Saturday, April 12, 2014

Filtering Reality

Sometimes I suspect that one of the greatest achievements of human beings is also our greatest failing. I’m not talking of tool use, although we’ve managed to turn that into massive crimes against our own planet with drones, bombs, blanket poisonings of vast areas in the name of warfare. Tool use was supposed to be something that made us unique from other animals but we’ve seen that other animals also use tools.  Nor am I talking about speech and communication per se, because we are still unaware of the levels of conversation among many of our planetary co-inhabitants like the whales, dolphins and elephants, who appear to communicate some fairly complex ideas.  Our failing is our addiction to language and abstract thought that tears us away from the reality of what we do.

In her book Animals in Translation, Temple Grandin an autistic professor of animal behavior, has described our tendency to take an word for an object and essentially substitute the word for the actual object and then to act on that object as though it were real.  As an autistic, she points out that this is something that humans do partly as a function of the fact that humans use a different part of our brains than most animals do, but autistics often seem to fall between other people and animals in brain use. So while a person going for a walk in a park is doing something very general “going for a walk” in a very general place “in a park”, most riders are aware that for a horse this is anything but general, since going for a walk is different for them every single time and “in a park” has no real meaning most of the time because it is specifically this place with these trees and those people and HORRORS! that picnic table that wasn’t there last week.

I remember reading her section of her book on this and thinking how fascinating that was for me as a horse owner and trainer. If you are aware of the fact that horses do not see four cows one after another while riding in a farm area and say to themselves “Those are cows and they are not important”, it explains a great deal about the fact that the horse in question may have no problem with the spotted brown one, the red one, and the black one, but the spotted black and white one is definitely some sort of monster.  Thinking about this tendency of ours to smooth over life’s little eccentricities with our powers of generalization is rather comforting. We can bring the chaos and buzz of a busy world down to a few things, which are in fact not even real, so that we no longer have to worry about each one. Rather than walking in a park and considering each and every tree individually as oak, sycamore, or palm, they are all just trees and generally not dangerous.  Squirrels, birds, rabbits and the dog chasing a ball are just animals and part of nature, whatever that is. The world is infinitely simplified for us.

But there is a dark side to this ability of ours.  In the world I find myself living in now, words have taken on new importance and power that they never had before…or at least with the proliferation of verbal means of communication, they have an audience hugely larger than ever before.  Where once you would say something to a person in conversation, now you can write it in a Facebook status and if for some reason other people find this funny, profound, or dangerous, you might find your statement being read by and shared by hundreds or thousands of people. This is a rather seductive idea, to be heard by thousands, but that in itself is a symptom  of our verbal addiction.  Too much of the time, we speak to speak, and the words we use are not chosen to speak specifically but are chosen for their emotional power rather than their reality.

The term “War On Terror” is a perfect example of this use of language.  In the general unexamined sense, the users of this phrase are indicating that certain kinds of behavior will not be tolerated, but the exact behaviours nor the response is elaborated.  What does terror actually mean? It is an emotion of extreme fear that can cause people to behave in irrational ways without thinking clearly of the most appropriate response.  Terror is not actually a thing, or an action, it is an emotion. But it is currently used as both a thing and an action.  And what about war? This word has been used so often that for most people it has lost most of its meaning. In the old days, a war meant a mobilization of usually the male portion of a population to either attack or defend a particular place where a similar mobilization had probably also taken place.  The encounter between the two groups generally involved extremely nasty physical contact ending in death, dismemberment, injuries, capture and slavery or ransom, and the general destruction of the geographical area where that encounter took place. So when someone speaks of a war on terror, in theory, the actions taken could include those up to and including the killing of vast numbers of people and the destruction of land, people and property in order to stop an emotion of fear….. and that really doesn’t make much sense because faced with these possibilities, the only emotional response that initially comes to mind is fear.

