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They’ve been a part of the city’s streetscape for more than 160 years, but is it finally time to put the Central Park carriage horses out to pasture? It’s a thorny question — time to get input from both sides of the debate.
Our headline was inspired by this photo of a horse and carriage heading to Central Park along 10th Avenue, taken in front of the midtown and Hell’s Kitchen skyline. Will they still be here next year? Will the pandemic, a new mayor (or the current one, living up to his 2013 election promise vowing to ban the horse-drawn carriages on his first day in office), the emotions of animal lovers, or the hard-fought lobbying of their opposition see them off in 2021?
We spoke to the two women who represent the opposing points of view — Christina Hansen, a carriage driver and spokesperson for the industry, and Edita Birnkrant, Executive Director of NYCLASS, the group working to enact a ban on horse-drawn carriages.
In both conversations, there was high emotion and a real battle of words. Did a horse “collapse” or “fall”? Who really understood or loved animals the most? But before we get into the debate in earnest, let’s take a look at some facts and figures…
- The Central Park carriage horses have operated for 162 years. They worked since the park opened in 1858 — through the Civil War, another pandemic, and both world wars.
- They nearly went out of business in the roaring twenties, when there were just a dozen carriage horses in the city.
- Walk-up rides without a reservation are $57.47 for up to 20 mins, plus tip. For each additional 10 minutes or fraction thereof, add $22.99.
- New York City has had 41 mayors since carriages began to operate in Central Park.
- There are four horse stables in Hell’s Kitchen. The carriage horses have stables on W37th and W38th between 10/11th Avenues and W52nd between 11/12th Avenues. The other stables are underneath Mercedes House on W53rd Street, housing the New York Police Department’s horses.
- At the start of the pandemic, nearly 200 horses were moved from the carriage horse stables to Pennsylvania. Some returned at the start of October when rides resumed in Central Park.
- In 1908 the number of cars on the streets of New York passed the number of horses (100,000) for the first time. The push to cars was driven by the fact that each horse produced 30 pounds of waste and 2 gallons of urine every day.
- In the late 1800s, there were an estimated 130,000 horses working in the city. By 1880, the city was clearing an average of 41 dead horses from its streets each day — 15,000 over the year.
- Up until the pandemic, carriage drivers were members of the Teamsters Local 553 — they changed in October to become members of the Transport Workers Union Local 100.
- NYCLASS (New Yorkers for Clean, Livable, and Safe Streets) spends around $750,000 each year with lobby groups.
- To ban the Central Park Carriage Horses, 26 of the 51 New York City Council members would need to vote in favor. In the 2021 council elections there are 29 seats up for grabs because of term limitations.
We asked both parties about Mayor de Blasio, the upcoming elections for City Council and Mayor, and an incident in December in a wintry Central Park. Quotes have been lightly edited for clarity.
Christina Hansen, a carriage driver and spokesperson for the industry.
“We need a mayor who is going to focus on what really needs to get done in the city and not appeasing special interest groups like NYCLASS who are campaign donors.”
“The mayor wasted so much time, energy and effort paying attention to these people who represent a tiny sliver of New Yorkers. They do not represent a majority feeling at all in the city, but they have a lot of money and they have a lot of influence over the mayor. When you think about the things that could have been done with the mayor’s attention while he was too busy trying to make these couple of millionaires and billionaires who founded NYCLASS and have real estate designs happy. I’m sure that we’re going to see some of the city council candidates and probably some of the mayoral candidates falling over themselves to try to get NYCLASS’s money for the election.”
“The reality is the animal rights people are never going away. The thing that they’re worried about is that they think it’s morally wrong for a horse and a human to work together in partnership to have a good life together. They think that’s exploitation. That’s fundamentally what it comes down to. It’s not about the conditions the horses live and work under.”
“It was so awesome to come back to work in October. Literally every day you’d have like tons of people see the horse and all of a sudden they would smile and be like ‘Welcome back. it’s so great to see you guys.’ Then to be here for Christmas, when we are such a holiday tradition, and there’s not many of them available in the city this year. Almost all of our business is locals. For example, the ride that I just finished, the couple were from Long Island. Their first date was in a carriage in 1988 and they hadn’t been back since, because they only wanted to go at Christmas but it’s always so busy. So, they’re finally back after 32 years and they just had a lovely time.”
On the ice incident…
“My horse slipped and fell in the snow. He’s fine. Over the years, we’ve had a number of incidents where a horse trips and falls or the horse bucks and gets their leg over the shaft and falls down. When that happens, the horse is fine, but you have to unhook the horse and the carriage so that they can get up without hurting themselves. Every single time, NYCLASS say that the horse collapsed. It’s all propaganda. It’s all designed to incite an emotional response in people. They will say anything to advance their anti carriage horse agenda. They send out a press release to all the news outlets. They pay political lobbyists and PR people $50,000 a month. Everybody knows that it’s the same story over and over again, which is why I say ‘we’re not going anywhere’.”
“The animal rights people aren’t going away, but they are a very tiny, but vocal minority. Something like only 2% of the population is vegan and not even every vegan thinks that carriages are bad. We’re talking about the radical folks who think that you shouldn’t eat honey because it exploits the bees and you shouldn’t own dogs or cats.”
