On Black Friday, a friend of mine discovered that a local charity had brought ponies into the city centre. The idea was to allow members of the public to pet them in exchange for donations. We were very concerned that they had brought these animals into the city on the busiest shopping day of the year, so we decided to investigate and perhaps stage a peaceful demo.
The ponies were in an extremely noisy and stressful environment. They were right next to a busker, and the charity’s volunteers were constantly shouting “Helping local disabled children”. There were hundreds of people milling around, some of whom muttered under their breath about the cruel treatment of the ponies.
My friend and I approached one volunteer and asked some questions about the ponies’ welfare. He told us the ponies were there for three hours at a time, but insisted they weren’t at all scared or distressed. He said one pony was so relaxed she was falling asleep.
We weren’t convinced. The ponies were being constantly touched by members of the public; they often flashed the whites of their eyes when this happened, indicating fear. To me, the ‘relaxed’ pony looked worn out. All the ponies were wearing muzzles, which seemed to indicate that they might otherwise bite. Surely that wouldn’t be necessary if they were truly happy with the situation?
The volunteer emphasised that the ponies wouldn’t be here if they didn’t want to be, but we didn’t buy that. It wasn’t as if they’d been given much choice in the matter. They were tolerating it, but that didn’t mean they weren’t uncomfortable or distressed.
He told us they’d been trained for this, but I suspected they’d only been trained not to lash out. They probably hadn’t been trained to feel comfortable in this environment. Given that ponies are prey animals, it seemed pretty obvious that they would find the experience stressful. Training by humans couldn’t possibly eliminate thousands of years of evolution.
We informed the volunteers that we were going to stage a peaceful demo, which they said was fine. We hastily made two signs, one saying it was never acceptable to exploit animals and another asking the public not to touch the animals as they were scared.
The volunteers had been polite up to that point, but they became unpleasant when we began our demo. They laughed at us, took photos of us and loudly told members of the public how ridiculous we were. However, many people said they agreed with us.
At one point, the ponies were moved further up the street. We followed them, and one volunteer became nasty. He said we were clearly uneducated and didn’t know what we were talking about. My friend informed him that she had a first class zoology degree and veterinary nursing experience. He said her degree was ‘basic’ and that her experience didn’t count because she wasn’t a qualified vet. He then said he would get a real vet to come and educate our animal rights group!
After the charity collection finished, the ponies were led away. We followed them part of the way, and saw them being led directly through traffic. The volunteers made no attempt to safely use pedestrian crossings. One pony stopped in the middle of a roundabout and seemed unwilling to move again. She also kicked over a collection bucket in her frustration. If she wasn’t distressed before, she certainly was now.
The volunteers noticed us behind them and began to taunt us. One of them repeatedly told us we were sad. We’d planned to follow them all the way to the stables to make sure the ponies got back safely, but felt too intimidated to do so.
Later, my friend posted about the experience on Facebook and asked sympathisers to leave a review on the charity’s page expressing displeasure at their exploitation of animals. The charity retaliated with a status which called us ‘animal rights extremists’ and accused us of being ‘abusive’ towards their volunteers. They even claimed they were investigating us.
At one point, they resorted to downright lies – they said my friend and I had ‘loitered’ around for three hours, but we were there for less than one hour. They also said we had ‘angrily confronted’ them and refused to engage in discussion. In reality, we had politely discussed the animals’ welfare with one volunteer in considerable detail. Not once had we raised our voices or been aggressive in any other manner. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for them.
We found it disturbing that people who were so unprofessional and lacking in compassion were in charge of the animals. It was also concerning that the charity chose to completely ignore the concerns of several members of the public – they said the reviews left on their page were ‘libellous’ and ‘slanderous’, though they only stated that animal exploitation was wrong.
It’s time we as a species realised that it isn’t acceptable to use animals to make money, whether it’s for charity or not. Animals can’t consent to being used in this manner and it’s impossible to say for certain whether they’re distressed or uncomfortable. Using unconsenting humans in this manner would rightly be considered unacceptable.
What do you think about this?