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Monday, 1 November 2021

National scandal of the Bahamas Hobby Horse Hall Racetrack

The tragedy of the starving horses.

In 1975 I found myself starting a new job as Chief Inspector of the Bahamas Humane Society in Nassau. I had no idea that soon after my arrival I would be sitting alone in a derelict Hobby Horse Hall Racetrack stable cradling the grotesquely grimacing head of a skeletal dying horse named Last Hope in my lap.

Before arriving in the Bahamas I had been informed that I was expected to regularly inspect the racetrack stables and I had foolishly envisaged that in a millionaires playground it would be a professional operation. Perhaps on par with the likes of Newmarket in the U.K or Churchill Downs in the U.S., but I could not have been more wrong, because I had I arrived during the demise of the once famous and iconic Hobby Horse Hall when hundreds of horses suffered, and many died horrible deaths. The Government, Racing Commission and Horse Owners Association were all aware of the situation but chose not to do anything.

animalrightsandwrongs.com
Hobby Horse Hall in its heyday.

Brief History

The racetrack was constructed in the 1930’s opposite Cable Beach where the Baha Mar resort now stands and for nearly 40 years proved very popular. It had many ups and downs like a major fire in February 1958 which destroyed most of the facilities, but by 1960 a new grandstand and parade ring were built and state of the art starting gates and photo finish cameras were installed. It became the haunt of the rich colonial elite who mingled with the famous such as the likes of Errol Flynn and they enjoyed charcoal grilled lobster, turtle pie and steaks on the dining terrace while watching top jockeys and horses some from Miami. It had such a colourful social scene that the press eagerly wrote society columns about the meetings, publishing photographs of the celebrities, the fashion and the hats worn by the ladies.

The rich colonial elite mingled with the famous such as the likes of Errol Flynn at Hobby Horse Hall.

So when I first visited the track in early October 1975 I was expecting great things and was fascinated to be following in the footsteps of Errol Flynn and his ilk, but nothing could have prepared me for the sights I witnessed over the next two years.

Leaving horses to starve was accepted practice.

The racing season stretched from February to the end of May when there could be could be upward of 300 horses on the site and officially they all had to be removed by the 1st. June when electricity and water supplies were turned off. The reality, I soon discovered, was that only the thoroughbreds and breeding mares were taken and the luckier ones of those left behind were let loose to wander the island fending for themselves while the unlucky risked starvation at the track locked in a stable to die an awful death. Owners had been hit by soaring feed prices which had tripled over the previous two years and couldn’t afford to look after them when racing stopped. It was accepted practice and no one seemed to care.

It is exceedingly difficult to describe adequately what happened behind the scenes in the track’s last few years without it appearing totally exaggerated. The yard consisted of fifteen or so long wooden stable blocks and a couple of more sturdy brick ones in various states of dilapidation. Some buildings were covered in graffiti and painted murals. Nearly every stable door was damaged either by chewing or rot and most walls had planks missing or ragged holes in them. There was a thick haze and smell of marijuana permeating the whole place with a handful of stable lads sitting around, many obviously under the influence. Piles of dung littered the place along with beer cans and bottles, debris and abandoned vehicles. Pathetic looking half-starved horses wandered loose through the debris with protruding ribs and sunken backs. I could not believe what I was seeing.

'Last Hope', one of the countless horses that were starved, many to death at Hobby Horse Hall racetrack in the 1970’s. [Photo John Brookland 1975]

The few lucky horses that were still being looked after had to fight hordes of huge brazen rats when feed buckets were placed in front of them. They appeared from everywhere with little fear of humans and when the horses tried to force their heads into the buckets they were bitten and had to back off to wait until the rats had finished. Mares would often die giving birth and I would find them dumped in the undergrowth rotting and covered in flies. The situation was so bad that it became necessary for me to visit at least every other day to satisfy myself there were no horses starving to death so that I could sleep at night. I would find them wandering all over the island and was constantly called out to attend to those that had been involved in road accidents, collapsed by the roadside through weakness or had fallen down abandoned wells.

