Out of “Luck” and All the Wiser: Horse Abuse and What We Can Learn from It
May 5, 2012 3 Comments
The Times has done an admirable job lately covering the horse abuse that took place during the filming of the HBO series “Luck.” Several horses died of cardiac arrest during filming. The set’s lead horse handler–a veteran in the field–has been accused of overworking horses unprepared to race while injecting them with heavy doses of painkillers to encourage their performance. All in all, it looks like conditions for the horses were miserable. HBO has cancelled production, at an enormous economic cost.
PETA, an organization that typically comes under considerable heat from many animal rights activists (including me), used its considerable resources to obtain documents confirming this widespread negligence. For this I commend the organization.
The “Luck” incident, whether charges are pursued or not, provides an excellent opportunity to explore the broadest intersection of veganism and animal rights. Many vegans think squarely in terms of diet. From this perspective, the abuse that horses suffer on a movie set might seem to be the farthest thing from our noble choice not to eat animal products. In actuality, the two actions are deeply intertwined.
The ethical principle underscoring the decision not to eat animals centers squarely on the reality that animals are sentient, capable of suffering, and deserving of the right not be arbitrarily exploited. If this set of assumptions–assumptions that confirm our humanity– is the basis upon which we reject animal-based foods, it must also be applied to other realms of life, including entertainment, clothing, cosmetics, and most cases of medical testing. No ethical vegan can avoid suffering. But she should not, to cite obvious examples, wear leather or attend a circus that uses animals.
From a non-vegan perspective, the “Luck” case is also useful. Non-vegans are routinely outraged by stories such as the recent “Luck” tragedy (hence why would the Times bother?). It’s worth asking why. Why do so many animal-eaters find these stories deeply disturbing? Typically what non-vegans will say in response to such a question is an articulation–however inadvertently– of why they should go vegan. They may not know that they are making such a case, but they are. (Which is why I’m happy to make the connection for them.)
“No animal deserves to be treated that way,” a non-vegan friend of mine said after hearing about the horse abuse. She’s right, of course. The underlying implication, though, is that the animal has moral worth. It has intrinsic worth. It is worthy of human moral consideration. My friend agrees with all these claims. “So then,” I asked, “why do you eat animals?” She explained that she only ate animals that were raised with dignity and given a quick and painless death. Plus, she added, as if following the sustainable food movement agitprop script, “I always give thanks.”
Herein lies a “teachable moment.” I wondered: On what basis do we think we can separate welfare concerns from an animal’s interest in life? There is no rational and moral basis for this separation; the latter is subsumed in the former. To be concerned about an animal’s welfare is–whether we act on it or not–to believe that we have no right to take that animal’s life for unnecessary purposes. To say that welfare considerations end at an animal’s dignified death is fatally inconsistent logic. You cannot agree that a life has meaning and then justify ending it because you happen to be hungry or want to sell the animal’s body parts and excretions to make a profit.
So, with the cancellation of “Luck,” we all have some thinking to do, connections to make, and a lot to learn.