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An industry on its last legs?

Advocates say the time is ripe to phase out New York's horse-drawn carriages

From Animal Sheltering magazine July/August 2014

Efforts to replace New York City’s horse-drawn carriages with electric cars got a boost last year from the election of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who supports the proposal. Decrying the “nose-to-tailpipe” existence of New York City’s carriage horses, advocates want to phase out the business, replacing it with cleaner, safer electric cars that will have a classic look.

Allie Feldman says when she gets married next year, she’ll skip the iconic trip through New York’s Central Park in a horse-drawn carriage. She’s all in favor of nostalgia and romance, but not when the cost is animal suffering.

Horse-drawn carriages have carted passengers through Central Park since the 1850s, but while industry officials and defenders assert that the horses are ideally suited to the work and treated well, getting regular vacations and veterinary exams, animal welfare advocates like Feldman counter that the horses’ working and living conditions are inhumane.

Feldman has been working to create an alternative: eco-friendly electric cars with a vintage look. As the executive director of the nonprofit New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets (NYCLASS), she and her colleagues have been working to phase out the horse-drawn carriages and replace them with the new “horseless carriages,” modeled after early 20th-century vehicles. The electric cars will be Great Gatsby-era vehicles with plenty of historic charm, Feldman says, right down to the horns that go aah-ooh-gah.

Proposals to ban New York’s horse-drawn carriage industry have languished in the city council in recent years, but animal welfare advocates say the political landscape has shifted. Elected last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to put an end to the business and replace it with the electric cars. But the proposal needs to be approved by a majority of the 51-member council, and faces stiff opposition from the carriage horse industry.

“The mayor does not have a magic wand,” explains Brian Shapiro, New York state director for The HSUS, which supports the efforts of de Blasio and NYCLASS, and has offered to provide lifelong, direct care for some of the roughly 228 carriage horses at one of its animal sanctuaries. “This is a political process.”

NYCLASS is lobbying the council to shore up support for the proposal. The details of a new bill and how the electric car business will operate are still being determined, but NYCLASS unveiled a prototype car at an auto show in April. Once a bill is signed into law, Feldman says, a shop will open in New York to produce the rest of the 68-car fleet. None of the roughly 300 carriage drivers will lose their jobs in the transition, she says; they’ll just switch from horse-drawn to electric vehicles.

While the industry’s supporters frequently cite “tradition” as a reason to keep the business intact, Shapiro notes, “It’s not 1814; it’s 2014, and we have to ask ourselves: Is this an appropriate place to have what some may call a tradition? Is it a safe tradition? Is it something that belongs on our city streets? And many citizens in New York City, many advocates, don’t feel that it is.”

The electric cars, he adds, are “an alternative that will become a tradition in itself.”

An Uneasy Mix

Contrary to what some customers might think, New York’s carriage horses don’t live in Central Park, notes Valerie Pringle, an equine protection specialist for The HSUS. Their stables are on the west side of the city, approximately two miles away, which forces them to travel city streets on their way to and from the park. They lead a “nose-to-tailpipe” existence, jostling and sometimes colliding with trucks, taxis and other midtown traffic.

“Unequivocally, horse-drawn carriages and motor vehicles should not share the same roadways, as doing so puts the animals and public at risk,” veterinarian Holly Cheever writes in a recent article for a Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association (HSVMA) newsletter. “With their exhaust fumes, hard road surfaces and busy traffic patterns, cities are simply not humane—as opposed to survivable—environments for carriage horses.”

“They’re trapped between the shafts of their carriages and the stalls of their stables,” Feldman says.

Cheever adds that while interviewing New York carriage drivers, she found that “a distressingly large percentage” of them lacked knowledge about horses and had no prior experience driving carriages through hazardous city streets.Horses are prey animals, meaning they tend to run away from stimuli that frighten them—which could be something as minor and common as a plastic bag blowing in the wind, Pringle notes. Horses get “spooked” easily by the sights and sounds of modern cities, from construction equipment to street musicians, Feldman adds, and the results are sometimes fatal. In 2007, for example, a carriage horse collapsed and died after hearing a street performer’s drum and bolting onto a sidewalk, where the carriage reportedly got stuck between two poles.

Heat is another issue: New York’s asphalt surfaces reach temperatures of 200 degrees, making it “virtually impossible” to keep horses sufficiently cool on hot, humid summer days, Cheever writes.

The debate over the fate of New York’s horse-drawn carriage industry has become a high-profile media topic in recent months. Actor Liam Neeson, who’s emerged as a staunch supporter of the business, took city council members on a widely publicized tour of the stables in March, where he asserted the horses are healthy and represent a connection to the past.

And things have gotten a little chippy: Neeson chided de Blasio for skipping the tour, saying the mayor should have “manned up and come,” according to news reports.

NYCLASS—which has its own celebrity supporters, including Alec Baldwin and Kirstie Alley—has had to dispel misinformation being spread by the proposed ban’s opponents, Feldman says. The carriage horses would not go to slaughter if the city outlaws the business; NYCLASS is working with The HSUS, the ASPCA and other welfare groups and individuals to provide homes for the horses after they’re retired.

The proposed changes to the industry were bound to spur discussion, Feldman says, but she’s taking the long view. “I think that 10 years from now we’re gonna look back and say, ‘What were we thinking, having horses in midtown traffic? That doesn’t make any sense.’ We’re gonna say, ‘Why didn’t we bring these electric cars in sooner?’”

About the Author

James Hettinger is the assistant editorial director for Animal Sheltering magazine at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). He's responsible for editing copy and managing the production of the award-winning quarterly publication aimed at shelter and rescue personnel. Prior to joining The HSUS in 2008, James worked for several local newspapers and trade associations in the Washington, D.C., area. He shares his home with three cats: Edgar, Dana and Vinny.