At Our Hen House, we do our best to bring you the latest from the world of animal rights. That said, when it comes to telling you about books, there are just so many amazing new ones covering all kinds of animal issues, and we simply don’t have time to review them all (but don’t miss the ones we have reviewed). We thought long and hard and decided to start an exciting new program for you. From time to time, we’ll publish excerpts of the author’s choice — highlighting the best in new animal rights books (both fiction and non) — right here on our online magazine. We hope you like this new service!
One general note about OHH’s new intention to publish excerpts: We do our best to choose excerpts from books that reflect our values to change the world for animals, and to end their exploitation altogether. However, we are not able to read all of these books in their entirety. Please note that the books we choose do indeed intrigue us, but might not fully be in line with our ethos — though we hope they are. In other words, vet these for yourselves, and feel free to share your thoughts with us at by emailing info [at] ourhenhouse [dot] org.
Our Hen House Advisory Board member and great friend Donny Moss recently brought Jo Anne Normile’s work to our attention on his blog, Their Turn, and Jo Anne readily agreed to share the following excerpt from her memoir, SAVING BABY. The excerpt describes her early days rescuing racehorses from slaughter on the backstretch of the track, once she learned the fate of Thoroughbreds who became too slow to compete. Jo Anne started out compiling lists of people who might be interested in buying a “spent” horse from a trainer who would otherwise send the animal to the kill pen. She went on to save more than 4,000 horses — finding them forever homes, instead of letting them go to kill buyers who lurk near the rail.
Excerpt from Saving Baby
by Jo Anne Normile
Sometimes a trainer would say to me, “I called people on the list about my horse, and no one wants it. The trailer is coming by at such and such a time. If no one buys it by then, it’s going on.”
Frantic, with maybe two hours left, I’d start to call people myself. Maybe the guy had an outdated list, or maybe he didn’t make calls to all the people who might be a match.
Without lying, I did everything I could to make a horse sound as appealing as possible. If a bay, or reddish horse, had no white markings, which are desirable in the sport discipline world, I never said “no markings” when talking to potential buyers. Instead, I’d tell them, “Oh, he’s the cutest horse—plain-brown-wrapper bay.”
Sometimes I found someone who would buy the horse. I’d run from the office back to the trainer and front the money by writing him a personal check. He could have cash in two hours from the kill buyer. He couldn’t afford to trust me that some person entirely unknown to him would follow through. Only if he had the agreed-upon fee in hand would he consent to hold onto the horse for two days until transport could be arranged.
Sometimes, when I was going down the list making phone calls, someone would say, “It’s not for me, but let me call somebody who I think the horse might be right for, and I’ll call you back.” While waiting, I’d see the truck coming. I’d literally have minutes to save a horse from death. Sometimes I was successful, but there were plenty of times that I wasn’t. I needed two more hours that I didn’t have.
I bolstered my efforts by walking up and down the shedrows with the horses-wanted list. These were hot days, in the 90s, with high humidity. “I know you’re busy,” I’d say, “but maybe your wife would make a call. These people pay a lot more than the kill fee. Why not get a couple hundred dollars extra?” Some trainers refused to deal with me. They would just let a horse go to the kill buyer rather than go through the trouble of dialing a few phone numbers.
Coming to terms with who so many of these people really were was one of the most difficult aspects of the struggle. I had worked so hard in the beginning to cultivate friendships with people on the backstretch. I had wanted to be “in,” and on some level I was. But so many of those very same people, I learned more and more, couldn’t have cared less about horses. We had absolutely nothing in common. Yet I couldn’t show my dismay, my anger, my grief. All the while, while working alone with no one else back there to help, I had to remain chipper, friendly, acting as though my heart weren’t broken about all the horses at risk. Making it harder still was that every time I couldn’t keep a horse from the kill buyer’s hands, I experienced it as a personal failure. I berated myself for not having done more.
I always remembered the horses I wasn’t able to save much better than the ones I could. It was not hard to see Baby in each horse that ended up on the truck, whether or not it had his coloring. Sometimes it was the hooves, like iron rather than the seashell-like hooves of most Thoroughbreds. Other times, it was the way the horse’s eyes were set in his head, the slant of the shoulder, or the massive rump muscles. Some horses had Baby’s bushy, fly-away mane. Often, it was simply the way a horse would react to me as I examined him—smelling my hair or blowing into my nose. Those were signature moves of Baby’s.
Once the horses were jammed onto the huge trailer, they stopped being treated like living beings. Without food and water, they’d be forced to wait while the summer sun beat down on the vehicle’s metal exterior, pawing, beating each other, literally dying of thirst. They were now meat, and even minimum animal husbandry was refused them. Some were lame, like Baby. They were going to go through the entire slaughter process with a broken leg, in horrific pain, rather than undergo chemical euthanasia.
If there had been any doubt about their ultimate fate, it was erased when an article came out in the Daily Racing Form that August about a racehorse named Exceller. A very famous racehorse, Exceller had run in the late 1970s and was best remembered as the only horse to beat two Triple Crown winners. Such a feat had been unheard of.
He retired in 1979, going to a farm in Kentucky to stand at stud. In 1991, he was transferred to Sweden to continue breeding, and when the Daily Racing Form went to check up on him for a “Where Are They Now?” column it used to publish now and then, the reporter found out they were several months late. He had been sent to a slaughterhouse that April.
That’s when I realized it wasn’t just cheap claiming horses at our crummy track who were being sent to their deaths. It was pervasive. Even this famous horse, who had no doubt earned his various owners more than a million dollars, was slaughtered at the end of his stud career rather than allowed to live out his life in peace.
On very bad days, when the truck left full, I would go straight to the barn upon arriving home because there I could just sit on the hay and wail. The horses never got used to my crying. They hated for me to sob like that. It made them nervous. Tense, they’d prance, move around, bump into each other in the run-in attached to the barn. “What can we do to help? What can we do?” They wanted the herd secure, relaxed, not like this, not with one of their own in distress.
To the left is Jo Anne Normile, here with Secretariat’s granddaughter. A portion of the proceeds from every sale of SAVING BABY goes to Normile’s rescue, Saving Baby Equine Charity, making each reader an integral part of the story of finding safe havens for horses at risk.