Friday, February 26, 2010

Back in the Saddle Again

I wish by golly I could spread my wings and fly
And let my grounded soul be free for just a little while
To be like eagles when they ride upon the wind
And taste the sweetest taste of freedom for my soul

To let my feelings lie where harm can not come by
And hurt this always hurtin' heart
That needs to rest awhile
I wish by golly I could spread my wings and fly
And taste the sweetest taste of freedom for my soul

Then I'd be free at last, free at last
Great God Almighty I'd be free at last
I'd be free at last, free at last
Great God Almighty I'd be free at last


The recent tragic incident involving the death of a SeaWorld trainer at the flippers of a captive killer whale has inspired a flurry of debates about the ethics and practicality of confining dangerous wild animals. There are no easy answers, of course. On the one hand, the animal is probably happier and healthier out in its natural environment—and people are safer. On the other, perhaps science can benefit from studying these creatures, and we can preserve and protect threatened species, and we can find ways to mentally stimulate and entertain them so that they have perfectly content lives.

I think the whole overemphasis on a "natural" environment can get a bit silly. Who defines what is and is not "natural?" There are no corners of the globe which have not in some way been influenced or even "tamed" by human intervention, so it's a bit of a moot point if human tampering is supposed to be the deciding factor.

Most zoo animals take quite well to captivity. The majority of them aren't particularly intelligent. So long as their basic needs are met, they're thrilled with their safety and routine. It's a security blanket, and they settle into a happy complacency, although they might be cramped for space to roam.

It's a different story for the truly smart animals. Things like macaws and yes, orcas, require far more than iron bars or the concrete sides of an aquarium can provide. I don't think it's impossible to keep them humanely, but I think it's exceedingly difficult, requiring a lot of extra work on the part of their human caregivers. And it really bothers me to see the great apes, like gorillas and chimpanzees, on display for gawking crowds. To me, it might as well be a Down Syndrome child down there. Not much difference in principle. Leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Some people, like the rabid PETA activists, believe that domestic animals are inherently abused. True, many are maltreated, or kept in less than stellar living arrangements. Horses, for example, need plenty of room to roam, but sadly few receive this basic life requirement, leading to severe mental and physical implications. But at the same time, I can look at my spoiled and pampered half-dozen and know without a doubt that they are happy in their posh lives. Sure, they enjoy frolicking in the fields when the weather's nice, but the first hint of rain or cold and they're standing at the barn door, begging to come into warms stalls, to have their soft blankets put on, to sleep in the cushy shavings, to eat their sweet food mixed with their myriad of costly supplements. Yeah.

My good mare, Bones, was injured last May. I'm sure I blogged a few snippets about it in the past, but for a quick summary she turned up lame and unridable, and after months of waiting and failed diagnostics, I buckled down to have her taken to the big equine hospital in Oklahoma. The diagnosis was a badly torn tendon. Apparently the mare was even more steadfast than I realized, for the injury was severe although she hardly limped or seemed to care. Treatment was costly and cutting-edge, involving the cultivation and injections of stem cell-like proteins from the horse's own blood plasma and applications of shockwave therapy. It also included a strict stall rest regimen: first three months of 12-foot by 12-foot confinement, with little to no hand-walking a day, followed of two more months limited to a 30-foot round pen. Bones took in all in stride, which is surprising given her very high strung and reactive nature and her relatively young age. She would gaze longingly at her friends as they cavorted about the pasture or ate the grass she so desperately wanted but could not reach. Many a time I saw her leap in the air and pivot mid-buck to avoid slamming into the metal panels that hedged her in. Most of the day, however, she stood with her head lowered, her eyes half-closed, her hindquarters to the cold wind and snow, depressed and unmoving, perhaps resigned to her fate which she could not affect.

And then, on Tuesday, freedom. Time, according to the doctors' instructions, to turn the horse loose. And you've never seen a happier animal. She flexed her atrophied muscles (to look at her frail frame now, and compare it to her previous bulked-up Schwarzenegger appearance, is quite the juxtaposition) and bolted across the pasture, slid in the mud, leapt up, pivoted, charged another horse, spun around and dashed hell-bent the other way. She's the very picture of athleticism. I cringed to see her fly and slide, because the fibers of the tendon, even if they are healed, are still weak and prone to reinjury—but what can I do?

And so, with trepidation, I saddled her up for the first time in nearly 10 months. She watched me with a cautious eye. Everything fit differently. Her whole conformation has changed. She chomped the bit, perplexed. And I slid into the saddle, adjusting my weight, scared. She balanced beneath me. I asked her to move out. She responded, an easy walk. And then she remembered that she had a reputation to fulfill, that of Crazy, and she gladly reassumed her role, attempting to bolt, throwing her head, prancing sideways. This is the Bones I know!

I was only allowed a few minutes, as the leg and weak muscles can not be overstressed. And I thought she might have limped again, which would mean that all the time and money would have been for naught. But I can't say for sure, so I'll hold off on judgment and pessimism until later. For now, I'm just glad to have my horse back. And I'm sure the horse is glad for her freedom.

I'm back in the saddle again
Out where a friend is a friend
Where the longhorn cattle feed
On the lowly gypsum weed
Back in the saddle again

Ridin' the range once more
Totin' my old .44
Where you sleep out every night
And the only law is right
Back in the saddle again

Rockin' to and fro
Back in the saddle again
I go my way
Back in the saddle again

--Gene Autry


secret agent woman said...

How great to have your horse on the mend.

There's another issue with the orca besides whether animals ought to be in captivity. And that is that people forget that wild carnivores are dangerous, no matter how much training they have.

Mozart said...

Any animal is dangerous. I think we all have the poor judgment to let our guard down at times--sometimes with tragic consequences, as the SeaWorld trainer found out. In the end, they're animals, and they're unpredictable.