Pigeons and Horses at the Intersection of Oppressions
An Animal Rights Article from All-Creatures.org

FROM

Mark Hawthorne, as posted on VINE Sanctuary (Vegan is the Next Evolution)
February 2014

Though we need look no further than hens’ eggs and milk from cows to illustrate this point, digging a bit deeper into the hidden world of animal suffering reveals how abusers perpetuate a system of domination and control via sports and recreation. Indeed, as we examine these activities as a form of oppression, it’s not hard to see how speciesism and sexism intersect.

As proud as I am at times of the animal protection movement and its victories, I believe it has fallen short when it comes to true liberation. So, men, please confront the status quo. We’re obliged to understand, for example, how our attitudes and actions enable sexism and violence—and then to focus on changing those attitudes and actions.

Few practices seem as cruel to me as using another species for human pleasure. Add a layer of abuse based on an animal’s sex, and the exploitation becomes downright insidious. Though we need look no further than hens’ eggs and milk from cows to illustrate this point, digging a bit deeper into the hidden world of animal suffering reveals how abusers perpetuate a system of domination and control via sports and recreation. Indeed, as we examine these activities as a form of oppression, it’s not hard to see how speciesism and sexism intersect.

Although this topic merits extensive discussion, I’m going to limit this post to two examples: pigeon racing and horse fighting, both of which exploit the females of the species.

pigeon horse racing entertainment
At VINE Sanctuary, unreleasable pigeons –including survivors of pigeon shoots and pigeon racing– fly and socialize inside the safety of a spacious aviary.

Pigeons are among the world’s most maligned animals, often referred to as “rats with wings”—a characterization that manages to demean two species at once. Pigeons are actually very clean animals and are no threat to human health. But because they tend to congregate (and defecate) in public spaces, people frequently consider them a “nuisance.”

Sadly making these birds easy to exploit are their uncanny ability for navigating long distancesi and their reputation as extremely devoted partners—in fact, pigeons will generally mate for life.(2) Both qualities come into play for those who race pigeons.

The “sport” of racing pigeons—who are timed as they fly a specific distance, often hundreds of miles—has a long history, possibly dating back 2,000 years. At some point in the 20th century, pigeon fanciers (as they like to call themselves) developed a technique called “widowhood,” in which the bonded hens and cocks are kept apart in separate lofts during racing season and only brought together for a few minutes before and after a race. The cock reportedly flies home faster to be with his mate, who is thus used as an object of motivation. Some racers take advantage of the hen when the pair is incubating a clutch of eggs about to hatch: the hen is forcibly separated from her mate and eggs, taken a carefully measured distance away, and then set free to fly home. As one pigeon-racing site puts it, “The hen will now be eager to get back, if racing, because she will want to be back with her eggs and to see her mate; she will race like her life depends on it!”(3)

pigeon horse racing entertainment
In the coop inside the aviary, nesting boxes mimic the cliff-side hollows in which these birds would naturally nest.

It’s not difficult to imagine that pigeons suffer emotionally and psychology from this kind of abuse. Not only is it painful to be separated from one’s family, but these animals have a level of self-awareness that must surely add to the misery, as they are without question cognizant of what’s happening to them. Pigeons recognize images of themselves—a capability shared by chimpanzees, dolphins, and elephants (4)—and recent studies show that pigeons use a spatial map, a kind of natural GPS that is well beyond the capabilities of humans, to find their way home, indicating the birds possess considerable cognitive ability.(5)

Moreover, racing is a very dangerous “sport” for pigeons. Hazards include hawks and other predators, inclement weather, flying into unseen objects, and death at the hands of the humans forcing them to race—birds who don’t meet an expected level of performance are summarily killed.

pigeon horse racing entertainment
While there are enough nests for each bird to have his or her own, they often choose to pair up.

