It’s 3 a.m. Monday, February 19th. The temperature hovers just around -6°C. Dozens of vans wait on a road leading to Skaryszew. Lights flash between the cars. Each beam represents an animal rights activist checking drivers’ papers and vehicles. I’ve just arrived with Monika, Zuza, and Piotrek, three strangers who answered my call for a ride on Facebook a day before.
Smoke comes from the exhausts and white breaths from people mouths. Once in a while a grey cloud leaks from the back of the trucks followed by loud neighing and a compulsive banging. There’s an overwhelming smell of sweat and excrement.
“Wstępy Skaryszewskie” dates back to the 16th century.
It will be two more hours before the police open the checkpoint leading to the marketplace. Once the biggest horse market in Europe, “Wstępy Skaryszewskie” dates back to the 16th century. The checkpoint is something absolutely new though.
The checkpoint gives animal rights activists an opportunity to take a better look at the delivery vans that are being used to transport the horses. Many fail terribly to meet live animal transport regulations. The ones that break the rules must turn back, but some drivers try their luck at other points. However the activists are out in force. They exchange information on the color and plates of rejected cars and call the police if they see something off.
The horse sellers tend to be aggressive towards the activists. There’s name calling, threats, and sometimes an elbow to the face. Often the situation gets to a point where traders have to hold back their pissed off colleagues. Yet some come with whole families, stand aside, and let the inspections go on peacefully.
The regulations are not harsh at all and easy to fulfil. One can even modify a standard van into an animal transport. By law, ventilation holes and a delivery ramp are all that’s required. But the rules don’t do enough to protect the animals. There are legal trucks here that squeeze five horses next to each other, forcing them to stand in their own excrement with bent necks for hours, struggling not to fall everytime the van moves.
The first edition where selling horses for meat is prohibited.
First-timers are shocked by the suffering, but a Centaurus Foundation veteran, who helps coordinate the inspections, tells me that today is nothing compared with what they witnessed when the campaign started almost 10 years ago. This year is the first edition where selling horses for meat is prohibited.
Big trucks carrying horses to slaughterhouses are being stopped by the road inspection. In the end, more than 70 trucks are turned away. It’s a success after years of tough, intense fighting. But the activists have no illusions: only minor, insignificant traders que now, the big deals are being made on the outskirts.
A group of 50 men immediately surround the trucks entering the market square. Some are potential buyers, but most are spectators. Everyone is excited and there’s a lot of swearing, laughing, and repeated threats launched at the activists standing aside with cameras.
Unloading is a tense moment. The ramps are too steep and horses don’t want to go out into the darkness and raucous crowd. They have to be pushed and pulled with ropes tied to their lower jaws. They are taken to a 30-meter-long shed and tied to the barriers. 300 horses are unloaded this way; 500 less than year ago.
After this maneuver, volunteers try to calm the horses down. Traders start to grab animals roughly and check teeth. Once in a while somebody will ask to see if an animal runs well. The owner will pull the horse around the shed provoking an explosion of excitement. Somebody slaps the animal’s back, another throws a snowball at it.
If activists happen to be around, they’ll start to protest. Traders only listen when talked to using their own way so there’s no place for courtesy. Monika gets surrounded by a group of men twice her size. They are quick to insult her, but she fights back and seconds later they beg her not to call the police.
Soon after I meet up with Piotrek. He’s a professional Polo player who has been working with horses since childhood. He’s heard of Skaryszew’s cruelty for a while, but this is his first chance to check if the stories are true. He’s visibly angry. “I hate this people and this country! It’s always going to be like this,” he says.
He shows me horses whose tails have been wrapped in duct tape. One has just been shaved and nobody has even thought about putting a blanket on his back. He’s freezing to the bone. Piotrek has had enough and wants to leave.
For the sake of the town’s humanity it’s time to get rid of the notorious horse traders.
The market takes two days so there is still a lot to do. The animal rights movement is quite popular and their campaigns attract people with many different social and political views. Internal conflicts are quite common. Different foundations and individual activists have very different methodologies for dealing with the trade. They can be very critical of each other and always bicker about what is better for the horses.
Tensions also arise from the money involved. Activists skrimp together funds to buy horses from the traders and pay for their upkeep in stables. There’s a lot of emotional conflicts around which horse to buy and for what price. Luckily that hasn’t stopped people from creating change that has significantly improved the whole event.
The horse market is always accompanied by a country fair. Skaryszew’s main street is filled with stalls selling toys, tools, and traditional barbecue. It’s a holiday for the whole region, but I see no reason for the animals to be present anymore. There is no way to make the traders invest in proper transportation equipment, let alone change the way they treat animals. It’s a shame because it gives the town a bad name it doesn’t deserve.
Skaryszew city centre shares architectural characteristics with other towns that had big Jewish populations before the Second World War . When I look at those buildings I instantly remember a thesis from a young Holocaust researcher, Professor Michał Bilewicz. His argument was that humans were able to accept the horrors of the Holocaust if they grew up accepting everyday cruelty towards animals. If he’s right, then for the sake of the town’s humanity it’s time to get rid of the notorious horse traders.