Recently I met a person at a social event who knows a lot about the soring of Tennessee Walking Horses. He is not a sorer himself, far from it. I told him I write about it, a blog and fiction. I paused, hoping he would drop some information from his privileged vantage point. But he only said one thing: there are fewer incidents of soring but the issue is now political. I soon found out what “political” meant. Readers will remember that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) used to publish inspection reports and violation notices, required by The Horse Protection Act and the Animal Welfare Act. The USDA has pulled these records from its website. Readers can only imagine how useful this sad information is in bringing violators to the public’s attention and in punishing people who have broken the law. Wayne Pacelle points out that now the public cannot access these records of facilities for cosmetic testing, medical research, roadside zoos, and puppy mills. And of course, the reporting of vital information about soring violators is in the list too. Its important here to recognize that not only animal rights enthusiasts are fighting for this information to be restored to the USDA. People who have industries regulated by the group are angered by the scrubbing, saying that “it creates the impression that licensees by the Department of Agriculture have something to hide” (Dan Ashe, president and chief executive of Association of Zoos and Aquariums quoted in the Washington Post). The USDA has tried to defend its poorly thought out action but its arguments are weak. It should place all that badly needed information back in its website, aiming for complete transparency.
Thanks to Wayne Pacelle (The Humane Society) and Karin Brulliard (Washington Post)
A member of my family who has ridden horses and loves all things horses gave me a DVD entitled Making War Horse which I watched right away. But I had never read the famous children’s book of the same title. Things at home became less complicated and so I set about getting the novel into my Kindle and reading it. This morning I finished. Published in 1982, Michael Morpurgo’s novel was eventually adapted for a film by Steven Spielberg and a play at the National Theater. The story uses first person point of view of the horse centrally involved in the book, named Joey. This is a technique seen in the famous children’s book of years ago, Black Beauty. War Horse too is a children’s book. Joey is a perfect horse, beautiful and smart. He goes to live at a farm, the first of many moves he has to endure. There he meets Albert, the young son of the farm’s owner, who is at the beginning of the book a mean, drunken man. But Albert loves the horse he must care for, and Joey loves Albert too. They become inseparable and have complete trust in one another. Eventually the father decrees that the horse must be sold. He has to earn his way, the father tells his son. Joey is sold to the British army; Britain is going into war with Germany; the first World War is starting. Albert pleads with the military to let him enlist as a training soldier for horses. But he is not old enough. He tells Joey he will find him and the horse goes sadly away with the military. An important part of this story is concerned with Joey telling us his impressions of other horses and other humans and how wars are fought. Mr.Morpurgo’s research for the story included how many horses died in the First World War and how they were killed. The suffering of both the soldiers and horses is described accurately and poignantly. Indeed, the details of what Joey, with whom we are invested, suffers in Britain, Germany and France are excruciating. I was constantly afraid that Joey might be killed, as other horses are in the book and other humans who have liked Joey and tried to help him.
When the book became a play presented in the West End, the theater district in London, the brilliant idea of creating a huge, lifelike horse puppet was conceived. The Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa was commissioned to build the horse. If you would like to see what Joey looked like and his interaction with actors, go to YouTube and see that fantastic horse move realistically, make horsey sounds, nuzzle Joey, and react to things as all horses do. To buy the DVD “Making War Horse,” go to https://www.amazon.com/Making-War-Horse-Variouis/dp/B002QW7J65/.
I received an outstanding Christmas book last December from family members who know my interest in art and history. It is Of Arms and Artists by Paul Staiti. The esteemed Joseph J. Ellis points out in his appreciation of the book that Mr. Staiti has achieved a “fusion of art history and political narrative.” Not only are the great artworks of the Revolution discussed and reproduced in color plates and black and white illustrations for our enjoyment. As Mr. Ellis remarks, Staiti’s narrative points out the art’s political significance and what that art says about the values that make this country singularly American. We are experiencing a great fissure in latter-day America over the subject of aliens and what our policy should be toward them. John Adams wrote about the Hessians, who were fighting on Britain’s side, “Is there any Policy on this side of hell, that is inconsistent with Humanity? I have no Idea of it. I know of no policy, God is my witness but this–Piety, Humanity and Honesty are the best Policy. Blasphemy, Cruelty, and Villainy have prevailed and may again.” Both Adams and Washington believed in the American way of showing mercy toward aliens, in this case, the Hessians, says Staiti.
