Monday, December 15, 2014

Animal Emotions -- Are Holidays a Stress on Carriage Horses? (Surprise, Surprise!)


Working carriage horse yesterday. "Abused, Miserable?" Note the forward ears and calm, engaging facial expression.
Mounted patrol horses yesterday in Central Park.
And a carriage horse quickly following in footsteps of police horses.
Alice enjoying some feed after ride.
 
Perhaps the one skill most important in animal rescue is the ability to accurately gage the emotions and energy of animals. This is vital not only for the safety of the rescuer, but also in terms of lowering stress, fear and panic in the animals and helping to ensure a successful outcome.
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I spent many years in animal rescue and placement -- both with strays on streets and Animal Control shelter animals. In nearly all cases, little if anything was known about the animals' histories and one had to rely almost exclusively on "intuition" and getting a general feel for the cat or dog.
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In 1981, when humanely trapping my first feral cat, (for spaying and release) I knew nothing about feral cats. While riding on the bus to take the stressed cat to the vet for spaying and shots, I made the huge mistake of putting my finger through the grating to try and calm the cat who was loudly yowling.  "Lilly" promptly sunk her teeth deeply through my finger and held on like a pit bull. By the time she finally released her grip, I was bleeding enough to completely soak through the large, fluffy white towel I had used to cover the trap.
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Later in the week, my entire arm blew up like a football and turned all the colors of the rainbow, making it hard to type at my job. The pain was quite intense making mere concentration difficult.
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But the good news was that both, I and the cat, Lilly, survived the ordeal no worse for the wear.
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Just as importantly, my first "initiation" into the world of stray and feral animal rescue was one that was ultimately beneficial, for it taught me the importance of being able to read animal emotions and how to work around them without being injured, bitten or severely stressing out an animal more than was absolutely necessary.
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For these reasons, I mostly abandoned use of humane traps for stray cats except in the most stubborn and resilient cases. It was preferable and more humane to slowly win trust of cats and gain their approach, at which time, I would grab the cat by the scruff of the neck and quickly lower or back up into a carrier. (Something that would not look pretty on photo or video, but is far less stressful for the cats.)  Such methods also work with stray dogs, though when gaining a dog's trust and approach, one gently places a slip leash over the dog's head.
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Though I would go on to rescue several thousand more animals over three decades, I was never seriously bitten or injured again (though got scratched and nicked a few times).
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The reason for relating all of this now is because, while I am not an expert on horses specifically, I have spent decades learning to gage animals' emotions in general, both domestic and some forms of wildlife (mainly, geese and ducks).
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For months, I have been researching  and reading the online sites of those whose goal it is to ban carriage horses in New York City with the claims that the horses are "miserable, abused" and "suffering" and represent "danger" to themselves and others (e.g. "weapons when spooked.").
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Though I have spent many hours actually observing the carriage horses in NYC, interacting with them and speaking with their drivers, I have yet to meet a single carriage horse who engendered in me the feeling that the animal was "miserable, overworked" and "suffering."
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On the contrary (as previously written), I have observed and experienced the opposite. -- Animals with sense of purpose who are thoroughly engaged in what they are doing and actually appear to enjoy the engagement with people and mental and physical stimulation.  
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So the question: Have I simply lost touch and ability to gage animal emotions?
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Yesterday, I sought to again observe carriage horses, but this time during one of the busiest seasons of the year for tourists and carriage rides.  Moreover, I went to Central Park and 59th Street late on a pleasant, but nippy Sunday afternoon when many of the daytime horses would be nearing the ends of their shifts. 
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Would the horses be straining and showing signs of exhaustion and overwork? Would they appear miserable and stressed?  This was something I had to see for myself.
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The first horses observed were those actively engaged in carriage rides through Central Park.
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Not only did the horses not appear to be in any way "exhausted," but on the contrary, there appeared to be more of a spring in their steps than usual!
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One carriage horse even quickened his steps to seemingly catch up to the horses on mounted patrol slightly ahead of him.
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Looking closely at the working carriage horse and the several police horses a few steps ahead, it was impossible to tell any difference among them in demeanor and mood. All appeared to be of good and lively spirit, the only difference being the mounted patrol horses had police officers on their backs and the carriage horse, a carriage to his/her rear. 
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But, confidence, energy and engagement were exactly the same.
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By the time I walked to 59th Street and Central Park South, I was already experiencing some measure of surprise, but even more was soon to come.
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As expected, the holiday crowds were deep and dense with many tourists and lovers taking carriage rides.  One could feel the high energy literally in the air as the horses were kept moving and busy.
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Because of the rush of activities, I did not get a whole lot of opportunity to talk with drivers or engage as much with the carriage horses as normal, but there was some.
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What struck me with the few horses actually approached was that they were not too interested in bumping chests and beseeching treat, but rather in staying focused on their work.  In other words an energy that said to me, "Nice to see you, but I've got a job to do and we're on a roll!"  An energy that quite perfectly mirrored that of their handlers and drivers.
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Several drivers did put out the buckets of feed for their horses at the end of rides, but even then the horses appeared more focused on activities around them than showing a whole lot of interest in eating.  It was as though they would miss out on something by munching, though most did take a few mouthfuls.
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Walking through the hurried crowds, one little boy squealed in delight to his mother after a ride and giving a carrot to the horse, "Mommy, the horse licked me! He licked me!" 
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Though there wasn't a lot of time to speak with drivers, one answered when asked what he thought of the proposed ban, "Those people don't know anything about horses and what they need!"
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From what I was observing, I had to agree though fully admitting not to be an expert on equines.  Nevertheless, the energy the horses were exuding was one of enthusiasm and eagerness.  "Despair and misery" were not in evidence anywhere -- least of all in the carriage horses themselves.
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Finally, walking home through Central Park, my memories drifted back to the days of working at the Russian Tea Room during the holiday season (a particularly popular restaurant with tourists).
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How great was it then to go into work each night and feel the hours fly by like minutes! The busier it got during the holidays, the more energized I and other workers became! So fantastic and invigorating was it, that I happily volunteered for overtime and double shifts right through New Year's as I could not get enough of the stimulation and vibrance of feeling needed and time speeding by. (Very different story unfortunately after the holidays.)
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That was what I actually felt from the carriage horses yesterday.
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Just like humans, they seem to revel in the feeling of being wanted, needed and appreciated. 
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Horses who (logically) should have been tired after a long day of work, appeared rather, willing and eager to do it all again -- just like I was so many years ago when so mentally and physically engaged and stimulated. (Gosh, what magnificent animals the horses actually are. They are to be awed, not pitied.)
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Perhaps I should return to Central Park South again after the holidays if the goal is to finally see what the anti-carriage folks have been describing as, "sad and miserable" horses?
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Only then I suspect the horses will return to their familiar and funny chest nudging, "Me, me!  Pay attention to me!" behaviors.  
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For sure, I will need many carrots then.  -- PCA
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