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Barbaro, The Final Chapter

As you may recall, I started Animal Person on May 22, 2006, with a post called, "Barbaro Made Me Do It," meaning I’d planned to begin writing much later (more like 2007), but couldn’t resist. There were several posts on Barbaro back then, and now, by popular demand (calls and e-mails), with relief, I can write The Final Chapter.

I’ll use author (of horse books) Jane Smiley’s "Barbaro, The Heart in the Winner’s Circle," (Washington Post) as my source to deconstruct, and I should warn you that this is going to be uglier than when Barbaro fell at the Preakness last May. Luckily, it’ll be a lot shorter than this drama has been.

Nothing is so damning as one’s own words, so let’s get right to Smiley’s:

  • "They are engineered so close to the margins of what is physically possible that when one thing fails, it can cause the failure of the whole animal." They are "engineered," produced. They are machines we are trying to perfect so they may entertain us and make us money.
  • "And the death of a thoroughbred seems to me to be even more shocking, because thoroughbreds have been bred to press on and prevail . . . " Umm, and maybe all that training of their young, not-fully developed bodies, and the clear message about what is expected from them has something to do with it . . .
  • "I watched the Preakness with some lifelong racing people. When Barbaro was injured, we turned  the TV off . . . . It is the paradox of racing." I’ll tell you what the paradox is–that you "racing people" actually think you genuinely care about horses. You said it–you care about racing, and your investments.
  • Smiley seems fascinated by the possibility that Barbaro might have demonstrated some kind of intelligence. "[When] Barbaro knew when he needed some pain relief–he would stand by the sling and shake it until they put him in it, and when he was tired of it, he would shake himself so that it rattled, signaling he was ready to be taken out." Barbaro communicated his needs in a way his trainer could understand. How is that so remarkable? Nonhuman animals do that all the time, and it’s just one part of their existence in a long list that we continue to find so amazing. The fact is, they communicate, they love, they experience pleasure and pain, and they have social needs, just like we do. And here is the real Barbaro paradox: Everyone loved him because he was one of the few nonhuman animals that have been appreciated as individuals–almost like people. He was one of the lucky ones that was almost NOT treated like an animal. (Of course, his life and death were never his own, so in reality he was ALWAYS being treated like an animal.)
  • "Like Barbaro, they [horses who run even when few are watching] did it because they were born and bred to do it, because a thoroughbred loves to run, and because they didn’t know what it meant not to keep trying." This, my friends, is denial at its best. They do what they do because we make them do it. "Make" in that we "engineer" them, and "make" because we force them. Period.

Several things about Mary Martin, Ph.D., Animal Person, have changed since last May. I used to be in favor (if that can ever be said) of euthanizing feral cats, I used to think John Mackey and Whole Foods were the bomb, and I used to think that legislation was the best way to help animals. I’m back to my philosophical roots of 20 years ago and I’ve never felt less cognitive dissonance. One of the topics I’ve never budged on is that there are few excuses to bring animals into this world to eventually slaughter them that are more lame than: to force them to race in an attempt to profit from them. Horse racing is entirely morally unjustifiable.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Shannon #

    Racehorses do love to run. If it weren't for racing, they wouldn't be bred. Just like hunter/jumpers jump, cutters cut, reigners reign, haulers haul. Thoroughbred racing isn't inhumane or morally wrong. A sport or any animal-related activity (including owning a pet) is only as good as the individuals involved. As with all of life, there are good people and there are bad people. Most racing owners, trainers, handlers, etc., love horses — that's why they do it. They don't want to see horses hurt or abused. As with all of life, there are a few bad apples. Sucks, but that's life. Learn to deal with it or take your frustrations out on all animal-related facets of life, not just TB racing.

    Thoroughbreds really do love to run, or they wouldn't do it. You can't "make" them run, trust me.

    February 6, 2007

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