It should have been a national scandal.

The whole Nassau race operation should have been a national scandal but surprisingly few people seemed to care about the situation. The suspect “goings on” appeared to be common knowledge with one regular racegoer writing a letter to the editor of the main Nassau newspaper which included:

“I followed the 1975 season from beginning to end and sad to say it was very disappointing to the public and many patrons of the track expressed such sadness. If Mr Bastian [new racetrack director] is to do an honest job with the public in mind then he must make certain that the races are competitive and not given races i.e. races that are so made up for particular horse to win or the stable to win. Neither should a programme be made up to show nine horses in the race when in fact there only six honest entries. The proper thing to do is to run six horses and the public not be cheated out of three.” [John Leon Rolle, Letter to Editor, Nassau Guardian 1975]

My only other inspector, Kirk Glinton helping me check the stables for suffering or dying horses in 1976. [Photo: John Brookland 1976]

There was much talk of races being allegedly “fixed” or contrived with “Ringers” appearing under false names and old nags put in as “fillers” to make up the numbers alongside the thoroughbred preordained winners. There were stories that each owner or trainer of a stable allegedly took turns to win races to spread the prize money out fairly. Stable lads openly admitted that horses were drugged and made weak by not feeding or exercising them. During the season I found horses with weeping abscesses on their necks probably from caused by dirty needles and I sometimes found discarded drug vials which seemed to collaborate the stories.

Often when eight or nine horses were listed to run a race several never made it to the starting gate as there weren’t enough fit horses to be found that could complete the circuit without dropping dead halfway round. It was not unknown for the thoroughbreds to do exactly that as in the case of Sir Mark in the “Horse of the Year race” which dropped dead two yards after passing the winning post to much publicity. Cause of death unknown. Gambling syndicates and those “in the know” no doubt made a lot of money.

This then was the famous and iconic hallowed national racetrack of the Bahamas situated only a matter of yards from luxury hotels like the Ambassador Beach directly opposite and their tourist residents.

Sir Mark, a champion racehorse drops dead a few metres past the finishing post.

I decide to try and close the track.

It was obvious that I could not stand by like everyone else and ignore all the suffering and death being caused to the horses and so I decided it was my mission to try and close the track. I was soon put on my guard by the young local racetrack veterinarian Dr Balfe who became a friend who warned me to “watch your back”, as he had been assaulted for trying to intervene. His warning was not without truth as I found out a few months later.

As the months went by I had to attend to a constant stream of emaciated, injured and uncared for horses both at the track and around the island, many of which we managed to put back to health and some I sadly had to shoot. In the first twelve months I aided 39 horses and had to shoot a further ten. Some of those we restored to health and found homes for were stolen back as it was difficult to keep their location hidden on a small island all of which was depressing, disheartening and a bit of a nightmare.

As part of my campaign to close the track I took futile but nuisance prosecutions against owners and with the help of the Nassau Guardian and the Tribune newspapers, took every opportunity to give the track bad publicity. They ran many front-page graphic stories using photographs that I supplied them.

The stables were almost derelict and riddled with rat holes.

I begin to receive threats

Eventually I began to receive both veiled and actual threats including a group of drunken lads who turned up at the Bahamas Humane Society one afternoon brandishing cutlasses and wanting a word with me, but luckily, I was out on my rounds. Soon after another group arrived late one evening outside my house banging their cutlasses on my front garden wall shouting that they were going to chop me up. I went through a period of slight concern but being young I thought I was invincible and I found it all a little surreal. My employers took it more seriously and were worried to the point of putting iron bars on my bedroom window – ornate ones I might add. From then on, I never went to the track at night or during the day without my dog Condor and a fellow inspector. In a perverse way though I believed I was having fun and doing something worthwhile by saving lives.


Continually discovering dead horses was emotionally distressing.

