August 2, 2014
Actress Kathy Najimy first came to public consciousness in her multiple-character ’80s Off Broadway cult hit The Kathy & Mo Show. She soon became a familiar comic scene-stealer in films like Sister Act and sitcoms like Veronica’s Closet, King of the Hill, The Big C and, most recently, Veep.
All throughout her career, Najimy has also been a passionate advocate for a wide spectrum of issues, including women’s and girls’ rights, AIDS awareness and animal rights. For her activism, Ms. Magazinehas named Najimy its Woman of the Year, and she has received accolades such as the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center’s Distinguished Achievement award and PETA’s Humanitarian of the Year award, which was presented to her by Paul McCartney. In recent years, Najimy has used her star power to push for a ban of New York City’s horse-drawn carriages. City & StateEditor Morgan Pehme spoke with Najimy about how she got involved with the cause, her thoughts on Liam Neeson’s support of the carriages and whether there is any excuse she would accept from Mayor Bill de Blasio if he fails to follow through on his campaign promise to abolish them.
The following is an edited transcript.
City & State: What is it that drew you to advocating for the horse-drawn carriage ban?
Kathy Najimy: I’m an animals’ rights person, as much as I possibly can be—not perfectly—but as much as I can. I lived in New York in the ’80s, and I remember seeing stencils on the ground that said, “Abolish the hansom cabs”—and that made me look up and actually look at the horses and see what their existence was, what their life was. … I tried to find out who was helming [the anti–horse-drawn-carriage movement] in the ’80s and it was Alex Baldwin, actually, and I started helping him a little, but then I moved to Los Angeles. … When my family moved back to New York City three years ago, we moved right smack dab into Columbus Circle, where there are horses every day going up and down 58th Street, 57th, and especially 9th Avenue, and I now see every single day the horror and the suffering of these gorgeous animals, pulling these heavy carts full of people in freezing weather and sweltering hot, in the midst of the crazy traffic of New York. You know, I have all the facts and figures and all that, and I can answer all those questions, but the truth is that I see it. Like you can tell when a kid is suffering, you can tell when an animal is suffering, and I can see the horses with the fire trucks in front of them, the ambulances in back of them, with the sirens and them being spooked, and waking up with chains in their mouths, and pulling these heavy carriages full of people at a place where horses shouldn't be. Horses should not be in the middle of the busiest city in the world in the middle of traffic. So that's when I contacted NYCLASS and asked, “How can I be part of the solution?”
C&S: What is your response to activists and interests on the other side of this issue who say, “Come visit our stables. You’ll see that the horses live in exemplary conditions”?
KN: I’m sure that the stables are okay. The reason I’ve never said yes to them is—and I’ve seen pictures of the stables and they certainly aren’t fantastic—that's not what I’m concerned about. I’m concerned with the nine hours the horses are on the streets of New York. I’m concerned with the fact that I see the exhaust from cabs in their faces. I’m concerned with the fact that … four in the last couple of months have collapsed; putting horses in danger; hurting the horses; and putting, frankly, New York pedestrians in danger, and the people who are in cabs and cars. I’ve seen them tromp up and down in freezing cold while we’re bundled up in coats. … These horses aren’t necessary. I had some talks early on with Christine Quinn when she was running [for mayor]. She came over here to speak to me and talked about the tourists and the tourism [that would be lost], and I said, “New York is the best city in the world, but the horses are not what make this city great.” In fact, I think [the carriages] are what puts a tarnish on the city, that put a black mark on the city, because it’s something that doesn't have to be. These horses rearing up and falling over and living this life—I just look them in the eye and say, “Oh my God, I’m so, so sorry.” So their stables might be adequate, but they certainly aren’t giving the horses any kind of the joy they would have if they were at a farm or a ranch or a sanctuary. People also say, “Well, we have to work; horses can work.” And, yeah, horses can work on a farm where they have actual dirt beneath their feet, where there are not sirens in their face and horrible traffic and they actually can walk into a stable at a ranch or a farm for some kind of refuge if there is a snowstorm. … Why do [tourists] get in one of those horse carriages in New York? First of all, we’ve got the pedicabs. And if you don't agree with the pedicabs, you’ve got your own body you can walk with. And if you can’t walk with your own body, then there are so many other alternatives. There is the electric car that NYCLASS is working on, which I think is so much fun. It’s cute and it’s vintage, it's a trolley and it’s open and nobody is suffering. And for the drivers whose whole platform is that they’re going to be out of work, we are saying, “Please come and drive these cars, if you’d like.” Also, the behavior of the drivers—and I know that you can’t classify an entire community of workers based on someone’s actions—but, boy, I’m out there. I live two blocks from the park. I walk on 59th Street all the time and I hear what they say to me, I hear what they say to the tourists. I’ll never forget, I was out there once just petting a horse’s nose and a family was coming up on a horse-drawn carriage, and they were clearly from out of town. And they got off and the driver said, “$200.” And they said, “Oh, you said $50.” And he said, “$50 per person.” And I thought, I wonder if that's regulated, I wonder if that's sanctioned. Again, I’m not saying that all the drivers are crooks or all the drivers overcharge. I’m saying this is what I heard.