I’m watching what is happening in Egypt these days after almost a year of our War On Terror, and I haven’t seen much of what Egypt really needs, which is building and strengthening, but perhaps that isn’t a surprise when it is, after all, the military running the show and their purview has always been war, the tearing apart and destruction of an opposing group or force.  Without war, what use is a military after all, because all their training and thought has always been about destruction? But as long as we are engaged in a war on terror, the military would be our best group to handle things since wars are what they do, at least in theory. So the words and generalities being used not only direct what we are seeing but also who is handling the problem. Those using the terms have decided that “terror” includes the wearing of beards, the involvement with a particular group of people, and even the description of reality in ways that do not agree with the aims of the initiators of the term.  The fact that the word “war” is used, not only promotes the use of the part of the government that uses force but it also promotes the actual force used.  But oddly enough, I suspect that most people who casually read the phrase or even repeat it are actually aware of the implications of what they are reading or saying because they never get past the generalizations.

When a social program that depends on broad generalizations is initiated, very few people stop to think about what the program actually means to them because they never drop to the specifics. This is a very handy tendency for any government. It is interesting to me, however, how most of the terms for grand schemes involve military language. The war on terror, the war on drugs, the war on poverty (which is an oxymoron if I ever saw one), all of these programs in the US have been undertaken over the past fifty years, generally with very little success. On the other hand, if a program were to be called “Enabling Growth and Prosperity”, the connotations would be much different, there would be little call for force and arms, and it’s pretty clear that the goal is some kind of improvement of life for society.  About the last time I saw something like this it was the Head Start program to introduce early education through television such as Sesame Street, which may have had its problems but was on the whole a benevolent program that, like most benevolent programs, has had its funding slashed in the US.  The last real program for improvements in the US took place during the Depression when the government took unemployed men and put them to work building the infrastructure of roads and dams and so on that the country needed, and that has received insufficient maintenance ever since.  Once the good old military industrial complex latched on to the usefulness of war in the 1940’s they’ve had the strongest hold on how reality is being presented in many countries, not just the US and Egypt.

We all use language all the time. I had to use it to write this and to organize my thoughts. But at the same time, we should stop to consider Temple Grandin’s ideas on how much we filter what we hear, say, see, and feel. We have the tendency to take generalized responses to generalized issues and not even stop to consider the specifics in a conversation, experience or situation.  Words for people are not just sounds that transfer information. They are filters for experience and at least once a day, we each need to remove our filters for a bit and let reality actually sift through. In other words, spend a few minutes a day being your horse or dog or cat or even your bird. Despite our perceptual differences, there is a world out there that we are all experiencing…but for the most part, the other creatures in our world are experiencing it without a verbal filter.

copyright 2014 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Monday, November 25, 2013

Deciphering Egyptian Horse Charities

 It's that time of year again and again I have people emailing me asking for advice about helping Egyptian horse charities and other animal charities. We have a few charities here of varying levels of transparency and competence, but perhaps if I lay out the general scene a bit, it will help people to make up their minds about which one or ones they feel comfortable with. There are a number of charities on Facebook, some of which have quite a lot of supporters who provide a lot of monetary and emotional support for them. People who have decided that they are staunch supporters of a charity have their choice already laid out so this essay isn't really intended for them. Right at the beginning, I wish to state that I administer a charity that provides free veterinary care for everything from pigeons to camels for the small farmers in our area. I don't think that we would, in any case, qualify as a "horse charity" since horses are pretty expensive and most of our famers can't afford them. So while some people might call "conflict of interest", I have to say that we draw our support for the most part locally and we really aren't in the race at all.

