I suppose it is not surprising that the death of a horse is front page news when the horse in question is Barbaro, the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner who only a few weeks later at the Preakness suffered a catastrophic leg injury on national television. Horses are often immediately euthanized at the race track after suffering injuries like that, but Barbaro was only reluctantly put down today, and only after months of extraordinary veterinary care and multiple setbacks.
But more extraordinary than the efforts to save Barbaro — his owners are Rockefeller heirs after all, and his sperm was worth millions — was the outpouring of support from thousands of people, directed towards, well… a horse.
Almost immediately, fruit baskets filled with green apples and carrots, elaborate flower arrangements and get-well cards arrived by the truckload at the veterinary hospital. Online message boards were swamped with Barbaro news, and became a virtual waiting room.
I suppose the crusty, cynical response would be to berate the American people for lavishing so much love and affection on a freakishly talented $30 million race horse, at the same time our nation is busy spending its blood and treasure on a brutal, dehumanizing war in Iraq. During the months of Barbaro’s failed rehabilitation, how many Iraqi civilians and US soldiers lost their lives or limbs? How many children lost their parents? How many parents lost a son or a daughter?
For that matter, how many children slowly starved to death in Darfur while distraught animal lovers sent fruit baskets to a horse?
Yup, that would be the cynical response. And it is so overwhelmingly tempting to go there.
But I see another side to this seemingly misprioritized compassion, and while it may not paint our species in the most flattering light, it does portray a human quirk that I find oddly endearing. I’m talking of course about our innate ability to distract ourselves from the horrors of everyday life, and to find beauty in a world filled with ugliness… much of our own making.
It’s almost charming.
In The Leviathan Thomas Hobbes famously describes the condition of war as one of “every man against every man,” a condition in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” This is the condition in which our species surely evolved, a harsh existence in which our ancestors found themselves not only in dire competition with other species, but with each other. This the condition that is so deeply ingrained in our species that one is tempted to define humanity by the inhumanity we wreak on our fellow man.
And yet us humans are equally capable of incredible displays of empathy and compassion. We can be filled with a love so immense and ungainly that following our heart is like squeezing a water balloon: it either uncontrollably oozes out between our fingers in every direction — or suddenly and irreversibly bursts.
We are an odd species, that can love animals and eat them at the same time. Hypocritical? Sure. But it also means that when it comes to us humans, anything is possible.
While thousands of Americans weep at the news of Barbaro’s death, countless Iraqis will die unnoticed from a war of our own making. But rather than view this cynically, I choose to view it as a sign of our humanity, and as a sign of hope. For if we can grieve for horse, surely we can learn to grieve for our fellow man.