Jack Firneno, The Wire
Jon Katz loves animals so much so that the New York Times’ best-selling author has written more than 20 books about them, and left behind a life as a television producer in New York City to live on a farm with dogs, cats, donkeys, fish and whatever’s out in the woods.
He thinks — and writes — constantly about how powerful and positive the bond between them can be, and how important it is to treat them properly.
So why is he against a ban on carriage horses in Manhattan?
“They were some of the healthiest horses I’d ever seen,” he said, after researching the subject and seeing them for himself. “They’re regulated and cared for. They have fresh hay, heat in the winter, air conditioning in the summer and five weeks’ vacation.”
Katz admits he was surprised by their condition. Like others, he expected them to be overworked and in poor health. But ultimately what he found speaks to the ideas he’s been researching and writing about for years. And, he’ll be bringing those ideas to Northampton this weekend as part of a benefit that pairs registered therapy dogs with students.
Katz will present “What Animals Mean to Us” at Richboro Middle School on Sunday, and hold an exclusive Dinner With the Author in Yardleyafter the presentation. The events benefit Nor’Wester Readers, a Lower Bucks-based nonprofit organization that uses registered therapy dogs to assist children in a wide range of academic and life skills.
But while he’s all for the idea of dogs working with kids, he’s very concerned about when people conflate the two.
“To live well with an animal, you need to know what it is, and I think we’re turning them into children with fur,” Katz explained.
He draws a quick, statistically based narrative to illustrate the point: In America, there were 15 million owned dogs in 1960, and 75 million today. The rise occurred as people became more disconnected, reflected in a higher divorce rate and “scattered” families, and the increase in stress that people feel from work and the increased use of technology.
“I think people really turn to animals for support and unconditional love,” he explained.
But, that can take a toll on pets, where today dogs bites are up 47 percent and some 300,000 to 400,000 dogs are medicated for depression and anxiety.
Katz believes this is due in large part to “over-emotionalizing” animals by projecting our human emotions and intellect into beings that just don’t process the world like we do.
“They don’t have the vocabulary or narrative to speak English; they don’t need what we think they do. They don’t get jealous, or want to sue us, or think we’re stupid,” he explained.
But Katz doesn’t dwell on the negative aspects of this dynamic. Instead, his work focusses on the joyful, “mystic” connections between people and animals. Essentially, he said, people know how animals affect them emotionally — but do they think about how they affect the animals?
“I thought there was a big gap in the literature about animals. Not many people stood back and observed the bond,” he said.
It first occurred to Katz decades ago when he was living in New Jersey and working in Manhattan. He’d lived in cities all his life, but after buying a border collie and spending more time with him, first at his home but increasingly on farms, he began to understand just how deep those bonds can run.
Today, he lives on his own Bedlam Farm in upstate New York. There, he combines his roots as an investigative reporter and writer, and his time studying social theories at the University of Kentucky, to document his experiences and cast them in a larger light.
“It’s one of those thing we all live but don’t think about,” he said.
That’s what brought him back to New York City early last year, after reading about a proposed ban on horse-drawn carriages there and the support for the idea from animal-rights activist groups.
He saw the horses for themselves, armed with a list of signs of neglect and abuse from veterinarians and his own years of research. He saw nothing of alarm, and also noted that various veterinary and equine groups found no problems after examining them.
That’s why, Katz stressed, we need to understand animals from their perspective. Those 300-pound draught horses, he said, would be “dead in a day” in the wild, unable to outrun predators or find enough food to sustain themselves. That’s especially so when “rescue farms are broke and slaughterhouses are buys,” he added.
“That’s the reason this is important to me,” said Katz. “We’ve lost the understanding of what real animals are like.”
“What Animals Mean to Us” will take place Sunday, March 15, at Richboro Middle School, 98 Upper Holland Road in Richboro, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10 in advance, $15 at the door. Dinner With the Author is limited to 12 people. Tickets are $75 per person. To order tickets, visit www.norwesterreaders.org. For more information, visit www.bedlamfarm.com.