Will the Central Park horses finally be outlawed?
By Anam Baig and Sean Creamer
Central Park's horse-drawn carriages have been a traditional New York City tourist attraction since the 1930s, but animal rights activists have been pushing for years to close the stables, free the horses and find them a home outside the Big Apple.
Three recent incidents involving the horses have resparked the debate and shed light again on the horses and the iconic tourist experience. March 3, a horse was spooked on the Upper West Side and took off, dragging a tipped carriage through heavy traffic. Last December, a horse collapsed near Grand Army Plaza at 59th Street while pulling a carriage holding three adults and a child, tossing them to the ground. In October, another horse, Charlie, died while pulling a carriage on the way to Central Park.
Those in favor of the horse carriages claim that the incidents are sporadic and don't reflect the high standard used by the industry. The opponents claim that it's just another day at work for the horses.
Two dueling events happened last weekend when the groups gathered to build momentum on their side as the debate rages. A slew of equestrians from all over the country gathered March 30 to attend ClipClopNYC, where the Horse-Carriage Association of New York welcomed members of the public to see behind the scenes of the industry. The event included tours of the stables, a meet-and-greet with veterinarians who work with the horses and an informational session at Central Park. The event touted the industry's partnership with Blue Star Equiculture of Palmer, Mass., where retired horses go to live after serving on the streets of New York City.
To counter that event, the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages, working with other animals rights groups, held an event of its own Sunday, April 1, to protest ClipClopNYC and expose the carriage industry's practices.
But things weren't always so black and white for horses in the park.
Frederick Law Olmstead's original 1870s design of Central Park was meant for horse-drawn carriages both as a means of transport and recreation. Now that those times have passed, many people are vying for the carriages' ban, citing that the horses are put under unnecessary strain, suffer subpar living conditions and lack roaming space.
Upper West Side Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal and Queens Senator Tony Avella introduced legislation last spring that would ban horse-drawn cabs in the city.
"These horses get easily spooked on city streets. Its not their natural habitat," Rosenthal said. "It's dangerous for them and the people in the carriage. My aim is to relieve the horses of work that they are forced to do, dragging hundred and hundred of pounds of carriage and people all day long."
At the City Council level, legislation sponsored by Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito would ban the use of horse-drawn carriages in the park, allowing electric cars to take the place of the horses as a tourist attraction.
"We support any legislation that gets these horses out of harm's way," said Carly Marie Knudson, executive director of NYCLASS, a group that wants to end the use of carriage horses in the city.
Steven Malone, president of the New York Horse and Carriage association with his horse Paddy
"We think the City Council's route has the advantage of offering an alternative that saves the horses while simultaneously creating new jobs and boosting revenue to the city through the vintage replica cars," she said.
NYCLASS was founded by Manhattan Mini Storage and Edison ParkFast owner Steve Nislick and Ed Sayres, co-president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). The ASPCA not only acts as the government watchdog for the carriage industry, it donated $250,000 to NYCLASS to support their electric car cause.
Animal rights activists such as NYCLASS, The Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages, Friends of Animals, the ASPCA and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) claim that the horse-carriage industry is equine abuse in its worst form.
But those who are a part of the carriage industry say otherwise. Carriage drivers interviewed for this story were adamant that there is no animal abuse. They claim that PETA and the ASPCA, among others, have stalked carriage drivers at the park and stables with video cameras, looking for instances of abuse. But, according to the drivers, they've left empty-handed every time.
Conor McHugh, a carriage driver of 26 years, said protesters of the industry have yelled at customers and at times thrown water or spit on them for taking a ride.
"It's shameful to the city that allows it-that the customers, tourists of this city, get spat on by people because they decide to take a horse and buggy ride," McHugh said.
In order to become a driver, applicants must go through oral and multiple-choice exams proctored by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which licenses New York City's horse carriages. After they get their license, newly established drivers take a test run with an experienced driver for a week to ensure they pick up the skills needed to successfully and safely operate a horse.
New horses from the Pennsylvania stables in Amish country are tested for their ability to work the busy Central Park streets. If the horses do not become accustomed to the incessant traffic noise, bustling crowds and gawking tourists, they are sent back.
"Maybe sometimes they get used to it, but they can get spooked," said Edita Birnkrant from Friends of Animals, a group that proposes banning animals in the park. "They have an innate instinct. Nothing can change that. There will be times when the horse will startle, and then you have 2,000 pounds of wild animal running out of control in a metropolitan hub."
The horse-drawn carriage industry has faced scrutiny before. In 1988, when three horses died during a heat wave, the City Council enacted a New York City Administrative Code that regulated carriage horse operation, required licensure of the horse, carriage and driver, and established standards for horse treatment and a horse health advisory board to make recommendations to the commissioner of health.
Since then, the Code has seen many amendments focused on improving the quality of life and well-being of New York City's carriages horses.
The horses are kept in four stables on the Upper West Side, an area that has been undergoing renovations over the past 10 years, according to Steven Malone, president of the New York Horse and Carriage Association, which represents the city's 68 carriages, 293 certified drivers and 220 privately owned horses. The stable on 52nd Street has three levels that are connected by ramps, another facet that activists say is dangerous for the horses.
The bottom level holds the carriages. Above them, the horses live in individual stables. The horses have constant access to water and food and their bedding is changed three times a day, according to various drivers who, like McHugh, keep their horses at the stable.
McHugh stood against a backdrop of stable workers cleaning out the empty stables of the horses that had left for work earlier in the morning and explained that if NYCLASS or Friends of Animals get their way, these men would lose their jobs.
"We have people in this business who inherited it from their fathers in the 1950s," said McHugh. "That's a long, continuous connection, and someone like the assemblywoman just proposes that we be banned? It just seems so draconian."
Horses are supposed to work every other day and only for nine hours at a time, giving them the chance to rest after a day of lugging carriages and tourists around from the day before, a result of previous legislature to ensure the horses are treated fairly. ASPCA veterinarians examine them twice a year.
Last year, the ASPCA did an intensive study of the horses for 281 days and found no instances of abuse, according to McHugh.
"The horses have to be groomed and presented everyday. We present them everyday on Fifth Avenue," said McHugh. "Inspection does not go on behind closed doors."
But activists say that the abuse exists in the fact that the horses must endure the conditions of the city. Janet Restino, an artist who lives near the stables on the UWS, agrees with this sentiment.
"I don't think it is a particularly great idea to have horses on the street during traffic and rush hour," Restino said.
Ivanna Fairweather, a Harlem resident who was walking in Central Park on a recent bright, sunny day, said she's in favor of a ban.
"We have so many other forms of transportation, why do we need horses? People just want to say, ‘Oh, I took a horse ride in Central Park.' But those pretentious people don't know that taking a walk in Central Park is so much better," she said. "New York is a place to walk; it's a walking city. We don't need horses to take us places. I mean, $50 for 20 minutes? What? Are they crazy?"