One of the first things to understand about horses in Egypt is the fact that the vast majority of them are working animals, not someone's pet. You will see horse drawn carriages in New York City or perhaps Paris, but in Cairo you will see horse drawn wagons and donkey carts even in downtown Cairo. Most cart owners own just one horse or donkey and the family's entire livelihood depends on this animal. Unfortunately, the owners are often at least semi-illiterate, having left school at an early age and there is little written material on the care and keeping of horses available anyway. In rural areas, horses, donkeys and mules are equally as important for transportation and hauling as motor vehicles. Many of the rural tracks are just mud trails and are entirely unsuited to the sorts of cars (ie, cheap ones) that farmers can afford. There are horses who are kept by families for riding for enjoyment, polo ponies for playing polo, jumpers and dressage horses in schools and race horses who run in Cairo in the winter and in Alexandria in the summer. But these are rich people's sports and are very much in the minority. There are also about 600 private Arabian studs in the country whose horses are generally bred for halter shows and who are unlikely to ever be ridden or worked in any way, unless they are unpromising stallion colts who may be sold to whoever is willing to buy them. There are more of these horses entering the general horse market these days as, just as is the case everywhere in the world, feed costs are skyrocketing, and uniquely in Egypt, horses cannot be exported from our country to anywhere else in the world except perhaps Jordan, due to a conflict between the official vets in Egypt and the veterinary authorities in Europe and the Gulf. Bluntly, Egypt has been blacklisted as a horse exporting country. It is still possible if you can arrange a quarantine in Jordan, but this costs an arm and a leg. So despite a world that is less and less horse friendly in terms of costs and upkeep, people continue to breed them, bringing prices further and further down and causing a glut on the market.

For people who live in the US or Europe where it's a common thing for people to own a trailer to move their horses around, it will come as a surprise that in a country with so many horses, donkeys and mules there are probably less than 300 horse trailers in total, meaning the sorts of things that will hold 2 to 4 horses and would be drawn behind a car. Thinking of the fancy living quarters trailers  or vans? Think again. There are less than a dozen, if I'm being optimistic, but probably less than half a dozen in the country.  Most horse transport is either done in the back of a pickup truck or, for people who can afford it, in a horse van that you hire for a particular trip. These can carry perhaps half a dozen horses at once, making them more reasonable in price if a group of horses are going somewhere.  The vast majority of horses (like my own) get everywhere they need to go on their own four feet.  When people talk about transporting horses in Egypt, they are usually talking about the big horse trucks that have no air conditioning (an important point in summer) or pickup trucks. To load a horse, mule or donkey into a pickup, generally the truck is backed up to a pile of sand or dirt or just a high place and the the animal is encouraged to get on. There is no such thing as training for this experience because horse owners don't have a rig to  train with. Frankly, it's a wonder that any  horses ever go anywhere here, and my old mare Dory steadfastly refused to have anything whatsoever to do with transport, necessitating a walk of 12 km across insane Egyptian traffic to have surgery once. She was 21 at the time and the vet agreed that simply trying to get her on a trailer would probably be much more stressful than the traffic, since she was an ace at going anywhere a horse shouldn't normally go.

Living quarters for horses in Egypt are often imagined as being sunny paddocks but the geographical necessities of a country of almost 100 million people jammed into land the size of the Netherlands dictates quite a different life. Egypt only utilises about 5% of its land, with the other 95% being empty desert filled with sand, rocks, and some desert animals. There is no water or electricity out there, no roads, and most of it is owned by the military anyway.  Virtually all of our farmland, cities, highways, and people are jammed into the inhabited Nile Valley for the most part.  Paddocks and turnout are almost nonexistent and the spaces involved are most often the size of perhaps two nice box stalls. Virtually all horses in Egypt are kept in boxes because this is the easiest way to keep a large number in a small space.  My farm is an exception to that rule because I decided early on that less is more. I keep 24 horses only in paddocks, and have no room for any more, while friends who were dropping by to comment on my building when I started out pointed out that I could have 80 horses if I put in the normal boxes. They also told me that my horses would either die of the cold in the winter or have heat stroke in the summer, but having grown up in an area of Southern California where there was much more empty land available so most horses were outdoors 24/7 and the weather was colder in winter and hotter in summer than Egypt, I knew that was rubbish. There are huge variations in the quality of boxes in Egypt. Some places have huge roomy boxes if the owner has plenty of money and knows a bit about the social life of horses. Many of the stud farms have barns where the mares and foals have boxes where they can look out over the walls to talk to their neighbours. But the majority of horse stalls are not nearly so nice and the area of Egypt that gets the most attention from charities and often from visitors, Nazlet Semman, the area of the stables near the pyramids of Giza, could be a poster child for how NOT to care for a horse. It is a very crowded area with a human population probably pushing about 60 thousand of homes with shops on the ground floor and living quarters above or with stables on the ground floor. Land is at a premium here so most places tried to fit in as many boxes as possible, and they often are tiny, more the size of a walk-in closet than living quarters for a horse. There is little air movement and no space for storage of hay or other forage. Bedding varies from rice straw for the lucky horses to wood shavings to sand to bare concrete.

