The Way of the Pigeon: Crackpots, Synanthropes and the Future of the Thoroughbred

As horse racing continues to navigate its way through a stretch of scrutiny, a deeper look into the relationship between the athletes and humans.

Updated: April 24, 2019 • 8:40 AM ET

Horses and humans have an interlaced history.

William Lloyd Garrison, a name you might recall from some old dusty history textbook, was a crackpot. In the 1830s, he had the idea that slavery was illegal and immoral — In essence, it needed to be abolished. Southerners derided his kind, and most Yankee politicians looked at him with a discerning eye. He was a crackpot, defined as someone with lunatic notions.

Agitating in the era before the Civil War, Garrison and his followers had their printing presses smashed. In the streets, their enemies enacted violence against them, and they were burned in effigy. But in the end, they were right. Abolition of slavery was the course, and the rest was history.

In a similar vein, I was thinking this past week of the chorus of voices that are hopeful that horse racing will fail and end up on the trash heap of history. If we see the voices as modern-day crackpots, will these agitators someday celebrate the closing of racetracks and grin as master-less jockeys thumb it along the highway looking for work?

Are members of PETA the abolitionists of our age? Of course, animal rights activists have been at it for quite a while in places like Britain and Ireland; nothing new. They’ve called for an end to this sport for some time.

Here’s what I don’t understand: What would they do with all those thoroughbreds?

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Is the expectation to recreate Sable Island off the coast of Nova Scotia? There, you’ll find a group of feral ponies that were marooned there in the 18th century. Left to their own devices, they’ve carved out a protected niche for themselves, living among the seals.

Perhaps, they’re expecting a utopian version of Orwell’s Animal Farm, where horses escape the knacker? (Recall, that it was Napoleon, the Stalinist pig, who sentenced the draft horse, Boxer, to the glue factory.)

I love the imagery, but I don’t see it.

What might be helpful to understand is that thoroughbreds occupy a position very much like pigeons did more than 100 years ago. Both are synanthropes — animals (or plants) that thrive in human environments, where they can skim a living off our excess.

The race horse’s very talent, the ability to run fast, has allowed them to be woven into the cultural story of American sport. Ironically, only some of the wealthiest of folks can afford to take care of them.

Doesn’t that mean that they’re in the hands of those that can best take care of them?

Give a racehorse a field of grass, and yes, they might survive, or be selected for extinction. Yet, we cannot deny that they have become cultural celebrities, nursed and cared for beyond what the average horse would need. We crafted the thoroughbred, but they also carved out their own existence with skill and aplomb.

Likewise, during World War I (and in previous conflicts too), pigeons were trained to fly messages over and around enemy lines. Their binocular vision also made them excellent spotters for movements that the men in the trenches could not see. In short, their ability made them highly coveted as strategic weapons.

As studies have shown, pigeons can recognize themselves in a mirror and follow roads that translate into specific directions. They’re smart; hardly, rats with wings!

Horses are also incredibly gifted. They can react to facial features and read humans sometimes better than we do. Of the 400-plus breeds of horses in the world, thoroughbreds are highly prized and special.

Let’s face it, they’re delicate; but they love to run so much that their hearts will literally explode. Even the great Secretariat had an enlarged heart, which made Big Red go.

The point is that race horses reside within a realm of specialty. Their synanthropic tendencies make them intimately tied to humans, and that means it’s not easy to go back. The only way for them to cease to exist is if the bloodline and their genetic code obliterates itself, which could eventually occur. Inbreeding never allows a species to prosper.

So, keep these ideas in mind, members of PETA. You can be forward-thinking and call for an end to what you think is horse killing. I don’t think that is a crime, but be judicious about your critiques.

Remember that thoroughbreds, like pigeons, are not slaves — they’re synanthropes. They have implanted themselves in a complex milieu. No, they weren’t asked what they wanted, but they have profited from their own existence.

Doling out governance resides with their human counterparts; we need to do better, without question. Historical context reminds us of what can happen. Back in the 1950s and ‘60s, Britain saw a surge in pigeon racing. People went nuts for it. Clocked at more than 100 mph, pigeons could really hoof it. However, over the years, the sport has waned as other distractions abound.

These synanthropes couldn’t make it. Reduced to duty at your local park, and replaced by camera-wielding drones, they now scavenge about for scraps. They’ll never return to the height they once claimed.

Will thoroughbreds follow this same path? Will horse racing go the way of the pigeon?

PETA would certainly wish it to be so, and they may yet be right.

But, the question remains, what then?

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