he was a “Person Eating Tasty Animals” (my connection, after seeing these t-shirts at the Denver National Western Stock Show) would have to embrace the merits of veganism.

ANIMAL SUBJECTIVITY

The next session I attended featured two presentations on human-ape relationships and one on human-equine relations.  In her presentation, “Nonhuman Primates as Pets,” Pamela C. Ashmore followed her curiosity about the understudied relationships between humans and the nonhuman primates they keep as – not “pets,” as she informed us, for many of her research participants blanched at such a term – but as “companion species,” as I would put it as neutrally as possible.  Instead, Ashmore learned that the better question to ask these human primates was: why did you choose to bring these nonhuman primates into your household?  A physical anthropologist by training, Ashmore joked about how bewildering it was at first to conduct an ethnographic interview with a human informant (ah, the four fields of anthropology seem separated by deep chasms at times like these).   Interestingly, she found that some of her a priori assumptions – such as nonhuman primate owners / significant others would not be highly educated when in fact all had high school diplomas and approximate 3 out of 15 participants had terminal degrees (Ph.D., J.D., M.D.) – disproven by her initial research results.

The next paper was about the famed Chantek, an orangutan with mad jewelry making skills – on top of the fact that he was the subject of language and enculturation experiments at a primate facility in Atlanta, Georgia.  Chantek’s cross-species foster mother, H. Lyn White Miles detailed Chantek’s life in a paper titled “’Get car, go home’: Chantek’s Journey to Enculturation and Back” – referring to Chantek’s hand-signed reaction to his departure from the primate facility (“home”) and the end of Miles’ partnership with him.  While I found Miles’ presentation fascinating, I was unnerved by how uncritically she presented Chantek’s enculturation training and the future of creating “dual-cultured persons of the nonhuman kind.”  What struck me at first was how Chantek was isolated as a test subject  (ie. taken away from primary socialization with his mother) in order to learn human sign language and cultural ways – jewelry making being one of the “ways.”  The purpose behind this?  Humanocentric curiosity and arguments that such studies better helped us (humans) understand the evolutionary origins of language and culture.  But the biggest rub came when Chantek was decommissioned from the study – where does a dual-cultured person of the nonhuman kind go from there?  The first answer was the Atlanta Zoo, but here he was only objectified in another way as he was deployed for entertainment and as an educational mascot for conservation.  The zookeepers described his irascible behavior as “only child syndrome” and thought they needed to “put the wild back in him.”  Miles concluded her presentation with a utopian vision of “Animal Cultural Centers” where dual-cultured nonhuman primates such as Chantek could be trained and remain in an environment that fostered their training and the “persons” they had become – literally, a “Chan Tech” as Miles put it.

The last presentation of this session was given by Karen Head, the director of an equine-assisted therapy center in North Carolina.  She began by asking us all in the auditorium to take a deep breath and take note of what feeling we had.  For those that responded, the overwhelming emotion was sadness – perhaps lingering over the limbo life of Chantek previously presented.  Head then asked us all to take off our thinking caps for her presentation, for as she noted, horses feel energy and respond to people mindful of their breath and not living in their heads.  As such, she went on to give more of a life-coach presentation of her work, which still came with its own subtleties of inculcation.  I admire (and envy) people who work with horses and acknowledge their extraordinary capacity to bring about emotional healing (I’ve cried in many a horse’s mane), and Head’s work with helping address the emotional needs and rejuvenation of purpose of those people who work as addiction therapists is a much needed and no doubt effective one.  But as the curmudgeonly anthropologist in the room, I could not help but think I was being sold a service or a path to personal salvation via the vehicle of the horse.

ETHICS TOWARDS ANIMALS

The last session of the day consisted of three papers that questioned the ethical impact of human imposition on nonhuman lives/spaces.  Bob Sandmeyer shared his ideas on the conflicting conservation philosophies of John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, signaling where each faltered in their dualist conception of nature and culture.  While Pinchot saw conservation necessary for furthering human growth through the use – not depletion – of natural resources, Muir saw nature as a sanctum sanctorum that needed to preserved so that humans could retain a necessary sense of “the wild.”  To transcend this binary, Sandmeyer also explored the perspectives of Aldo Leopold and Gary Paul Nabhan, suggesting we think of future “conservation” efforts less in humanocentric terms – that is, saving the environment only to preserve human communities – and more like cultivating a “multispecies household.”

The next presentation, “Living with Transgenic Animals,” took us from the landscape to the laboratory as Jonathan L. Clark detailed the rise and fall of the “Enviropig” experiment.  Starting suggestively with Bruno Latour’s idea of monsters and loving them, Clark told us the story of the creation of transgenic pigs at the University of Guelph for the purpose of, as far as I could tell, providing more environmentally friendly pig farts and feces.  But when it was deemed by the Canadian National Research Council that the pigs were too risky to introduce to conventional farms after all– fears of feral, clean farting and shitting pigs? (moreover, fears of passing on transgenic traits) – orders to euthanize 16 pigs came down the pike.  Farm Sanctuary jumped on this and started a petition to stop the killing.  8,349 signatures were collected – three months AFTER the pigs had been killed.  Clark brought up some intriguing, important questions, one in particular that got me thinking about how my ideas of “redemptive capital” can be applied to lab animals: who is eligible for life after laboratories?

