NEW YORK— A campaign by animal-rights activists to abolish horse-drawn carriage rides in New York gained a powerful supporter with the election of Mayor Bill De Blasio last fall, or so it seemed at first. Even before he was inaugurated, the new mayor said he planned to move "quickly and aggressively" to ban the horse-drawn carriages, which take passengers on rides through Central Park and, at certain hours, along some Manhattan streets.
"They're not humane; they're not appropriate to the year 2014. It's over," De Blasio told a crowd last December. Those in agreement include the Humane Society and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which is responsible for policing the treatment of the carriage horses.
Yet polls show that most New Yorkers want to keep the horses. "We're an iconic part of New York City," said driver Christina Hansen. "Even people who don't necessarily take a carriage ride, just being near the horses on Central Park West gives people the opportunity to interact with them, to see how horses work in partnership with people."
The industry, which employs about 300 people and 200 draft horses, is regulated by a myriad of animal-welfare rules. Horses may not be worked long hours or in very hot or cold weather, and must have regular veterinary check-ups. Each horse must also be sent for a five-week annual "vacation" in a Pennsylvania pasture.
Driver Conor McHugh helps manage one of the stables in the city. He said every horse has ample room, good feed, and contact with other horses in the next stall.
"All we want a horse to do is just give a nice walk through the park. It's relatively easy for the horses, and it's a good life for what I would call a working-class horse," he said, adding that draft horses bred to work would not do well if they spent their lives in pastures. "Their work is their exercise, and it gives them a purpose, and earns their keep," he said.
Allie Feldman, executive director of New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets (NYCLASS), the main group fighting to abolish the horse carriages, scoffed at that. "Anybody who knows horses knows that horses don't need five consecutive weeks of vacation," she said. "They need daily turn-out. There's no pasture in Manhattan for these horses to go to. They live their lives between the shafts of the carriage and the shafts of their stalls. They don't have time to roll, to socialize, to graze."
Feldman said that horses inevitably suffer from the noise and unpredictability of congested city streets. She and other opponents also point to occasional accidents when carriage horses have bolted and to incidents of abusive treatment or neglect by owners. However, her group does not object to mounted police horses, although their conditions are similar. It also has not campaigned against the Aqueduct Race Track in the city, where at least ten horses have died in the last five years.
Feldman appeared confident in January that a carriage-horse ban would sail through the New York City Council. "We helped elect 39 pro-animal City Council members, and we're going to be holding them all to their commitment to ban horse-drawn carriages," she said.
The proposed legislation, which has not been introduced in the City Council, would replace the horse-drawn carriages with electric vehicles modeled to look like antique cars, each costing $150,000 to $175,000, according to NYCLASS, which commissioned a prototype. The horses would be sent to live out their lives in farm sanctuaries. A more economical proposal would retrofit the carriages themselves with motors.
But defenders of the horse-carriages have turned out to be numerous than expected, and even some supporters are doubtful that tourists would pay to ride through Central Park in cars of any kind. The Central Park Conservancy, the group that manages Central Park, said it opposed allowing motor vehicles inside the park.
In recent weeks, Mayor De Blasio has also drawn back slightly, saying that the ban is not an immediate priority.
According to reports in the New York Daily News, which is running a petition campaign defending the industry, De Blasio received about $50,000 in campaign contributions from backers of NYCLASS. The group also spent a reported $1.1 million to defeat the early frontrunner in the mayoral race, Christine Quinn, after she refused to support the drive to abolish carriage horses.