By Robert Wilbur and Martha Rosenberg
Last year, a coalition of animal lovers seeking to ban Manhattan’s carriage horse industry helped defeat Christine Quinn, once the front-runner for mayor, because she opposed such a prohibition. Mayor de Blasio, who beat Quinn, pledged his first action as mayor would be to ban the controversial rides. Yet where is the ban?
Last month about 30 protesters gathered across from Gracie Mansion to exhort Mayor de Blasio to fulfill his campaign promise. New York’s carriage horses are “stripped of the ability to do anything horses would naturally do. They don’t belong here in the city,” said Donny Moss, a member of the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages “It’s inhumane and unsafe.”
The carriage horses are getting hurt and spooked on streets and some spend nights standing in narrow stalls agreed Brian Gari, another member of the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages, with the mournful sound of bagpipes in the background.
People would be “appalled” at the conditions of the stables that are not shown to the public as the stable on 52nd Street was, added Moss.
While Mayor Bill de Blasio reaffirmed his sentiments this week and indicated that legislation would soon be introduced paving “the pathway to an ultimate ban” of carriage horses from Central Park, some predict a ban will have a hard time in City Council.
Councilman Rafael Espinal, head of the Consumer Affairs Committee where previous carriage-related bills have originated, recently declared his opposition to the ban on the basis of lost jobs. “What will these 300 workers do?” he asked. Demos Demopoulos, a leader of Local 553 of the Teamsters, which represents the carriage drivers’ union, is also against the ban and predicted it will go nowhere.
Just over a year ago we wrote an article on how a pledge to ban the horse-drawn carriage industry was thrusting the political unknown, Bill de Blasio, into the forefront of the mayoral race. The hapless carriage horses not only brought de Blasio early exposure, they helped to fill his campaign coffers. Why? Because the horses inspired parking lot czar Steve Nislick to bankroll NYCLASS, an organization devoted to phasing out the carriage horse industry. The backing included help from Wendy Neu, a Manhattan businesswoman who also reportedly poured money into the de Blasio campaign.
Riding past Central Park South in an air-conditioned cab this past summer, one of us surveyed the bedraggled horses hooked up to 1500-2000 pound carriages in the ferocious heat. There is a law that authorizes the police to order the horses back to the stables in such weather, but only after a one-hour warning. That and a cornucopia of other toothless laws affecting the horses, are rarely enforced. While NYCLASS is still very much in business, Nislick and Neu did not answer our requests for comment on de Blasio’s long- delayed carriage horse ban.
One of the leaders in the campaign to abolish the carriage horses is Edita Birnkrant, director of New York Friends of Animals (FOA) whose offices are only a short walk from Central Park South, where the carriage horses can be observed.
Nothing is happening, Birnkrant told us. Contrary to the impression that most voters were given last fall, the mayor cannot abolish the industry by executive fiat, but must introduce a bill in the City Council. Mayor de Blasio has not honored a request to meet with Birnkrant and other animal welfare activists, Birnkrant told us.
Priscilla Feral, President of FOA says she is hopeful that de Blasio will respond to what she characterizes as “a united front of sane people.” Although FOA would prefer an immediate ban, they will go along with NYCLASS’s agenda to replace the horses with electric mini-vans over a three-year period. According to a spokesperson for NYCLASS who spoke to us but requested anonymity, a prototype for such a van already exists and was displayed at the 2013 New York Auto Show. In addition to sparing animals hardship, the vans are environmentally responsible.
Feral say she is sympathetic to de Blasio’s political plight. As a liberal Democrat he is particularly vulnerable to pressure from organized labor, and the carriage horse industry, as Birnkrant explained to us, made a shrewd move back in 2010 of affiliating with the Teamsters Union. This “partnership” is being wrung for all the mileage it can produce yet Birkrant dismissed the claim that the carriage drivers’ association is a union as a “total scam….not a real union.”
A Life of Pain and Thanklessness
To get a sense of the life of a New York City carriage horse, we interviewed Susan Wagner, president and founder of Equine Advocates, a horse sanctuary and welfare group. Some of the carriage horses are burned-out workhorses from farms belonging to the Amish, she told us; others are trotter racers which are considered highly desirable because they are already “broken in” from pulling a wagon, though their new “wagon” will be several times heavier.
Carriage horses don’t last for many years, Wagner told us, thanks to freezing winters, torrid summers and filthy stables in which they can’t turn around and, if they want to lie down, must do so in their own excrement. Drivers, motivated by profit not feelings toward animals, know little about equestrian technique, she says. Should a horse get seriously ill or injured in city traffic, which has happened too frequently, he will either be sold to a middleman who makes his income dealing with horse butchers and slaughter houses, or, if he is “lucky,” he will be euthanized by a veterinarian. Disturbingly, City records show when horses arrive in the City…but not when they depart.
Wagner had to use the Freedom of Information Act to extract the meager City records. Horses who do not disappear inevitably wind up at horse auctions in Pennsylvania or Upstate New York, where their value to middlemen depends on the amount of meat on their bones. From there it’s on to slaughterhouses in Canada, since horse slaughter is illegal in the United States.
A website of the Humane Society of the United States describes what happens to the horses next. “Slaughter is a brutal and terrifying end for horses.” “Because horses are skittish by nature, accurate stunning [with a sledgehammer] is difficult. As a result, horses must endure repeated blows, and sometimes remain conscious while they are dismembered.” Even if a horse is not ill or lame, there comes a time when he can no longer pull a carriage, and so it is still off to slaughter.
There are roughly 220 carriage horses working at any one time in New York City. Would there be enough venues for them to live out their days in safety if the industry were banned, we wanted to know.
We spoke with Holly Cheever, DVM, a veterinarian in private practice and the vice president of the New York State Humane Association. Cheever has been involved in the New York City carriage horse wars since the 1980s. We asked Cheever, who is also consultant to several equine protection groups, whether she was satisfied with the movement to ban the industry.
While noting that she didn’t see any movement at all right now, Cheever said she would favor an immediate abolition of the industry, but would also welcome a phase-out. If abolition were to occur, Cheever says she would be concerned about preventing the horses from winding up under the knife of the horse butcher.
Cheever believes the ASPCA, Humane Society of the United States, and animal welfare groups like FOA will all have to pull together to find retirement sanctuaries and private families that will take one or more horses. Horses who have been so brutalized by their drivers and stable conditions that they cannot enjoy a humane retirement would no doubt have to be euthanized, she added, which would be a monumental and sad task.
Other animal activists do not agree with Cheever that the placement of the carriage horses would be such an onerous project. Susan Wagner with Equine Advocates says a study was conducted that leads her to conclude that responsible sanctuaries in the tri-state area can accommodate victims of the carriage horse industries.
There is one point on which all activists agree: the obsolete, cruel industry has proven itself unsafe to people and horses, and has outlived its appropriateness as a tourist attraction. Are you listening, Mayor de Blasio?
Robert Wilbur is a New York City-based journalist who writes about forensic psychiatry, clinical psychopharmacology, animal rights and other topics.
Martha Rosenberg is a well-known investigative reporter.