By Kathleen Stachowski
ex-ploi-ta-tion (noun): the action or fact of treating someone unfairly in order to benefit from their work.
Animal exploitation comes in many shapes and sizes and often involves soul-crushing cruelty–think factory farming, circus slavery, vivisection.
But is exploitation always cruel? What constitutes cruelty, anyhow? And who defines it?
If you’re the animal, these questions are meaningless: When you’re suffering–whether physically, emotionally, or both–you simply want it to stop. If you’re the animal rights activist, your definition of what’s exploitive and cruel is holistic and vastly broader than that of the person who “owns” animals–ponies, for example–and benefits financially from their work in the pony ride ring. Though they might be well cared-for, is their forced labor unfair? Is it cruel? Is it OK because they’re valued and loved? Just like the tethered ponies, this argument goes ’round and ’round.
That’s the scenario playing out in Santa Monica, CA, where Tawni’s Ponies & Petting Farm, Inc. & Animal World Petting Zoo has sold pony rides at the farmers market since 2003. Enter local special education teacher Marcy Winograd, who believes that her city’s farmers market is no place for animal exploitation:
"(E)very Sunday, six ponies – some of them dragging their feet, having trouble walking – are tethered to a metal bar and forced to plod for hours in tiny circles on hard hot cement, while bands, often loud, blare next to the ponies’ sensitive ears. …
Next to the pony ride sits a penned in petting zoo, where an alpaca – a member of the camel family known for wanting to stay close to family – is sequestered in a tiny cement area, where gawkers can enjoy the sideshow. Baby goats and chickens, bred for the zoo, sometimes seek refuge in corners."--Santa Monica Mirror
Winograd and other activists have been protesting the pony rides since April of this year, according to the Santa Monica Daily Press (SMDP), which further reports that, “In September…City Council voted 4 to 0 to seek a non-animal related vendor for the Farmers’ Market plot currently occupied by Tawni’s Ponies. … The decision will likely spell the end of pony rides and petting zoos at the Main Street Market.”
Now the pony ride owners “are suing protesters, claiming libel, infliction of emotional distress, and interference with possible economic advantage…” and projecting that, when their contract with the market expires next May, they’ll lose some $75,000 worth of business. The suit also alleges that “they’ll lose new pony ride and petting zoo business given the ‘false accusations of animal abuse’ that were published” (SMDP).
It should be noted that Tawni’s Ponies received “numerous assurances from city and police officials that no abuse was occurring,” according to the Daily Press. This includes a letter of assurance from a local police sergeant and horse owner who asserts that the ponies are “well-cared for, and in good condition.” On the other hand, none less than ethologist/evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff has weighed in, calling such animal exhibits “thoroughly inhumane” and adding that “(t)ethering animals so they cannot have freedom of movement and the freedom to get away from harassment and noise is as inhumane as keeping the animals in tiny cages in petting zoos, where they suffer physically and emotionally.”
While dueling petitions make the rounds, Winograd’s intention is to file an anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) motion to protect her First Amendment right to free speech (see her treatise in the LA Progressive; it includes a video she made).
Service … or Servitude?
The attorney representing the owner of Tawni’s Ponies claims that the animals “…enjoy their work at the Farmers’ Market. It is a weekly outing for them, much in the way that the family dog tries to get into the car when the family is heading somewhere.” He continues:
"These animals do not work for Tawni. They work with her and together Tawni and her animals bring in enough money to support themselves as a family and provide a safe home for approximately 90 animals that live on Tawni’s farm."--~Santa Monica Mirror, letter to the editor.
This suggests that a pony can beg off if he or she doesn’t feel up to schlepping rambunctious kids around the ring on a particular weekend while, at the same time, it suggests that the ponies must “earn their keep.” Journalist Jon Katz has vehemently defended Tawni’s Ponies, framing the issue as nothing less than “the right of animals to remain in our world”:
What happened to Tawni Angel has happened to thousands of people – farmers, circuses, research facilities, students, carriage horses, owners of dogs and cats, too often innocent people persecuted without due process or fairness. Animals are not being saved, simply driven off. The animal rights movement in its current form is killing many more animals than it is saving.--from BedlamFarm.com
Katz, by the way, is author of an e-book titled, “Who speaks for the carriage horses? The future of animals in our world” and maintains in a blog post that, “(l)iving and working in cities is precisely what (carriage horses) are bred to do and meant to do. It is their safest place.” (Not according to NYClass, who has documented 2014’s accidents.) Domestic nonhuman animals occupy a shadow world. As shadows of their ancient, wild selves, they no longer fill an ecological niche and–now dependent on humans–are considered property and are bred to be exploited for their utility. A few favored species find their way into our homes and lives to live as family members while others–representing billions of individuals–know only suffering.
Though I’m hazarding a guess here–and please, speak up if you see it another way–those of us who advocate for animal rights are likely to see the spectrum of legal animal exploitation as a whole–an ever-present symptom of the speciesism that pervades and drives society. Pony rides are down there somewhere on the less harmful end while elsewhere along the scale we find absurdities like pig wrestling, horse and dog racing, circus slavery and rodeo, breeding mills…topping out somewhere around vivisection and factory farming. We know that small injustices enable larger ones, and all are symptoms of a speciesist world that nonhuman animals didn’t create–but one that they must endure.