U.S. News

03.08.14

De Blasio Whipped by Horse Lobby

NYC’s new mayor is determined to get rid of Central Park’s horse-drawn carriages this year. The fact that the animal rights lobby savaged his campaign opponent is pure coincidence, his supporters say.

New York’s horses are raising a stink, and it’s not just coming from what they leave on Central Park South.

Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to ban carriage rides that are as old as the Greensward Plan, which mapped out the nearly 160-year old jewel of  park. The Mayor calls it a matter of ethics and animal cruelty. It could also be political payback. The Democrat may have taken the subway to his inauguration; he also rode his high horse to City Hall, if you’ll forgive the pun.

The ongoing tale is replete with gazillionaire tech moguls, Liam Neeson, the Citizens United decision, plum Manhattan real-estate, and the powerful animal-rights vote—with ramifications well beyond Midtown. Horses may be the nouveau eco-friendly delivery van in some parts, but apparently not in big cities. A ban in New York will accelerate bids for carriage crackdowns elsewhere. It’s also triggering a new bout of questioning about how we treat an animal thought to have first been domesticated on the Eurasian steppe 6,000 years ago.

Is the Mayor’s decision to shut down the carriage rides motivated by ethics or politics or both? No one but the mayor can say exactly.

“We are essentially the cab drivers that did not motorize 100 years ago,” said Christina Hansen, a New York horse carriage driver who, with about 300 others, stands to lose her job. “We are a throwback, if you will. We are the people that never gave up our horses.”

It’s starting to draw national attention. After fulminating about the potential ban on Jon Stewart the other night, actor Liam Neeson, a champion of the drivers (many of whom Irish like him) is offering a tour of a big stable this weekend to City Council members who will decide the issue. The legislation before them is expected to require the horses turned over to farms; horse drivers would be compensated with jobs as chauffeurs in alternative-fuel vintage cars that would instead ferry tourists around the Park.

Carriage drivers, and their backers, have some choice words for offer. All of them are synonyms for the stuff you can smell outside the Plaza Hotel.

“All we’re asking is to be left alone,” says Conor McHugh, manager of the largest of four stables. “We can feed our horses and we can feed our families if we’re left alone. Why don’t let the customers decide? Numerous businesses down the years have disappeared because customers changed their preferences - they decided they wanted to read books on Amazon as opposed to buying them in Barnes and Noble.”

A leading opponent, Allie Feldman, counters with this scenario: an imaginary New York, with no horse carriage rides for hire:

“And let’s say that somebody, a business person came into the city from a tour company and said ‘You know what, I’ve got a great idea, I’m going to take 200 horses,’” she says. “‘I’m going to stable them in these old tenement buildings along the West Side highway, and I’m going to parade them through traffic day in and day out, for nine hours a day, seven days a week, and I’m going to charge people for rides.’ You would look at that person like they were completely nuts. Nobody would ever bring that kind of industry into New York City. So why is it ok for them to still be here?”

Those demanding to “free” the horses may give off the impression of being earnest PETA-types—long on indignation, short on money—but opponents are an effective mixture of both, attracting moguls like Ken Lerer, co-founder of the Huffington Post.

They upended the Democratic primary with the goal of more than the incremental horse industry reform allowed under Michael Bloomberg, who thought the carriages integral to tourism. Seizing a legal landscape loosened under the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, two groups led by anti-carriage advocates raised more more than $1.7 million, spending a chunk of it not so much for propping up de Blasio, but haranguing the then-front-runner and City Council Speaker, Christine Quinn.

The groups seized on Quinn’s support of the carriage industry, animating animal-rights voters to a pitch never before seen in a major election, observers say. But they also hitched onto even more potent causes: especially perceptions that Quinn saddled up to Bloomberg and never let go.

“We provided a platform for people who were incredibly unhappy with what was going on in the city,” says Feldman, executive director of NYCLASS (New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets), which raised money for “Anybody But Quinn” ads and leafleting.

“It organized all those people who had extreme frustration with the current administration and wanted to do something about it.”  

In addition to Lerer, among the contributors were those tied to the real estate industry, leading some to muse their concern is not so much for the horses as for the valuable stables on the redeveloping Far West Side (a charge vigorously denied by the activists). As Chris Bragg of Crain’s noted, also donating were a top de Blasio bundler and an international labor union once headed by the mayor’s cousin.