What happened to Last Hope

As regards Last Hope the poor horse I mentioned at the beginning, I remained alone with her for nearly an hour awaiting help and it was the closest I have come to any kind a spiritual or ethereal experience, sitting there in the stillness and gloom of the stable with just the sound of her shallow breathing. It was an event so awful that it has haunted me for most of my life and ranks amongst the worst cases of animal cruelty I ever experienced. It was the thought of the suffering and hopelessness she must have gone through and her grotesque skeletal appearance that affected me the most, particularly the sight of her tightly drawn face revealing her teeth in an agony death mask grimace. I could not believe she was still clinging onto life.

While I awaited our veterinarian, I found myself praying and encouraging her to hang on although I expected she would have to be destroyed, but after an examination our vet thought she had a very slim chance of survival if I wanted to give it a try and of course I did. He reckoned she had not eaten or drunk for at least two weeks and was lucky to have survived that long. She underwent a feeding and treatment regime and was miraculously back on her feet after a couple of days and started putting some weight on and slowly improved, helped by all the kindness of the many well-wishers among the staff and volunteers. I found out later that she had suffered losing a foal a couple of months previously to add to her woes.

Last Hope beginning to recover at the Bahamas Humane Society after being starved at Hobby Horse Hall. She was such a gentle horse. [Photo: John Brookland 1975]

I spent as much time as I could with her, but tragically she started going downhill after several weeks and died, her internal organs probably having been weakened too much. We were all gutted, particularly me. The only compensation was that she experienced much love and care in those last few weeks of life.

I was determined to find her callous owner and eventually did. He was bemused at my outrage and laughed off any mention of prosecuting him as such an event had never happened before, but after a struggle I did get him charged. He pleaded guilty and was fined the maximum $50 (£25) for the offence under a completely outdated and farcical colonial animal cruelty law. A waste of time perhaps but I wanted to make a point and it kicked started bad publicity for the track and my campaign to close it. But I passionately believed I owed Last Hope some justice for her suffering.

The end in sight

Raceco Ltd owned the track and were not investing any money into it as they were in talks to sell the land to the Government to build a hotel and casino complex which didn’t happen for another two years. Meanwhile the carnage continued with neither the Racing Commision or Government taking any action for the welfare of the horses. Mr. Franklyn Wilson, the Racing Commission chairman and an M.P for Grants Town had no answers to the problem.

 “several owners have been starving their horses in protest [at the track closing]. Others just cannot afford to look after their animals. We cannot take responsibility for these horses starving to death, there is nothing we can do”. Mr Wellington Ferguson, Head, Bahamas Horse Owners Association 1977

Postscript

After its closure some of the horses were airlifted to Miami to be found new homes, paid for by American charities. I visited the track just after it was abandoned awaiting demolition and wandered the empty overgrown stable yard now mercifully free of suffering horses and wondered if it had all been a dream. I can still remember many of the horse’s names that I helped: Spanish Dancer, Strange Girl, Troublemaker, Royal Order, Air Queen, Hang Em High, Hot love II, Last Sight and Connie.

The new hotel complex has obliterated all trace of the track except for a small nature reserve which bears its name, but there is no memorial to all the unforgivable abject cruelty caused to those poor horses. For some inexplicable reason there is much misplaced nostalgia for the place, but it was a shameful episode in Bahamas history.

War Horses. The Ultimate Animal and Human Bond

 


When we think of the war horses during the remembrance period we tend to overlook the men who risked their lives to safeguard and care for them, particularly while in action at the front. These men not only witnessed the horrors of their human comrades being killed and mutilated but also their equine comrades. My grandfather Edwin Clark was one of these men.

Men were often killed caring for their beloved horses.

At about 6 p.m. on the evening of the 30th. September 1918 my grandfather Edwin Clark and his fellow artillery drivers of the 13th. Battery Canadian Field Artillery were “feeding-up” and watering their war horses at the wagon and horse line a mile back from the front line near the town of Raillencourt.

