By Peter McDermott
Over the course of a few days during the second week of September in 9 AD, the 17th, 18th and 19th legions of the Roman army were annihilated by a makeshift alliance of Germanic tribes under the command of Arminius. Fifteen thousand Romans lay dead after a fierce battle in torrential rain. They had been lured off course and then forced into the Kalkriese Gap. They’d found themselves in a lobster pot, it’s been said – they could get in easily enough, but they couldn’t get out.
The calamity is sometimes called the Battle of the Teutoberg Forest – misleadingly, although it did begin there.
In “Rome’s Greatest Defeat,” Adrian Murdoch writes: “The first assault came when the soldiers, tired, wet and anything but alert were beginning to think of rest and their evening meals. An attack from all sides surrounded the army in the forest…
“With cavalrymen protected by short-sleeved, hip-length mail armor, the obvious initial target for the Germans was the horses themselves. Arminius knew that in a confined space, cavalry is effectively useless.”
Murdoch adds, “with wounded animals slipping in the mud, rearing, throwing their riders, galloping uncontrolled towards their own infantry [Arminius] had realized what an advantage he could give his men.”
The animals (including mules, whose presence was confirmed at the archeological site at Kalkiese) may seem incidental to the story of Rome’s humiliation in 9 AD, but they are a reminder that Western civilization was built thanks in great measure to horse power.
The image of the Native American warrior on horseback may be imprinted upon our consciousness, but it was the very lack of horses prior to the advent of the Europeans that can help explain why the indigenous peoples were so easily overcome. Anybody could have invented the wheel, but it was the use of the draft animal that made possible the huge leaps forward in technology in Europe.
Until just a few generations ago, horses moved the great cities of the world. They pulled barges, for instance, and later buses, and more recently made possible the mass delivery of milk to homes.
Now these remarkably adaptable creatures, having brought us this far, are expected to exit stage left from New York City history altogether and go live in some fantasy rural paddock.
The suspicion is that real estate interests are behind this (film star Liam Neeson said at the Teamsters-organized event last Sunday that realtors are “salivating” at the prospect of the stables being freed up for development). Whatever the case, in future, horses that could otherwise get to live and work in Manhattan might have to join the more than 100,000 that are shipped annually to Canada and Mexico for slaughter.
Mayor Bill de Blasio won a famous victory in 2013 on a progressive platform. He’d channeled the mood of the times. One might even argue that his approach doesn’t go far enough. Those who gain the most from the system should pay more for the economy’s physical infrastructure, as well as for research and development, education, defense and the rest.
It’s a pity, then, that his administration should tackle first not the superrich, but the hardworking horse and carriage industry that has brought so much pleasure to New Yorkers and visitors alike.
It’s sad, too, that “traffic” should be presented as the alibi, when the reform and progressive traditions in Manhattan have always advocated for less vehicular traffic, and more public transport, walking and cycling.
"Horses do not belong in the middle of traffic in New York City,” de Blasio said in a television appearance in early February. “They do not belong in an urban environment like this. It's not safe for them.”
The following week, 49-year-old bus driver William Pena was killed at the intersection of 14th Street and 7th Avenue. His vehicle was broadsided by a stolen truck and crashed into scaffolding, which came tumbling down on top of him. It was 5:30 in the morning. Pena was a husband, a father and a 17-year veteran of the MTA. There were no calls for further restrictions on trucks or buses or scaffolding. Nobody was quoted saying Manhattan wasn’t safe for bus drivers or that they didn’t belong in an urban environment.
Fr. Brian Jordan told me at the Teamsters’ event on Sunday: “We have science on our side.” He was referring, specifically, to the support the industry has from veterinarians, who say the horses are obviously contented and very well cared for. One could say, further, that it has reason on its side, too.
The problem is that a certain feeble-minded thinking has crept into our culture. It explains the sorry case of Timothy Treadwell, AKA Grizzly Man. He’s the guy who spent 13 summers in Katmai National Park “living with” and “protecting” its grizzly bear population. He put his experiences on 100 hours of film before the bears eventually killed both him and his girlfriend. That tragedy was captured on audio tape, though the filmmaker Werner Herzog thought it much too horrible to use in his 2005 documentary “Grizzly Man.”
The film supports the position of his critics, such as the park’s officials, who said that only their air patrol could protect the grizzlies from poachers. Treadwell was, at best, a nuisance to the bears, they said, and at worst a threat in so far as he weakened their defenses by acclimatizing them to human contact.
Whatever about his idealism and his courage, the consensus seems to be that he was suffered from a serious personality disorder.
The unfortunate Treadwell, who’d put alcohol and heroin abuse behind him, was a man looking for a calling, a cause, and he found in it in the most fearsome and isolated of all land mammals. But, obviously, there can be a fine line between needing to care and needing care.
“He anthropomorphized the bears, reading sentimental human motives into them that probably weren't there,” said one mental-health professional in an online commentary.
But we all anthropomorphize to varying degrees. Our society thinks more like Treadwell than someone like the heroic Temple Grandin, a professor of animal behavior who has used her own experiences with autism to help us better understand cattle and horses.
Dr. Grandin has said that large animals may be property but they are not things. She has written interestingly about horse training and socialization, and how they develop “fear memory.” You get a sense from listening and reading her – much more so than the extremist group that has hijacked the word “humane” – that each animal is different.
Is it too much to expect her type of behavioral science be introduced into the debate?
The current president of the United States has said in other contexts: “Let’s have a conversation about it.” In dealing with the horse and carriage industry, which is more than 150 years old, City Hall might do well to propose that instead of talking about prohibitions.