Edita Birnkrant, Executive Director of NYCLASS,
“NYCLASS was founded in 2008 with the goal of getting horse carriages off the streets because of the cruelty and danger as well as to work on other animal issues in New York.
“That was before de Blasio was even mayor. I think that de Blasio saying he was going to ban them on day one was sort of hyperbole. Unfortunately, his promise to do that has not been fulfilled yet. There’s still time that it can happen before his term is over. The mayor could not just unilaterally ban horse carriages on his own, even if he would like to, because it has to be passed legislatively. Shutting down the industry would have to be passed with a bill and the council and that takes a majority of council members, 26 out of 51.”
“So we shifted our focus from just strictly fighting for a ban. As long as these horses were going to be forced to be worked on the streets and live in the city, we wanted to at least try to make some meaningful changes through legislation and rule changes. We have succeeded in doing some of that last year. We passed one bill called the Carriage Horse Heat Relief Act. Before that, the antiquated law only said that horses had to stop working when it was 90 degrees Fahrenheit, but humidity was not factored into the law. Humidity is everything for horses because that’s dangerous for them. We have days when it’s 89 degrees Fahrenheit and the heat index is 110 because of humidity. So at least horses can no longer be worked in these very humid heatwaves.”
“Also last year at our urging, Mayor de Blasio proposed a rule change which moved the horses waiting for business on Central Park South (59th St). That was a terrible place to have these horses. It was so busy, with cars zooming by honking horns, ambulances, and firetrucks. The rule changed their locations to three entrances inside Central Park.”
On the ice incident…
“I can’t understand why she took her horse off the main park road into this icy, treacherous side road. The horse collapsed with passengers onboard, including a child. When the driver finally got the horse, named Billy, up on the ice, the proper thing to do for anyone who cared about their horse would be to call the stable, get a horse trailer to pick the horse off, drive the horse back to the stable, have them checked out by a vet and let him rest. That is not what this carriage driver did. She instead after finally struggling to get him on his feet, loaded those passengers back in and continued the ride. She had no way of knowing if he was going to collapse again, she had no way of knowing if he was injured. And then after he even finished the ride, he had to walk all the way back to the stable. This exemplifies why we cannot count on these carriage drivers to show even a shred of compassion or decency or common sense for either the horses or the public. They constantly show a complete disregard and lack of any compassion and decency. And that’s why the only solution is to get these horses off the streets and show them some mercy. They’re not going to have any mercy from these carriage drivers who literally work them to death.”
“I’m not saying every carriage driver has the same characteristics. Even if you say you care about your horses, your actions matter. They are consistently putting their horses in danger, keeping them in these awful stables. Horses are herd animals — they’re supposed to have pasture. When they’re not pulling carriages they are stuffed into tiny cells in solitary confinement — and that’s after being chained up with a painful metal bit in their mouth for nine or 10 hours a day.”
“New York city is so far behind, if you look around the country and the world. In Chicago, the ban on horse-drawn carriages is going into effect January 1st. So many other cities around the world are banning horse carriages or in the process of doing so. As people’s views about animals have evolved, worldwide cities, especially cities that call themselves progressive, understand that it is not appropriate to have horses pulling carriages on their streets because it is sanctioning animal cruelty. It’s actually very embarrassing for New York City that we are still stuck in the dark ages.
“If horse carriages did not exist and tomorrow someone proposed in a city council meeting ‘Hey, what about the idea of plopping 68 horses into Midtown Manhattan and having them pull carriages around?’ — how do you think people would vote on that?”
“The majority of the city council seats are up for reelection and there are a lot of mayoral candidates. There are a lot of animal lovers in this city and a lot of people who know the cruelty and abuse that these horses go through. These people are not going to support candidates who are not in favor of showing these horses mercy and getting them off the streets once and for all. That will certainly be a part of our candidate questionnaire we’ve been putting out for city council candidates, so we can judge whether to endorse them. The very first question is the horse carriage issue. Do you support banning horse carriages? Most of the responses we’ve received have said yes, actually I think all of them!”
What would a new mayor do?
We contacted all mayoral candidates and the incumbent, Mayor Bill de Blasio. The only response we received was from Joycelyn Taylor. She said: “I have not been included in enough conversations with those who are impacted to have a firm solution at this point. I think the time has come for the city to come up with a plan to end the utilization of horse carriages. However, that plan must come with options for current owners so that it is not done in a way that impacts the lives or ruins the livelihood of those individuals who work in the industry. One of the challenges we have is that the government does not listen to the people and makes decisions based upon what they perceive the public wants to hear as opposed to what makes sense. My goal is to bring more inclusion and transparency to government and to sit down with all of the stakeholders and hear all sides to see what everyone is hoping to achieve; then develop a clear plan. But ultimately the goal is to end the utilization of horse carriages. Considering our city’s traffic, bicycles and pedestrians in the city; horses carriages are just not safe.”
Taylor added her own formula — maybe if we can just plug in those numbers to that, we will find a solution?
Restriction – Input from those Impacted – Solutions = Frustrations x Stress x Complaints.