Whatever the motivation, operatives heckled Quinn with such venom that they literally chased her into her idling SUV, as I witnessed covering her on the trail. They also ran the second-most important ad of the season, painting Quinn as a creature of a smoky backroom. (The first most important ad starred de Blasio’s teenage son, Dante, and his famous hairstyle.) Quinn probably should have left the attack ad to drift away in TV ether; instead, she nudged her campaign attorney to demand stations not air it, which of course backfired. It prompted talk Quinn was thin-skinned and gave the ads more attention. Five months later, de Blasio won the primary and then trotted through the finish line.

Since then, city campaign regulators have begun investigating a top advisor to the groups, Scott Levenson, for potentially working simultaneously for candidates and an independent horse-ban group that advocated their candidacies.  (Levenson referred comment to Feldman, who declined to comment.)

De Blasio, meanwhile, is looking to fulfil his campaign promise. He said recently: “What’s not negotiable from my point of view is we very much believe it’s time to end the use of horse carriages in this city—I made that abundantly clear over the last year.”

Is he motivated by ethics or politics or both? No one but the mayor can say exactly.

Nor can anyone answer the biggest question of them all: are horses OK pulling carriages through Manhattan streets, four seasons a year? I visited stables repeatedly over several days recently. Hansen, the driver, was my guide (although I wandered off unencumbered at times).

City law requires the horses to remain indoors in frigid (and very hot) weather, which means that they haven’t emerged this winter as much as some would like. For most of the day, they remain in stalls at least 60-square feet, where they can turn around and lie down. Contrary to what critics insist, I saw no horses tethered in their stalls. In case of fire, there are sprinklers and a full-time hand in the stable, though hustling out dozens of frantic horses is probably the job of more than one panicked person.

They’re apparently not uncommon, but most jarring are the bars separating horses from their friends (or enemies). Except during their required five-week vacation out of the city, there is no paddock, not only for want of space, but for fear of fights among the horseshoe-clod animals. Is it enough to sate horses’ need for interaction?

Jay Kirkpatrick, senior scientist at the Science and Conservation Center in Billings, Montana, isn’t sure. 

“The cruelest thing you can do to a horse is keep it alone,” he says. “They’re a social being, they have to interact, that’s just part of their evolutionary makeup - maybe like the difference between dogs and cats.”

Opponents say city annoyances like horn honking and traffic spooks horses. None looked jumpy to me; in fact the pedicab cyclists beside our carriage looked more winded and annoyed.  Hansen, our driver, says horses are frightened by unusual things (one has a crazed fear of wedding dresses).

Opponents often circulate disturbing photos of injured horses; the City Health Department could point to only a single incident from last year that resulted in an injured horse. Another case involved a horse working with an infected hoof. The horses must be examined twice a year by a veterinarian.

“What happens is that people anthropomorphize,” Dr. Harry Werner, a veterinarian in North Granby, Conn., and a past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, told The Times. “They see a circumstance where they wouldn’t want to work in it, and think a horse wouldn’t work in it.”

“Thank you, but I’m not anthropomorphizing, I’m using my 64 years of living with horses,” responded a favorite of the opponents, Dr. Holly Cheever, a veterinarian in upstate Voorheesville, NY, and vice-president of the New York State Humane Association.

"It's very threatening for the horse—I hardly see the romance in that kind of congestion anyway,” she told me, noting what she calls the “nose-to-tailpipe” existence and oppressive summer streets. As for the stalls, Cheever acknowledged that she hadn’t seen them in the last couple of decades, basing her judgement off photos circulated by opponents.

What constitutes animal cruelty is clearer cut with difference creatures; there are few defenders of cock fights or neglected cats. But even decades after horses became creatures for companionship or novelty, rather than solely beasts of burdens, we are still conflicted as to how they should be treated. Laws among states are similarly uneven—some call them livestock, others companion animals, said Kirkpatrick, of the Science and Conservation Center. 

He wouldn’t take a position on the horses, but did add this:

“The horse has always been a tool for man, whether it was tied to a plow or pulling a carriage.”