Debate is raging over the death of a carriage horse in NYC, with one side arguing it is definitive proof of abuse, while the other side argues that horses have a long history of working in cities, and that we shouldn't jump to conclusions about one particular case.
This discussion brings up a broader conceptual division that often hampers the animal rights debate: are working animals—from horses, through seeing-eye dogs, to animals raised for meat or dairy—our slaves, or are they our partners?
On the one hand, many vegans and other animal rights activists argue that domesticated animals were enslaved by humans, and that any use of animals for labor or as a means of producing food is ultimately unethical and unsustainable. As I argued before on my post on why vegans are welcome to call me a murderer, I may not agree with that viewpoint, but it is morally consistent to a particular worldview, and it does offer a relatively straightforward means to answer many animal rights dilemmas—like the dead carriage horse in question.
On the other hand, many folks argue that the domestication of animals was a more complex, nuanced process than simply the capture and enslavement of species we found useful. As author Steven Kotler explained in our live chat on animal rescue, anthropologists believe that many domesticated species began gradually spending more and more time with humans as they found their needs met by cooperating/offering resources to their human "partners". In this particular narrative, domestication is a form of co-evolution—and that leaves some much thornier ethical conundrums.
How do we work with animals and still ensure their relative well-being? What tasks or services are appropriate for which animals? Why is it OK to eat pork but not puppies?
I'm no expert on animal rights, nor the needs of carriage horses, and I don't pretend to have any definitive answers. I'm just a person who spends a little too much time pondering these things. And as with many people who spend too much time pondering, I'm often left more confused than when I started out.
I've never really liked carriage rides, and I'd be happy to see them disappear from city centers. But I am leery of a world where animals are treated with such kid gloves that they can no longer work with humans on the tasks they have evolved to do. From young farmers farming with horses through ingenious chicken tunnel cultivation to horse-drawn recycling, as oil gets more expensive we may find ourselves relying more, not less, on our animal partners.
Hopefully we'll start treating them with the respect they deserve.