This book reminds us of the great country we were before and after the Revolution, and why we were different from other countries. As the strident online voices quarrel with each other over whether we should shut out all outsiders from our shores, the rest of us can pick up this book and see what the Founders had to say about the matter.
In the January 13, 2017 issue of USA Today, everyone who loves horses and cares what happens to them was heartened to see this headline: “USDA Announces Strict Changes to End Soring of Tennessee Walking Horses.” The struggle to end the torture of soring horses has lasted so long. It was hard to believe this horror had gone. Only a few days later, on January 24, 2017, a blog written by Wayne Pacelle started this way: “The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s anti-horse-soring rule–put in motion after a damning 2010 Inspector General’s report identified deficiencies in the execution of the federal law against horse soring —is in peril despite the agency announcing final, favorable action on the issue just days ago.” (Italics mine.)
Mr. Pacelle, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Humane Society of the United States, whose telling title for his blog entry is “Bureaucratic Bungling, Rules Freeze Endanger Horse Soring Rule,” explains that the bungling happened at the Federal Register. This venerable, historical publication failed in its duty to publish the new USDA rule about soring when it should have been published. The new rule foundered in a move by President Trump to freeze any rule actions still moving forward. Now in line with procedure, the USDA was forced to withdraw this action. As Mr. Pacelle assesses the effect of this move, he concludes that “Horse abusers are getting a ‘get out of jail free card’ because of an ironic and potentially fatal one-two punch by the outgoing and incoming administrations.”
The new law would update the Horse Protection Law to prohibit all soring devices. The Agriculture Department Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service would take on the responsibility of training and licensing horse inspectors. The new trainers would now be only veterinarians and veterinarian educators. This change in the law would also eliminate one of the worst practices of the past: often inspectors would be employees of horse organization with vested interests and also might be exhibitors as well.
The new series of Sherlock Holmes, season four, and starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the Great Man, started on January 1. The episode was named “The Six Thatchers.” I confess here that I am a Sherlock fan, revering the fourteen films of Conan Doyle’s stories between 1939 and 1946 and Basil Rathbone as the hero, and Jeremy Brett’s portrayal as Holmes between 1984 and 1994. All things considered, I was considerably frustrated by “The Six Thatchers.” I have long felt, with increasing irritation, that the special effects in the Sherlock series and other films are overdone and thus overshadow what should be a strong story and an equally well-made, fascinating plot. There are often too many special effects that dominate these films and spoil them for the part of the audience looking forward to an excellent Holmes adventure. Why, in this particular effort to depict Sherlock Holmes, does the film fail?
For one thing, the characterization of Holmes is so weak on Conan Doyle’s side that the detective is often impossible to impersonate, explain, or analyze. The list of famous actors who have tried to bring Sherlock to life is long. Conan Doyle depicted Holmes as scarcely human. Sherlock says of himself, “I am a brain, Watson. the rest of me is a mere appendix.” The detective lives only for the next case, one that will challenge his great brain, and when he can’t find a puzzle, he escapes consciousness by taking drugs. The only person he really puts up with is Dr. Watson, a buffoon in the early films, and a decent and earnest man in the Brett films. The only thing that can impress viewers in this whole character is his monumental brain and what he does with it. And that is the problem writers and producers have when they try to bring Holmes to public view.
This film fails in large part because the writers, knowing full well the problems of Sherlock as a human character of interest, must depend on the plot to succeed. But the story lacks coherence, making people like me want a fuller story with the obvious gaps filled in. For example, what exactly did Mary Watson do wrong and how exactly did it come about? Now if the main character can’t be developed well because of his great defect of being unrealistic, and the story itself doesn’t work well, what else can writers do but fall back on special effects?
In attempting to make up for these problems with Holmes as a human being, the writers roll everything into a colossal, bewildering extravaganza of special effects; they make the film so visually exciting but often so bewildering that the audience forgets what is supposed to be happening in the story. Sherlock moves in a world of special effects that are shadows upon shadows. People and things are sometimes murky, as if the effects are drug-related. There are spots of coherence that make sense but then more effects that give the appearance of nightmares. Audiences are starting to see this overuse of CGI. Ebony Bowden writes, “In the early days of CGI, filmmakers could only superimpose a computer-generated component onto a real scene…. Today, they’re able to generate entire sequences using computers….Movies saturated with CGI can become too ‘glossy,’ say some animators, and audiences are seeing right through it.” And in the rush to use more and more CGI which has become tiring and sterile, we have lost Holmes.