Sympathy for a racehorse

The world’s compassion is notoriously quirky. Just consider where it has been directed over the past couple of months, a period as replete with tragedy and disaster as any in recent memory. Another lethal tsunami struck Indonesia. The sectarian slaughter in Iraq worsened, with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki conceding last week that some 100 innocent Iraqis are now being killed daily. War hovered in the Horn of Africa and exploded in the Middle East, producing heart-rending images of dead, injured and displaced civilians, particularly in Lebanon. Yet while all this misery was unfolding, many people, in many countries, appeared more concerned about the fate of a horse.

Or so it appeared to some. Charges of unseemly sentiment flew. But really, it’s time for the critics to calm down — and let people’s feelings flow where they will.

The steed in question is not just any old horse, of course, but the fabulous American colt Barbaro, the Kentucky Derby winner that famously shattered his hind leg running in the Preakness Stakes 10 weeks ago. Since then, the ups and downs of Barbaro’s condition — he has been stabilized, but his survival remains a long shot — have been the subject of daily bulletins from his surgeons in Pennsylvania and frequent reports in newspapers worldwide, including this one.

The horse has also been inundated with good wishes in the form of truckloads of carrots and apples, which he is said to appreciate, and get-well cards and e-mails, which he sensibly ignores. Even God, who you might think would be much too busy to care, has been bombarded with requests for divine veterinary intervention on Barbaro’s behalf.

Noticing all this, quite a few professional commentators and other public scolds have climbed onto their high horse, so to speak, to call attention to the moral idiocy of valuing, or appearing to value, an animal’s well-being over that of human beings. “People, it’s a horse!” they like to point out, as if Barbaro’s well-wishers hadn’t spotted that.

They also contend that it’s hypocritical to fret over the fate of a single animal when the industry that produced him mistreats and discards so many anonymous others. Yes, Barbaro was a winner, they admit, one in a million even, and a bright, attractive horse to boot. And yes, it makes sense for his owners to spend millions on all that long-shot care — screws and slings and recovery pools and the rest of it — because the “little Barbaros” they have said they want would earn them their money back many times over.

But it makes no sense, in their view, for strangers to care about Barbaro’s fate when they don’t know him, have no stake in his recovery and apparently couldn’t care less about all the other injured or worn-out racehorses who end up as pet food.

Those are sound, logical arguments. The fact is, though, that most of us don’t respond to the news with logic. The critics are right: People are sentimental. Most of us are also not very good at grasping abstractions or imaginatively comprehending misery experienced en masse, whether by human beings or by horses. So we zero in on stories and anecdotes about individuals. We yawn at statistics and charts but wake up for a photograph or a movie — anything that personalizes. That doesn’t necessarily denote hypocrisy, though. Chances are Barbaro’s saga has done more to publicize the dark side of the racing industry and the vulnerability of thoroughbreds than a hundred earnest studies or editorials ever could.

And yes, we anthropomorphize shamelessly, projecting our own fears, hopes and predilections onto animals because that’s just what people do. Would pandas be so popular if they didn’t look so much like giant human babies with black eye patches? True, Barbaro doesn’t look like us. He’s much better-looking. But he certainly behaves enough like us to win us over — nickering at the mares in the neighboring stalls, falling asleep on his visiting jockey’s shoulder, looking out his window, enjoying his feed bag.

To many people, the daily updates headlined “Barbaro: His Day” conjure up a life they wouldn’t mind living themselves if it weren’t for those leg casts and screws. They identify with this horse.

Barbarophilia is certainly not logical. And it is sentimental, outrageously so. But here’s a thought the anti-Barbaro crowd seems to have missed: Compassion isn’t an either-or proposition. Interest in the fate of an injured horse in Pennsylvania doesn’t preclude concern for terrified children in West Java or Baghdad or Tyre. Very likely, it’s the same warmhearted people caring about the lot of them. Even if it wasn’t, you can’t legislate the flow of sympathy.

To borrow an old — though hopefully not prophetic — idiom, the critics who think otherwise are just beating a dead horse.