Suddenly they heard an aircraft approaching. It was a German plane and before they could take cover it dropped some newly invented  “Daisy-Clipper” bombs into the middle of the horse lines. They were designed to explode a few inches from the ground throwing shrapnel all around. The bombs killed one driver named Wishart and badly wounded nine others including Edwin. He received his third wound of the war, hit by shrapnel in his upper thigh, but survived. Many of the poor horses were killed, injured or fled. The scene was described in this way in the battalion war diary:

The affair was over in less than 30 seconds but the bursting charges, the shouts of the men and the agonised shrieks of injured and terrified horses made a scene of indescribable chaos

I cannot imagine my grandfather's state of mind at that precise moment surrounded by crying injured men, shrieking horses, the sound of shots as horses were put out of their misery and the smell of cordite and blood. Hopefully he was too shocked and dazed to take it all in.

war horses, horses in war
War horse being treated for shrapnel wounds. They were viewed as legitimate targets.

The war horses were viewed as legitimate targets.

The horses and mules were viewed as legitimate targets by both sides due to their importance in supplying the gun batteries with ammunition as well as transporting the guns. They faced being shelled, bombed, gassed, sometimes shot and suffered horrific shrapnel injuries. Many suffered shell shock and remarkably others learned to lie down and take cover when under fire.

An officer wrote in the war diary that:

the duty of the ‘stable pickets’ was an unenviable one, especially at night, when horse lines were being bombed or shelled. Quite apart from the danger of the explosions, there was always the chance of the picket ropes breaking and the horses stampeding. Horses frequently fought and kicked, becoming entangled in ropes and had to be followed and caught in the dark.

Like most of the human recruits, the horses had never experienced such noise, chaos, smells, violence and hardships and they did not have the capacity to realise what was happening to them or likely to happen to them. So everything occurring around them was terrifying until they became accustomed to it.

War horses in Great war, war horses
The horses were friends, comrades and confidents. They were in it together.

The ultimate example of man's dependence on animals for solace.

The horses and mules became friends, confidants, fellow comrades and pseudo counsellors with whom the men could air their grievances, discuss their suffering and help alleviate their depression and melancholy. Without their companionship, the physical and mental well-being of the men would have been far worse than it was. The relationship is probably one of the ultimate examples of man's dependence on animals for solace.

The men spent most of their waking hours caring for them often under almost impossible conditions. They fought together, rested and ate together, often slept together and ultimately died together. They were in it together. There is no getting away from the fact that their lives were unforgiving and unremitting, but at the same time the men responsible for them lavished as much care as they could to alleviate their suffering and formed incredible bonds with them.

An officer responsible for vetting his men's letters home wrote in the war diary:

Drivers often almost wept as they wrote of their faithful friends – the horses – wishing so much that they could be given more feed and better shelter. Such care and attention they gave these dumb animals. When nothing else was available an old sock was used to rub them down or to bandage a cracked heel, while breast collar and girth galls were eased by wrapping light articles around the harness to keep it from rubbing against the sore spot.”

It is impossible for me to visualise or comprehend the carnage and horrors my grandfather must have witnessed to both humans and horses as it is the stuff of nightmares, but I like to think that my grandfather was a humane man and did all that he could to ease the suffering of the horses and mules in his care.

I am so proud of him that I wrote a book about his experiences and the life of war horses at the western front. BUY IT NOW from Bitzabooks.com the publisher using the PayPal link below or from Amazon Books.
War horses. There From the Start book cover
RRP £9.99 ISBN: 9781094956763 UK orders £11.00 including shipping using PayPal button below. Shipped direct from publisher bitzabooks.com

Friday, 1 October 2021

Massacre of the monkeys.


Massacre of the monkeys.
Dejected and confused young baboons just released from their cramped crates receiving rest and comfort at Heathrow's quarantine station before their onward flight to America destined for research. [Photo: 1980 John Brookland]

The Monkey run.

Hundreds of thousands of research monkeys and baboons passed through Heathrow Airport between the Second World War and the 1980’s mainly destined for research. It was dubbed as the massacre of the monkeys by the media. The trade was colloquially known as the "monkey run". They were mainly destined for polio, infantile paralysis research and rocket tests. Some cynics suggested that the monkeys met a better death by suffocation than they would have done had they reached their destination.