To say that Egypt is heaven for horses would be silly, but it isn't all hell either.  What it is, however, is a place where people and animals both have to work hard to live, much like life almost everywhere in the 1800's and still much like life in a lot of parts of the world that are not in North America or Europe. The horses in the Nazlet Semman area are used for touristic purposes to a certain extent, but locally the area is known as being Egypt's largest horse market where young horses are brought in from the provinces, saddles of dubious quality and provenance are slapped on their backs, and hapless tourists ride them with virtually no training in the hopes that someone will buy them for an extremely healthy mark up. Likewise, the pyramids stables are often the ultimate resting point for horses who are at the end of their working lives but whose owners need to sell them to get a replacement. The main problem I see with the stables there is that they have a very impractical business model that is based on buying cheap and selling dearly. There is little or no concern for care, maintenance, or training of the horses. Most stables in the area would be delighted to have 10 young horses come in every month and 10 be sold every month. They've always made most of their money on sales. The problem with this is that horses being bought and sold are being kept for the quick turn around, so there is little incentive to invest in the horses, as far as the stable owners see. In a place like my farm, Al Sorat, where horses stay until they die, we  have them around long enough to train carefully and, to be honest, it isn't worth my time and effort to sell my horses given that many of them are considered "old" in Egypt (that is to say, from 15 to  25 years of age), although they are fit and healthy, because in the first place they would never fetch much of a price unless I lied about their age (a very common practice elsewhere in Egypt) and even more importantly, should I sell one for what the training is worth, I'd never be able to buy another of the same value in terms of training.

Inasmuch as much of the attention in horse rescue organizations is on the stables in Nazlet Semman, unless they can change the business model or mind set of the stable owners, there is no real rescue to be done. The Egyptian economy is pretty much in a state of free fall, most of our people are either unemployed or underemployed, and prices are rising steadily. There aren't that many possible buyers for horses and those that there are usually find themselves totally shocked at the costs of feed, veterinary care and boarding. Then to completely kill the thrill, the traffic in Cairo is such anymore that to imagine that you can complete a day at work and then drive out to the stable a few times a week to ride is simply laughable. The rescues that work in the area, the Brooke, The Egyptian Society for Animal Friends, The Egypt Horse Project, and Prince Fluffy Kareem, for the most part, are doing first aid. The Brooke has hospital facilities in mid-town Cairo and can do surgery for horses who need it, but at the end the horse will still go back to its old life. The Egyptian Horse Project and Prince Fluffy Kareem essentially do the same thing with feeding, hoof trimming, minor veterinary care and providing a place to rest for a while, but there are no "forever" homes waiting out there. The horses either have to stay there (which means that new horses will find no places) or they go back to their old lives, such as they were.  The Egyptian Society for Animal Friends has a feeding program that is helping to feed some of the pyramids horses, but it is not an easy job. It only reaches a certain percentage of the horses and because most horse owners in the area don't have any  place to store our local hay (dried berseem clover), they have decided that feeding hungry horses dry forage, rather than being one of the best ways to get healthy calories into them, is a bad idea and they just want to feed grain in whatever quantities they can afford and a bit of fresh berseem or grass as forage. Not a healthy model at all for horses who are working.