C&S: After making the horse-drawn carriage ban such a prominent issue during his campaign, it seemed that when Mayor de Blasio got into office that this was going to be a done deal. Are you disappointed that he hasn't taken action sooner to eliminate the carriages?
KN: Let’s put it this way… I know that he had some education issues that he was really concerned with and some budget issues, and I understand. I was thrilled to hear him say recently that he’s putting the horse carriages and living wage at the top of his agenda. I am here to make sure that he keeps his promise, because, yes, that was one of the reasons I campaigned for Mr. de Blasio—there were many reasons—but like any other person in public office, like any other human being, you have to keep reminding and supporting them to go the way that they promised.
C&S: Do you think that there is any excuse if he is unable to realize his promise? For instance, if the political winds are against it and he just can’t overcome them over the next three and a half years.
KN: I’ll be disappointed if one year from now it’s not in motion. The vintage cars, the first one is ready and I know that they’re aiming toward 50. I would like to start getting the [Central] Park Conservancy on board to start trying out these cars, so there will be fewer and fewer horses. Especially the summer and the winter just kill me for these horses. And [the drivers] break all kinds of rules, and I’m not just speculating. Someone was just fined for having a horse out in over 90-degree weather and she said that she wasn’t aware of it. Well, if your only job is to drive a freakin’ horse, learn the five rules! Or know that if you’re about to drop dead from heat, your horse, who is pulling a huge cart with people in it, certainly is. So, definitely, if it’s three years from now and Mayor de Blasio has not made major, major moves [toward a ban], then absolutely, there is going to be some response.
C&S: Recently there was a dustup of sorts between Bill Maher and Liam Neeson over the horse-drawn carriages. As a passionate advocate for so many causes, do you feel any kind of enmity or personal hostility toward celebrities who come out on the opposite sides of issues that you get involved with?
KN: I don't know if I personally feel something. I politically do. I politically disagree with them and wish that they would change their mind or figure out a way that I can help change their mind, absolutely. And not just celebrities—anyone. I just don’t get who would be for the horse carriages, just for that, what, 10-minute ride? … I just don’t get Liam Neeson. Like, what the hell? Why? What does he get out of it? Like, does he want a ride? You know, like, I’ll buy him a pony. And if he’s just saying that he cares about those 50 drivers, we’re saying, “We have jobs for the 50 drivers.” So then, what is his platform? He just likes suffering? I don't get it. It seems like a misuse of his power and his voice. Do I support his right to speak out? Absolutely. Do I get it? No, I don't get it at all.
C&S: The Daily News in particular has assumed such an active stance in kind of ridiculing the horse-drawn carriage ban efforts.
KN: I just wonder what their goal is. My goal is for these 200 horses to live as much of an abuse/suffering-free life as they can, with nobody losing their job, or getting maybe another job. So I wonder with the Daily News, what’s at stake for them? What are they passionate about? Why are they against the animal rights activists? What do they think New York stands to gain from watching these beautiful, regal animals lug these huge carts with people in them on the busiest streets ever, spooked and falling over and suffering. I don't understand their platform unless it is jobs. I get jobs. So our answer is: We have jobs. So now what’s their response? Do people just like to see them pulling carts down 9th Avenue with people honking, buses and fire trucks and ambulances and police cars? What is it they like about it? And if somebody can convince me that it’s worth the suffering, then I’ll consider it. But at this point, whether it's a person or a newspaper, I mean, they have the right to ridicule it all they want, but I would love to know what their stance is. I read these articles and I can’t seem to find it. People say, “It’s a tradition.” Well, slavery was a tradition, misogyny was a tradition, sexism was a tradition, homophobia, hate crimes. All traditions aren’t positive and useful and good. So we have to look at our traditions and say, who are they hurting and who are they helping? Who is suffering and who’s not? And if it's a good tradition, fine. But if it’s not, we have to abolish it.
C&S: How do you respond to people who say that this isn’t an important issue? That in a city that has so many problems, why is someone like yourself, who has an outsize voice, allocating your time to helping horses instead of people?
KN: That’s a good question. I would say Google me and see what I work on. Because people assume that I could only do one thing at a time. I work on hunger. I work on equal rights. I work on the health and welfare of girls and women. I work on respect for animals. I work on peace. I work on choice for women. I work on gay and lesbian rights. I’ve been an AIDS activist since the ’80s. That's not a real question. That assumes you can only care about one thing. If there are two suffering children in a room, you help them both. You don't go, “Which one do I choose?” And here is another thing about the horses: The reason that I am so big on the horses lately is because I don't think we can totally cure world hunger in the next three years. I believe we absolutely can get these horses to safe places where they are not pulling carts in a busy, busy, crazy street in three years. So I think it can be done, and as we work toward abolishing world hunger and peace on earth and we continue to work on those things, if there is something right in front of you that is needless and meaningless, you get it done, you fix it—and we can fix it. And now we have a mayor who says he’s going to help us fix it.