Hi, my name is Joseph, and I hunt horses with sticks, crossbows and firearms. And if you believe this, I’ve got some prime swampland in Florida to sell you.
Sadly, though, several people do believe it, thanks in part to a photo stolen from my personal blog, http://www.rogueskennel.com, and used out of context on a site proclaiming to be for “Texas Horse Hunts.” Not hunting on horseback, but actually hunting and killing horses.
Despite numerous calls and emails, I still can’t determine if the site is real or some kind of crazy hoax. And it’s left me having to assert and explain something so bizarre I never thought I’d have to utter these words — I have not, do not and would not ever hunt horses.
The photo they found on my site and reposted was taken in Alaska, after my wife and I retrieved a horse that died of natural causes from Sterling residents who had no way to bury it and didn’t want it to attract summer bears.
The part that really smarts is that the most extensive damage to our reputations was not done by the initial website post. Rather, it was from the dozens of outraged animal rights activists on Facebook pages and other social media sites who began spreading the photo with lightning speed.
Terms like intellectual property, copyright infringement and Internet security sound sterile, legalistic and boring. Being a freelance writer and photographer, I’m certainly aware of those issues, but hadn’t put as much thought into them as I should have. I certainly never thought I’d find myself researching these legalities in the context of something so ridiculous.
The disturbing truth is the same could happen to me again, or to anyone with a presence on social medial and the Internet. I do not hunt horses, but because I was being accused of it, I was suddenly keenly interested in hunting for ways to make my online presence more secure.
There is a lot you can do to combat a situation such as this, but all of it is time-consuming. It takes a fraction of a second for the reactionary, easily misled or unconsiderate to contribute to the viral spread of disinformation — in this case commenting on, forwarding and reposting the photo. It takes much more time and effort for the maligned to try to spread the truth. In instances such as this with serious repercussions, legal counsel must be — and has been — obtained to sue for intellectual property theft, copyright infringement, defamation of character, etc.
The much more difficult part is all the electronic cauterizing that must be done to slow the disease’s progression. Google should be contacted and a request submitted and evaluated proving ownership of the photo, demonstrating the theft and detailing how the image or material is being misused. I contacted the myth-debunking website Snopes (http://www.snopes.com/critters/crusader/horsehunt.asp) to help invalidate the false assumption created by my photo being used on the horse hunting site. Facebook must be contacted to report the photo as harmful each time it is forwarded and shared, as well contacting those sharing it. That, I’ve found, is one of the hardest parts.
Two of the Facebook pages where the photo spread the fastest were Anti-Hunting in America and The Barking Army. The former of the two responded quickly after I wrote them and proved the falsehood of the photo, yet it still was shared 66 times before the post was removed and a correction posted.
The latter site was more resistant, as were its followers. They posted a correction with a link to our real blog and website, where actual animal welfare work is done, but they left up the phony photo and link. Over the first 24 hours the hoax photo was shared 255 times and brought in hundreds of hurtful comments, while the real link to our own site brought in two shares, no positive comments and $0 in donations to help feed and house recued dogs.
The irony of this is perhaps the most hurtful part. My wife and I have taken in more than 40 dogs over the past 10 years, many from animal shelters or unwanted homes, providing for them much to our own financial determinant. Prior to this my wife and I were a zoologist and zookeepers for nearly a decade, working for large and well-respected institutions such as the Wildlife Conservation Society.
I have traipsed through cobra-infested fields in Sri Lanka during one of the bloodiest times of their civil war in an effort to track and protect native primate species. My wife, as a single American woman, risked her own safety walking anti-poaching patrols in the savannahs of Kenya to ensure the protection of black rhinos in Africa.
Here in Alaska, we spent our first eight years living in a 16-by-16-foot cabin with no running water, gardening and fishing for nearly all of our food because of our desire to live an ecologically friendly existence, and because much of our income supported our rescue efforts. Our lifestyle remains much the same today, even though we now are in a larger home with flushing toilets. Our newborn baby wears cloth diapers so no disposables end up adding to the landfill.
My wife and I are animal lovers through and through, and being “green” isn’t a trend for us, it’s something we live day in and day out. This has been one of the hardest parts to explain to people even after they found out what the photo was actually depicting.
In Alaska, with so many bears, when a horse dies the options are one of three things — bury it, take it to a landfill or call a dog musher to come get it so that the animal can be used for something beneficial. Since many horse people are pragmatists, they tend to opt for the latter and like to see their beloved animal go to feed other loved animals, rather than seeing the horse go the dump where it becomes gull, raven and eagle food.
The average horse weighs around 1,000 pounds and with the exception of the hide and hair, we use every part of it to feed our 40-plus dogs — meat, organs, bones and even the hooves. My dogs normally eat a 40-pound bag of food a day (at a cost of $36 a bag), in addition to other supplemental meat products. So a horse will literally save us about 25 bags of food (around $900).
In terms of being “green,” it also saves by those 40 bags not being immediately used, which means less processing, less packaging and less transportation to get them here to Alaska and to my kennel. And since most dog food is at least partially made from animal parts or byproducts, the less we use, perhaps the less animals will be raised and killed only for dog food.
All of this adds up to a much smaller carbon footprint. And this is just with horses. We also take in naturally deceased cows, pigs and llamas, as well as people’s freezer-burned salmon and meat, all of which would likely end up wasted in the dump if we or other mushers didn’t use it.
This, though, is much different than the idea of living green to many in the Lower 48, who may have good intentions but likely leave a huge carbon footprint by buying goods that are be specially processed, packaged and/or shipped in from afar. They were happy to share the phony horse picture and tell us how horrible we are even after the truth came out.
I consider myself an animal rights activist, but there’s a difference between activist — actively living in service to the betterment of animals — and extremist, whose greatest activity seems to be paying loud, virulent lip service to the cause.
I remember animal rights extremists from high school, college and beyond, often eager to run their mouths, but not nearly as eager to do real work. While I was volunteering cleaning poop and walking dogs at the local animal shelters on weekends, I rarely if ever saw any of the “Save the whales” and “Don’t eat meat” T-shirt-wearing crowd. And apparently now that they are grown up, they are much the same, shouting their beliefs with the megaphone of social media, rather than just bumper stickers and T-shirts.
Rather than investigating and focusing their efforts on the Texas Horse Hunts website creator Tom Weldermen, they were happy enough to just forward the next thing they saw on Facebook.
Hopefully, the horse hunting website is nothing more than someone’s disgusting idea of a joke. But I find no humor in my photo being linked to this punch line.
It’s not so much offensive that we were accused of doing something we hadn’t. It was that we were accused of doing something so morally opposite of anything we would ever do, and that the same people who were so outraged when they thought it was real had little to say — and zero to donate — when they found out what we are actually about.
We don’t expect praise for our efforts to help animals, but how about at least the courtesy to not damage our ability to continue to do so?
Joseph Robertia is a freelance writer, and he and his wife, Colleen, operate Rogues Kennel in Kasilof.