Plan to put the car before the horse has support from Staten Islanders

Horse-drawn carriages, the type that carry first dates and tourists through Central Park, aren't exactly a common sight on Staten Island -- besides maybe for an over-the-top wedding -- but the horses pulling them have some allies in the borough.

11 April 2013
By Jillian Jorgensen

Horse-drawn carriages, the type that carry first dates and tourists through Central Park, aren't exactly a common sight on Staten Island -- besides maybe for an over-the-top wedding -- but the horses pulling them have some allies in the borough.

Animal advocacy group NYCLASS is pushing a pilot program designed to offer an alternative to the practice, which they consider inhumane. A "horseless carriage" could be tried out, at no cost to the city, to see if it could be a feasible replacement for the more old-fashioned mode of transportation.

"It's such an abnormal way for them to have to live," said Staten Island activist Susan Lamberti, the borough's NYCLASS organizer. "They really never get to lie down, turn around, walk around, be free of their harness -- they really just never get to be just a horse."

Mrs. Lamberti introduced the issue to several elected officials, including City Councilman James Oddo, not typically one to support new government regulations. And while he won't support an outright ban on the horse-drawn carriages, he has lent his support to the pilot program to try out an alternative.

"I don't believe that sort of mid-life, or mid-career, we should pull the jobs out from underneath the feet of these current workers," Oddo (R-Mid-Island) said. But he is open to the idea of trying out an alternative. "Moving forward, if a pilot program demonstrates that there is an interest in that, then maybe that is another opportunity for folks, if they so choose," Oddo said.

The pilot program uses an electric, vintage-era car to shuttle sight-seers or those looking for a romantic date in the park, rather than using horses.

"What we proposed is taking a prototype of the electric car, placing one or two of them in Central Park, running them concurrent to the carriage industry and just testing it out," Allie Feldman, the group's lead organizer, said in a telephone interview.

Ms. Feldman said she thinks her group has been able to garner support from people like Oddo because they are using different methods from other animal advocates who sought to end the horseless carriage industry. "For many years, advocates have tried to ban the industry outright," Ms. Feldman said. "We take a much different approach to animal rights -- we're much more pragmatic."

In order to end the use of horse-drawn carriages on city streets, Ms. Feldman said the group realized they would need a solution that work for everyone involved -- drivers, tourists, the City Council, and advocates. That's how they came up with the idea of replacing the carriages with something else. They're seeking, in the long term, to pass legislation that would phase out horse-drawn carriages over three years, and replace them fully with the electric replica car.

The bill that would phase out and eventually ban horse-drawn carriages doesn't have Oddo's support yet, but the pilot program -- which would be funded by NYCLASS, does. "There's possibility there really isn't an interest about driving around in those old cars," Oddo said, but he didn't see the harm in trying it. "If it jeopardized the workers in any way, I wouldn't sign on to it, and that's a commitment I made to those guys."

Ms. Feldman said if the pilot is successful and the city eventually does phase out horse-drawn carriages, it could actually raise city revenue -- the carriages have been a mostly cash business, hard to track for tax purposes. Modernizing the industry would introduce options for credit card pay, she said.

Advocates cite the tough conditions for horses -- living "nose-to-tailpipe," being unable to frolic or socialize at pasture, being exposed to extreme heat or cold, and standing and hauling carries for nine hours a day. In August 2012, the carriages were in the headlines after a horse named Oreo was spooked by construction noise and bolted, overturning his carriage and running down five blocks before being tranquilized.

Mrs. Lamberti has been involved in the movement to ban carriage horses since the 1990s, not long after her family bought her daughter a horse. After being involved with groups seeking to immediately ban the practice, Mrs. Lamberti said she liked the measured, legislative approach of NYCLASS.

And the electric cars could eventually wind up on Staten Island, not exactly a place known for horse-drawn carriage rides. "When we went to see Councilman Oddo, we tried to present it as a possibility for Staten Island tourism," Mrs. Lamberti said "We're getting that Ferris wheel, and we thought this would be a very strong possibility for taking people to Snug Harbor, to the Zoo."

But what motivates Mrs. Lamberti most of all is the horses, she said. "These horses have no life. If you see the way the horses stand when they're up at Columbus Circle, my horse never, ever stands like that. They're dispirited," she said.


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