To be realistic, most animal rescues here are misnamed. Some of them take in dogs or cats to "save" them from a life on the streets or in the countryside...but there are very limited numbers of people who will adopt from a shelter when you can get a free puppy or kitten in the street. So many of these animals will live out their lives in cages with perhaps plenty of food but no freedom. Personally, I find the warehousing of animals repellent. Egypt has a lively ecosystem, both urban and rural, and while as someone who likes cuddling up to a cat or dog as well as anyone, I hate to see them running the risks of being hit by cars or poisoned or killed by a predator, I also realise that the removal of dogs and cats from our ecosystem causes imbalances in it. For thousands of years the Nile flooded the valley every year for four months, often to a depth of two or three meters, which had the additional blessing of drowning all the rats and mice in the valley, or sending them into the low desert where foxes, birds of prey, dogs and cats had even better luck in hunting. In essence, every year the exterminators came to Egypt and when the High Dam in Aswan was built, one of the truly horrific side effects of stopping the inundation was the fact that the rodent population skyrocketed. Egyptians had never learned to live with rats and mice year round, and to compound the problem, we have an African rat, the Nile rat, which is a completely different species although almost indistinguishable from the rats that the entire world know and do not love. So the existence of stray dogs and cats is actually extremely valuable, especially in our cities where trash disposal is not exactly stringently enforced. It would make much more sense to have trap, neuter, and release programs with vaccination components than it does to have buildings full of animals in cages.

So, in conclusion, you need to consider what you think is an appropriate outcome for an animal charity. ACE Luxor runs a nice little hospital/recovery operation in Luxor that helps both the working animals of Luxor and some of the farm animals as well. The Brooke extends through Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor, Esna, and many of the touristic areas of upper Egypt as well as working in the brick kilns where most of the hauling is done by young men with donkeys and mules alongside the Donkey Sanctuary who work on an outpatient basis with farmers and brick kiln donkey crews. Their work is important and it's done well and thoroughly. In addition, the Donkey Sanctuary has a program whereby they will train young men in the villages in basic trimming and health care. Both of these used to be tied to the parent charity in the UK and a donation for Egypt was simply tossed into the larger pot, but they have changed their structures and can now accept donations specifically to the Egyptian Brooke and Donkey Sanctuary. Both charities have pages on Facebook with contact details. The two informal charities in the Nazlet Semman area are as yet unregistered in Egypt and each being run by an individual with only a few  helpers they are of lesser effectiveness, although many of their followers seem to enjoy the endless streams of pictures of ill and injured horses that appear on their Facebook page. One of the drawbacks to each of them, aside from the issue of organisational structure, is the fact that as they are run by westerners whose concept of rescue has been shaped by other realities like the concept of a "forever home" there is a bit of a mismatch with the culture here. Egypt has its problems in terms of animal welfare and many other things, but personally I'm inclined to believe that the solutions will also be found by Egyptians in their own fashion.

I hope everyone has a good holiday season...whatever your holidays may be...and I hope this has helped a bit to make the charity situation in Egypt a bit clearer and more real for everyone.

copyright 2013 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Birds of a Feather

 One of the things that I truly love about having horses who are well-socialized is watching children learning to communicate with them. The horses are especially gentle with them. This girl and this young mare were special friends.

copyright 2013 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Desert Gallop

This is the awesomeness of galloping in the desert just behind the pyramids of Abu Sir.

copyright 2012 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Things You Find In The Desert

 A hole in the ground with a pyramid in the background? Probably a mummy burrow.

copyright 2012 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Things To Do While Riding 1

Most people associate riding in Egypt with galloping across sandy expanses, but some of the best riding can be found in the countryside down shady trails along the farmers' fields. The children don't often get their photos taken and are totally delighted to see them when you take a shot.

copyright 2012 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Monday, October 15, 2012

Obstacle Course

 I have to laugh when friends of mine complain that their horses spook at mail boxes or something like that. I wish we had obstacles so simple. But mine have had to learn to walk next to a dredge clearing a canal or next to a noisy diesel cement mixer with a bucket that rises slowly to the top of a building....and then drops very abruptly. Or as was the case this morning, both of them next to each other. Note the attentive ears! But to their credit, while they eyed the monsters carefully, there was not a foot out of place.

copyright 2012 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani