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One with the Herd

Posted by Eliza, March 5th, 2011

A long-time feminist, the racehorse Zenyatta’s story grabbed my attention because her bodaceous, curvaceous self has held her own in a field dominated for centuries by finely bred and trained males. She is one joyously powerful female! I hope you saw her magnificent gallop-in-from-the-back of the pack loss-by-a-whisker in the last Kentucky Derby. Not usually a racing fan, I was on the edge of my chair! You can see her win the Breeder’s Cup in this clip.

Of course I’m not alone in thinking horses are divine creations. They are lifted up in the Koran: “When God created the horse, he said to the magnificent creature: I have made thee as no other. All the treasures of the earth shall lie between thy eyes. Thou shalt cast thy enemies between thy hooves, but thou shalt carry my friends upon they back. Thy saddle shall be the seat of prayers to me. And thou fly without any wings, and conquer without any sword.”

I can see the saddle as a place of a sacred communing. As my aunt, a long-time horse trainer, rider, and teacher put it: “Caring for horses and connecting with them as partners also connects us to the land and the larger world. It’s never just the person and the horse, it’s always the person, the horse and the environment that they are part of. They invite us into their world as accept us as part of their herd, with a (mostly) joyful, willing spirit.”

So I was greatly saddened when I read recently about horses being used to run drugs and then abandoned in the Southwest, and about horses being released into fields north of Dublin during this Great Recession. Because they are expensive to keep, horses have long been given up by those facing hard times. But to release them in the desert, or in a wintery no-man’s land is hard to understand.

Without decent food and water, these animals quickly weaken. From a March third copy of The Portlander, out of Oregon, we see some of the possible results of such abuse: “Additional tests show that all of the horses are in depressed states suffering from severe malnutrition. Veterinary exams also found that they horses suffered from hoof abscesses, rain rot, ear mites, skin sores, gingival abscesses and severe dehydration. They also displayed flaccid muscles that could barely hold their weight and swollen limbs from infection and lack of appropriate nutrition.”

My source in Ireland tells me that – between the weather and the economy- this was a very harsh winter, and a horse can now be got for a cell phone. People buy them cheap in markets in Dublin, race them, and then abandon them again. (See www.ispca.ie). In a country that has long revered the beauty and intelligence of these animals, it’s shocking to see them abused.

These recent tragedies overlie too many cases of abandonment and abuse already happening around the world. If we sincerely cherish this web of life, we can all help by teaching children –early and often- compassion for all animals. We can help others understand what we take on when we take responsibility for our fellow creatures.

Bringing her love of horses wherever she goes, my aunt puts it this way: “Caring for the horses – in Hawaiian, that’s malama ka lio – means, of course, providing sufficient feed, water, shelter, sufficient space, companionship, a healthy environment. Ideally, it also means helping them learn to relax and trust us, their partners in the horse-human relationship.

Building trust between species is a vital step in insuring our mutual survival on our jewel of a planet.

Lots of places, luckily, do minister to abandoned and abused animals, including the Irish S.P.C.A. mentioned above.

Photo: Sarah Blanchard and friends on a trail ride in Hawaii.

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New Noahs

Posted by Eliza, February 26th, 2011






San Diego Zoo, Fall 2010
Photo credit: Carter Blanchard

Those of us who can – literally – afford to struggle with ancient questions about our relationship to our fellow animals – questions older than history. Some answers have been painted on cave walls, found in graves, written in ancient texts, and handed down in stories. In the Jewish Torah, we find in Genesis accounts of our mutual creation and, later, of our mutual salvation, thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Noah. So grateful and charmed by the pairs of species saved, we rarely stop to think about the myriad lost in the great flood.

Today we face various devastating changes to our environment, and the question is who will survive and how. Zoos were originally build for the amusement of the rich, but they may be our modern arks.

As I child, I found zoos exciting, but also creepy. They used to be built like maximum security prisons, with cement floors, steel walls, and layers of bars and fences. Walking through a lacy, treed aviary –a stories-high outdoor sanctuary full of Seuss-like birds – was the exception. As a child I felt excited feeding peanuts to our zoo’s four elephants, but discomfitted by the chains around their ankles anchoring them to a cement slab. The more experience I had with animals, the more I grew to hate zoos.

My boycott lasted only a decade. My excuse was that I wanted my children to see in flesh, feather and scale, to experience other sentient beings and come to admire, if not love, them. But it’s me who can’t walk away from the experience of entering another’s life, from sensing a different kind of intelligence, seeing the world as similar and yet radically different from the one I inhabited.

Recently I found myself drawn to the zoo again, taking advantage of courses offered through the local adult education program for classes and tours. After learning about big cats, one of their keeper’s – a petite brunette- took us behind the scenes to meet the two tigers and very senior lion. I was surprised at all the training that goes on, coaching the animals to come to the fence for shots, and to stand on a scale to be weighed, as well as tricks. The cagey old lion has learned to use a wall to make himself sound younger and bigger. Check out his bona fides here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YmzKQKl3Gjw

We learned that, at eighteen he’s eight years older than a lion in the wild would be, and his mane is full and well-groomed, where a wild adult lion’s mane would be worn and mangy. After another class – on lowland gorillas – I got to spend an hour and a half watching the resident tribe of eight. Guarding a four day old baby from her curious father and two eager sisters, the mother snatched a few minutes rest before foraging for snacks the keepers tossed in various places for them to find.

It’s lucky that I went back, because, as Paul Simon sings, “It’s all happening at the zoo.” By visiting most zoos today we support modern arks, spaces nurturing and stimulating to many species, some of which are threatened with extinction in the wild. A number of the animals in today’s zoos have been rescued from private attempts to keep wild animals and from aging out of circuses. Today’s zoos share resources, knowledge and stewardship of the gene pools of species in captivity.

Noah would be jealous of today’s zoo keepers, who are much better equipped to keep their charges healthy, both emotionally and physically. Of course we’d rather the animals were free and able to live their wild lives out in their homelands – and it’s tragic that they’re so threatened. Fortunately zoos provide us with a way to observe and appreciate other ways of being, learn what we can do to protect all the homelands, and wonder anew at the variety and beauty of Creation. Zoos may be one way we can serve as Noahs.

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To find out more or peek at animals doing their thing via webcams, please check out these sites as well as your local zoo:

To learn more about a pioneer zoo director and get a behind the scenes look at the challenges of zookeeping, look for “My Life in a Man Made Jungle,” by Belle J. Benchly.

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