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May 5, 2008
Such a brief period of excitement, the running of the Kentucky Derby -- most of us notice it right before it occurs, read about the front-runner, and then turn on the television for our annual peek into the world of thoroughbred racing. Maybe somebody has a Derby party, at which everyone has a mint julep.

For those involved in it, of course, it's the culmination of years of work and thousands of dollars. And for everyone, this year, it was over in a sudden stab of heartache, the impressive performance of the winner overshadowed by the tragedy of the only filly in the race being put down right where she fell, having broken first one ankle and then the other. In the newspaper photograph, she raised her beautiful head to look in agonized disbelief at her injury, while her people gathered around her to keep her from struggling to her feet and her rider stood numbly off to one side. Moments later, she and her terrible pain were both gone.

They are such beautiful animals. Valiant, too, maybe more valiant than is good for them. Racing is rough, people in it are the first to say, and the horses themselves can be rough, their muscles and their drive stronger, sometimes, than their slender bones and tendons can bear. Today animal rights groups are calling for the cessation of thoroughbred racing or for banning the use of the crop during a race. Or maybe the track surface is at fault. Or maybe horses are raced at too young an age.

It is one of the paradoxes of raising animals -- the same one that applies to animals raised for food -- that the very fact of their domestication, a fact that may indeed cause them to suffer, is also the fact that keeps them alive as species. Many turkey and chicken breeds, goats and sheep, many breeds of cattle survive only because they are raised to be killed and eaten. If we stop eating them, they'll die out. The thoroughbred horse, so large and majestic an animal, is nonetheless "one of most fragile creatures on earth," writes breeder Jim Squires in today's New York Times. The big business of racing them also serves to maintain them as a breed. Human beings, animals and plants interact with one another in utilitarian ways. An individual may not make it, but the species will.

This is a strange and narrow moral place to for us to inhabit, and it is painfully ambiguous. We are both the scourge of animal species and the agent of their survival -- both at once. It constitutes no laissez-faire reason not to seek the most humane manner of keeping and using animals, but it does force us to remember that we no longer live in the Garden of Eden, and can't abdicate our place in the chain of being by wishing that we did.
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