Bill Could Halt New York Carriage Horses

Horses draw carriages around New York's Central Park. A council member from Queens wants the tourist vehicles banned.
Horses draw carriages around New York's Central Park. A council member from Queens wants the tourist vehicles banned. (By Mark Lennihan -- Associated Press)

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By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 17, 2007

NEW YORK -- The carriage horses at Central Park are one of this city's most iconic sights, along with the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, the street-side artists and the hot dog vendors. But now one city council member from Queens is trying to send the horses the way of the once-ubiquitous squeegee men, forever banished from the city's thoroughfares.

"It's quaint, but the truth is something else," said Council Member Tony Avella, who introduced a bill this month to ban the horses for good. Avella described what he called the cramped conditions at the horses' West Side stables, the long hours the horses work in inclement weather, and the danger of easily spooked, 1,500-pound animals jostling with cars, buses and trucks on noisy, congested Midtown streets.

"It's very poor treatment for the animals," Avella said. "It's certainly inhumane."

Avella introduced a bill two years ago to restrict the horses to Central Park, but that went nowhere. Now he is hoping his call for an all-out ban gets more attention, and this time he has some key allies from the animal rights community.

The Humane Society of the United States, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and a group called the Coalition to Ban Horse Drawn Carriages have all come out in favor of the bill.

"It's antiquated and it's inhumane, especially in a city with millions of people," said Wayne Pacelle, Humane Society president and chief executive.

The ASPCA's support is significant because that organization has official enforcement powers in New York, including the inspection of stables. This is the first time the group has backed a ban on the carriage horses. "It is very much part of the fabric of the city, and it is very romantic," said Lisa Weisberg, ASPCA's senior vice president for government affairs and public policy. But, she said, "because we just don't feel New York City can provide a safe environment for the horses, we decided to come out in favor of the ban."

The Coalition to Ban Horse Drawn Carriages was formed in January 2006 after a horse called Spotty got spooked while on the way to the stable and bolted down Ninth Avenue, where it collided with a station wagon. The five-year-old horse had to be euthanized, and the movement to separate animals and traffic was galvanized.

The movement gained a new martyr in September, when a 13-year-old horse named Smoothie got spooked by a member of a break-dancing troupe banging on a snare drum on Central Park South. Smoothie darted between two trees about two feet apart, and collapsed and died on the scene when the carriage it was hauling got stuck. Another horse jumped on a Mercedes-Benz, damaging the car.

After that incident, the Horse and Carriage Association of New York proposed recommendations, known as "Smoothie's Rules," including more water spigots for the horses, hitching posts, designated passenger pick-up points, better drainage for waste and banning musicians from the area around the horses.

There has been a raft of horse-and-car collisions in the past year, some resulting in injuries, according to Elizabeth Forel, the coalition spokeswoman. "The horse-drawn carriages are from the 19th century and really don't belong in New York," she said.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) suggested in remarks quoted by the Associated Press last week that he opposes a ban. "These are things that the tourists like and New Yorkers like, and they define a city," he said. (Coincidentally, Bloomberg's daughter Georgina is an equestrian Olympic hopeful.)

The Horse and Carriage Association, in a statement, said it is Avella "who should be put out to pasture." The group said that the carriage drivers are mostly members of Irish and Italian working-class families with a long tradition in the trade and that "no one is more invested in the health, safety and welfare of our horses than we are."

Outside Central Park on a recent cold and blustery Friday afternoon, the carriage drivers were doing a typically brisk holiday business, and most did not want to pause to discuss the debate swirling around their industry. "Talk to our spokesman," said one. "Can't you see? I'm too busy," said another, who was taking a break to allow his horse to feed from a plastic bucket.

Most of the waiting tourists seemed oblivious to the controversy. "We're going to take one -- it's a nice way to see the park," said Samantha Quinn, visiting with her family from Liverpool, England. "As long as they look after the horses, it's okay."

New Jersey resident Bill Clark said he knew of the controversy from local media reports but took a carriage ride with visiting relatives anyway. "I wouldn't have, but my sister had her heart set on it," he said.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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