By: JESSE BUCHANAN, Special to the Herald

WETHERSFIELD – To most, a carriage ride is romantic, quaint and relaxing.

To others, it’s cruel and exploitative.

The town’s plan to provide horse-drawn carriage rides in Old Wethersfield is being opposed by the animal-rights group Friends of Animals, based in Darien.

“This practice attracts tourists but at the expense of living beings,” said Joan Lownds, Friends of Animals staff writer. “It’s just not necessary.”

A carriage ride may not be necessary, but in a town that prides itself on its historical and aesthetic value, it makes perfect sense.

The purpose is “to enhance the visitor experience, and the residents’ experience as well,” said Peter Gillespie, director of planning and economic development. The rides will be guided, directing architecture and history buffs to sites of interest.

Edita Birnkrant is Friends of Animals’ campaign coordinator for the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages in New York City, and is working with the Wethersfield campaign.

While she has concerns about the safety of the horse, drivers and passengers, her underlying disagreement is more philosophical – and extreme. Birnkrant says her primary concern is the “disrespect” to horses carriage rides communicate.

“It’s the idea that we have the right to force any animal to do what we want. They’re not here to pull carriages for us,” she said.

Respect for Birnkrant is to “not intervene” in the lives of animals. “They exist for their own reasons, we don’t have to know why,” Birnkrant said.

She sees animal rights as the logical continuation of the civil rights and women’s rights movements.

“We’ve evolved past human slavery,” Birnkrant said.

The Friends of Animals group holds that all use of animals by people is wrong. They advocate veganism and offer a vegan cookbook called “Dining With Friends.”

Town manager Bonnie Therrien signed a $25,000 grant from the state July 19 for funding the rides, and advertisements for bids on the contract will go out Aug. 20. The winning bidder will be announced at the Town Council meeting in September.

Therrien has received nearly a dozen letters in opposition to the proposed carriage rides on the grounds of animal rights, and Lownds called councilman Martin Walsh to ask how the horses will be handled. Walsh doesn’t know, as a contractor has not been named yet, but said residents are free to voice their concerns at council meetings where the issue could arise.

“It seems to me horses have pulled carriages for a long time, but I’ll certainly listen to their concerns,” Walsh said.

Gillespie is trying to accommodate those concerns, requiring applicants for the contract to provide information about the care of the horses.

“One of the criteria is the welfare of the animals,” he said.

The town intends to go through with the project, providing they find an operator for the rides.

“These operations occur all over the country,” Gillespie said.