Another pastime that exploits the females of a species is horse fighting. These are gruesome competitions—held in China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and South Korea—featuring two stallions provoked into fighting by the presence of an in-season mare, who is tethered in the middle of the arena and often sustains serious blows as the sexual rivals rear up and pummel each other with their hooves, explains veterinarian Dino Yebron with the nonprofit Network for Animals. “That mare,” he says, indicating a terrified horse staked to the ground at one event, “has been out there in the sun all day. There may have been 10 or 12 fights. She’ll have been mounted as many times…. You might say she’s gang-raped. And she’ll also be bitten, scratched, and kicked as the stallions fight it out. There’s nothing noble or natural about the horse fight. This is a purely induced anger.”(6)

In addition to the physical pain she suffers, mares are also injected with hormones to keep them in heat for longer periods.(7) The stallions, meanwhile, lash out at each other until one of them is either too wounded or exhausted to go on or succumbs to his injuries. Wildly cheering spectators bet on the outcome, and the “owner” of the winning horse stands to earn a large cash prize. In China, where these equine bouts are part of rural festivals, organizers sometimes add another cruel twist: losing horses are barbecued and eaten by spectators.(8)

It’s no coincidence that men dominate the worlds of pigeon racing and horse fighting…. the intersection of sexism and speciesism helps blur lines and create a false premise in which no female—human or nonhuman—is seen as having complete control over her body. Sexism and speciesism are both rooted in a patriarchal system of oppression in which men have historically been regarded as the ones who control women and animals, subjugating them both. In such a social system, the dichotomies of man/woman and human/animal are so entrenched that their boundaries are virtually undetectable. Furthermore, within such a system, the intersection of sexism and speciesism helps blur lines and create a false premise in which no female—human or nonhuman—is seen as having complete control over her body. As such, those with privilege and power not only confine and manipulate cows and hens for their milk and eggs, but exploit a host of female species for fleeting pleasure.

Of course, recognizing the intersectionality of oppression is only the beginning. As a white man of privilege, I must acknowledge whatever role I’ve played—consciously or otherwise—in perpetuating the marginalization of others, and I encourage all men to seek a deeper understanding of social systems that build hierarchical power structures. We must challenge these systems and help to create alliances among those who fight injustices such as sexism and speciesism.

As proud as I am at times of the animal protection movement and its victories, I believe it has fallen short when it comes to true liberation. So, men, please confront the status quo. We’re obliged to understand, for example, how our attitudes and actions enable sexism and violence—and then to focus on changing those attitudes and actions. We must continue to educate ourselves by reading books and essays about gender inequality and the root causes of violence. And we should never tolerate sexist jokes, nor any brand of humor that demeans human or nonhuman animals.

Creating a world in which everyone is treated with respect and compassion is indeed a colossal undertaking. But we can accept nothing less.

Mark Hawthorne is the author of Striking at the Roots (a compendium of activist tactics) and, most recently, Bleating Hearts, in which he uncovers many other little-known forms of animal exploitation - Introducing Bleating Hearts: The Hidden World of Animal Suffering.

VINE Sanctuary thanks our friend Mark for sharing this information and his own reflections. Read more blog posts concerning intersections between speciesism and other forms of oppression. Visit the Connections section of our main website for even more thought-provoking analyses as well as links to further readings. If you appreciate our intersectional approach to animal advocacy, please consider supporting or volunteering for the sanctuary.

Notes

  1.  Pigeons employ a range of skills, such as using the sun as a guide and an internal “magnetic compass.” A study at Oxford University found that pigeons will also use landmarks as signposts and will travel along roads and highways, even changing direction at intersections.
  2. http://www.birds.cornell.edu/Publications/Birdscope/Winter2001/courtship.html
  3. http://racingpigeonswidowhoodsystem.wikispaces.com/Race+Pigeons+on+the+Widowhood+System
  4. Professor Shigeru Watanabe of Keio University in Toyko, who carried out a pigeon study in 2008, said, “The pigeon could discriminate the present self-image and the recorded self-image of the past with a few seconds delay, which means that the pigeon has self-cognitive abilities.”
  5. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/2125306/Pigeons-intelligence-compared-to-a-three-year-old-child.html
  6. James A. Foley, “Homing Pigeons Use ‘Mental Map’ to Find Their Way Home,” Nature World News, July 27, 2013.
  7. Stanley Johnson, “Brutality and the Beasts,” The Sunday Times Magazine, July 8, 2012.
  8. http://www.heraldscotland.com/dark-horses-1.836951
  9. Barry Wigmore, “Horror as Chinese horses are forced to fight to the death,” Daily Mail, November 30, 2007.

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