During this period on average 10,000 monkeys passed through each week in shipments of up to 1,600 mostly from India and Africa but also South East Asia and South America. Most were heading for North America and Europe although many were imported into the U.K. In the fifties and sixties there were also specially chartered flights arriving at airports across the country full of monkey shipments. Some of them managed to escape causing media headlines.

Massacre of the monkeys.

On New Year’s day 1955, 457 Rhesus monkeys were left in an unventilated British Overseas Airways Corporation (B.O.A.C) van for three hours on the tarmac at Heathrow Airport awaiting loading onto an aircraft. When the back door was opened 394 had suffocated to death. It was dubbed by the media as the massacre of the monkeys. Another 1000 sitting in two ventilated vans survived.

Although a deplorable incident, it was unfortunately not an isolated one as it was a regular occurrence. Dozens of incidents over the decades made headline national news, but no serious action was ever taken. Thousands continued to suffer or die during capture and holding, then on their way to Heathrow, more on the onward journey and of course few survived the research done on them.

RSPCA open a hostel to deal with the carnage.

Because of the carnage occurring at Heathrow, the world's main transit hubs at the time, particularly with primates and birds, the RSPCA opened a facility in 1953 to temporarily give them respite and care while they transited or were delayed. Over the next few decades, the staff were to witness regular weekly horror shows and helped and comforted these frightened, stressed and pitiful monkeys. Pulling out dead and dying monkeys and new-born babies or aborted fetuses would often reduce them to tears.

Massacre of the monkeys.
Dead squirrel monkeys. Thousands of monkeys died during transport and it was distressing, hard work and a mental strain on the staff to have to continually deal with abused, dead and dying animals. [Photo: John Brookland 1979].

I unfortunately experienced these tragedies in the 70’s and 80’s as an animal inspector and manager of the then Animal Quarantine Station that took over from the RSPCA. What upset me most was the look of despair, hopelessness and fear on their little faces and their dejected demeanour. Even more sadly they would often put their hands through the wire for reassurance which was heart-breaking.

Investigations always promised but nothing ever changed.

After each tragic and fatal incident, the airlines, government authorities, shippers and importers promised investigations and inquiries into the trade, but nothing came from them or changed. Despite assurances from the RSPCA and airlines that the standards of crating were improving and mortality diminishing the deaths continued.  It was never going to change because shippers were only interested in keeping cargo costs to the minimum and the carriers did not want to lose money by refusing trade. The airports realised that if they intervened the shippers would avoid Heathrow and route them elsewhere.

Massacre of the monkeys.
It was heart-breaking when they put their hands out for food and reassurance. Staff care for a shipment at Heathrow's quarantine station in 1982 before their onward flight. [Photo: John Brookland]

And it was not just by air. The fifties were a cross over time when animal shippers were moving from sea transport to aircraft, but monkey shipments were still suffering on board ships. In September 1959, 300 monkeys left Singapore on what was called a “horror voyage” to London onboard a Ben Line Steamer, and 120 were found dead when they arrived at the docks. Large adults, youngsters and pregnant females had all been crammed together in crates and fought over food killing each other. Again, they were removed to the airport hostel where one RSPCA girl stated to the media that “it was a terrible sight. I shall forget it for as long as I live”. The monkeys then had to face another voyage to Rotterdam and their destination.

Monkeys are still shipped round the world for research.

Even today more than 80 years after it all started, primates are still being airlifted around the world. The numbers may be much smaller and most are captive they still must suffer the stress of transportation. Welfare organisations still plead with airlines to stop carrying them. They have had some success with many having placed a ban on their carriage.

Associated Book:

A book chronicling the cruelty and suffering caused to animals passing through Heathrow Airport in 1970/80s with graphic images and Foreword by Sir Peter Scott.



ISBN 978-1519300164 56 pages + graphic photos of animal cruelty.
RRP £5.99
Special offer by buying now online from bitzabooks.com £4.99 + £1.50 p&p UK Orders Only.

Overseas orders please contact us at bitzabooks@gmail.com for price.

Also available on Amazon Books.

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