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Whether you support the Central Park horses, want to see a ban — or are still sitting on the fence — we give both sides free reign to talk.
In the red corner: Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign to ban horses from New York City. Backed by animal rights activists and celebrities like Anjelica Huston, Alec Baldwin, Miley Cyrus and Calvin Klein, it presents a pretty strong argument.
In the blue corner: a 155-year-old industry fighting for its survival. The horses – all of which are stabled in Hell’s Kitchen, most in Clinton Park Stables on 52nd St – are not without their celebrity backers. Big-hitters like Liam Neeson and Danny Glover have both thrown their weight behind their survival.
Critics say the animals are badly treated and a danger to both themselves and people. They propose replacement ‘horseless carriages’ that would continue the job of ferrying people around Central Park, while the 300 or so carriage drivers could receive valuable taxi permits as compensation for the loss of their livelihood.
Those in favor say a ban would kill a New York way of life; something that is as much a part of the scenery as the Empire State Building and yellow cabs. They insist the horses are well cared for … and that their opponents are more driven by a desire to scoop up valuable real estate than by their concern for animal welfare (one of the groups campaigning for abolition, NYCLASS, is led by Stephen Nislick, a former real-estate developer).
De Blasio is committed to introducing the ban by next summer, but much still depends on getting the required number of votes from city councilmen.
As for the public, a poll by Quinnipiac University found that about 61 percent of voters were in favor of the status quo. But where do you stand? Saddle up as we speak to both sides of a debate that has polarized Manhattan.
The case against
Elizabeth Forel has been a passionate campaigner against the carriage trade since the early 1990s, and has worked with the Coalition to Ban Horse-drawn Carriages since it was formed in 2006.
“Both the living and working conditions for the horses are abysmal,” she says. “When a horse is working, he is kept between the shafts of his carriage legally for nine hours a day, seven days a week. During the busy holiday season, the horses are used up.
“When the horse is not working, he is parked on the street, often pawing on the ground with impatience. He is not a working but an entertainment horse. It is a very exploitative and greedy business. The stables have no access to pasture. The stalls are less than half the size of what experts recommend for these horses.
”The Coalition was formed following the death of a young horse named Spotty, who, it says, was killed on W 50th St/9th Ave. It calls the industry “inhumane, unsafe and anachronistic” and claims that, not only do horses die on the streets, but that humans have been seriously injured as a result of spooked carriage horses.
“People often think a solution is to ‘put the horses in the park’,” she says. But a compromise is out of the question. “They actually work in the park most of the day anyway, but the hack line is on the perimeter and is where most of the accidents occur.
“Additionally, the horses cannot actually live in Central Park – that is just not a possibility. In order to do it properly, which would mean appropriately sized stalls and turn out to pasture, it would take up about a quarter of the existing park land. But this is all beside the point because state law defines parkland as one of our inalienable rights. People are not about to lose this land to a private enterprise.”
While there are strict laws dictating the conditions the horses are kept in, she maintains these laws are not, and cannot be, enforced. “It would take at least one police officer to one carriage to do the job, which is absurd. This is an inhumane, unsafe and frivolous business and it should come to an end.
“I have studied this issue for many years and about 60-70 horses ‘disappear’ from the Department of Health horse list every year. There are no controls in place requiring sales information so it is not known what happens to them. It is entirely possible that many of them went on to the slaughter auctions.”
Of the 200-plus horses that will, should a ban be approved, be out of a job, she is clear: “These horses are privately owned and it is up to the owners what they will do with them. However, the Global Federation of Sanctuaries has told us that their sanctuary members would take the horses.
The case for
Horse owner Stephen Malone has been driving carriages in New York City industry for 28 years, “but my family has been in the industry since 1964”, he adds, “so I used to come with my dad as well. It’s the same for a lot of my colleagues – most of us have been working out here for well over 20 years.”
He says there is no merit in the campaign to ban the horses; no facts to back it up. “I can prove the horses aren’t badly treated; they can’t prove they are. We’ve done different studies on the horses, their stress levels. We had a former dean of Cornell University come and oversee them all – they had no issues whatsoever. I have a list from here to England of veterinarians that support us; equine veterinarians, not just dog and cat veterinarians, that believe all working horses need jobs and a purpose.”
It’s not a dangerous industry, he says, and never has been. “Our accident rate is no different from – you know – a window washer hanging off the side of a building. When it happens it’s headline news and the rest of the time you never hear about it. As far as being dangerous to the horses, we’ve had three horses killed in 31 years – due to cars. Thirty one years. There were 12 horses put down at the Aqueduct race track in one month in January, so if it was about horses they’d be attacking that industry, not ours.”
He has, he says, no intention of switching his horse and carriage for a taxi license. “If I wanted to become a taxi cab driver I would have applied for a taxi cab license. We’re not interested in taking anybody else’s livelihood away from them.”
Besides, there are more industries that will suffer from a ban than simply the drivers, he says. “Blacksmiths, veterinarians, the people who take the horses on vacation, our insurance companies, we provide lots of income for the delis and hotels around here. Then you have the guys who provide our feed and take our manure away. There’s a long list of people who will be directly affected.”
He’s thankful for celebrity support – Liam Neeson’s press conference at the stables a year ago was “a big game changer”. He adds: “It does sway a lot of people who are on the fence. Unfortunately, it should be the veterinarians that we have and the American equine practitioners who have come and seen the horses and tested them but, you know, we’re a celebrity-driven society so it does help.”
This article originally appeared in W42ST magazine issue 5 in April 2015.