The last presentation of the day, “Putting Them Out of Their Misery: A Critique of ‘Knockout Livestock’” was given by Matthew Pianalto.  Here, the most salient point was that of once again manufacturing animals to fulfill specific humanocentric concerns.  But instead of concerns over the environment, which linked the previous two presenters, Pianalto shared his critique over the ethics of creating animals whose capacity to feel pain was “knocked out” genetically.  That is to say, to allay concerns and guilt over inflicting pain on animals be it for slaughter or laboratory purposes, is it okay to create animals who wouldn’t feel pain?  At least if they were decommissioned like the Enviropig they wouldn’t feel pain when euthanized – so the logic and lessons of history might lead us to believe…

Flying Over Keeneland

“Bird’s Eye View” of Keeneland racecourse and shedrows as we made our final descent into Bluegrass Airport.

 

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

After a 3:30am wake-up call to catch a 6am flight out of Vancouver International Airport, I touched down at the Bluegrass Airport approximately twelve hours later (give or take with the time changes). As the commuter plane from Houston International Airport had coasted over Lexington during its final descent, I caught my first glimpse of some now very familiar landmarks: Rupp Arena in the heart of downtown, the brick buildings of Blackburn Correctional Complex framed between the wing and the sky, and as we sailed towards the runway, the grounds of Keeneland Racecourse raced by below.  Once my feet were back on Bluegrass ground, dinner was relished at the Grey Goose restaurant in Paris – where Varden’s used to be.  The old soda fountain had been converted into a beautiful bar, and I thoroughly enjoyed their chocolate peanut butter pie for dessert.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

The first day of spring bloomed blustery and cold, but a tangerine sun still managed to emerge above the horizon that morning.  Utterly fatigued from flying, I decided to take a personal recovery day.  This began with a walk with the dogs on the farm I was staying at, clucking and greeting the pregnant mares or new mammas and their foals on Thoroughbred stilts-for-legs as I routed down the tree-lined roads.  I then embarked on some errands, driving the familiar road connecting Paris and Georgetown in a growling pickup truck that was lent to me for the week.  Amidst the muted beige-green landscape, tiny yellow daffodils sprouted and swayed in roadside irrigation ditches, and the famous stone fences of the Bluegrass poured over themselves in patches, toppled over by a long, climatically sporadic winter, yet to be repaired.  The mail clerk at my old post office recognized me, and I made the discovery that Scott County had gone from a “moist” (alcohol only served in restaurants) to a “wet” county since I left – as judged by the two aisles of alcoholic offerings at the drug store.  At the bank, two clerks lamented the UK basketball team’s bitter loss in the first round of the NIT conference (this after winning the NCAA national championships the year before).  As I conducted my business at the counter, we all lamented the never-ending winter.  “I am ready for some barbeque!” One lady exclaimed.  “Kicking it and dicing it up – I’m ready for summer t’get here!”

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Today was the first day of the “Living with Animals” conference hosted at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond.  I’d been to EKU once before when Temple Grandin spoke during my fieldwork year.  After she’d given her talk and the floor was opened to questions from the audience, amidst all the other heartbreaking, telling questions about autism, mine was the only question about her research on animals, specifically her work on humane slaughter of horses.  When she said she was all for horse slaughter instead of the starvation being witnessed that summer of 2011 due to the devastating drought in the southcentral U.S., the auditorium erupted in cheers and applause – that was quite telling too.

The Living with Animals conference kicked off with a keynote address by Kari Weil, who spoke of the legacy of empathy (or lack thereof) in horse training beginning with the impact of Descartes’ theory of animals as machines, and ending with a bricolage of references from Gustav Le Bon (on the moral training of animals and children) to Donna Haraway (and her engagement with the work of the trainer Vicki Hearne) to Judith Butler’s most recent ideas on “unchosen inhabitation.”  The conference then split into two different sessions devoted to canine and equine studies – I chose the equine studies presentations, of course.

While the papers varied in topic and strength, I relished this opportunity: it was like taking an all day seminar on equine studies as approached from an arts and humanities perspective.  From Carol Baker’s paper, I learned about contemporary horsemanship traditions I’d never heard of before, such as the work of Carolyn Resnick; Darlene Chalmers shared how social work models of wellbeing can be applied to understanding mutual relationality between humans and horses; Nora Schuurman addressed the performative narratives of Finnish horse blogs; Chelsea Medlock answered audience questions about the “Goodbye Old Man” wartime propaganda poster used to foster support for equines in World War I; Letizia Bindi introduced the study of horsemanship as an “intangible cultural heritage” in places like France, Italy, and right here in the Bluegrass (which also got me thinking and percolating about my Tibetan horse festival research); and Deborah Butler demonstrated how an Irish steeplechase horse is “produced” in the training yards of Britain through Van Gennen’s theory on the rites of passage.  I also attended a plethora of afternoon sessions, ranging from mustang adoption (Karen Dalke) to applying indigenous paradigms in equine assisted psychotherapy (Arieahn Matamonasa-Bennett).

All the while I “Tweeted” my discoveries at Rimolha, trending as #livingwithanimalseku – you can follow me as I head out today, 22 March 2013, for the second day of the conference.

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