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The Carriage Horse Debate

The Dark Horse in the New York Mayoral Race

by ROBERT WILBUR AND MARTHA ROSENBERG

Reports of Democratic mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner’s sexting recidivism have vaulted Democrat Christine C. Quinn into the front-runner position. Quinn, currently speaker of the New York City Council, is running against Weiner, New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, former New York City comptroller William C Thompson Jr. and others in the September 10 Democratic primary. But even though Quinn is an out lesbian and has significant feminist and LGBT support, especially as the only woman Democratic candidate in a sea of male sex scandals, there could be a dark horse in the primary known as New York City’s carriage horses.

Manhattan’s carriage horses, immortalized by Sex in the City episodes, may charm tourists but they do not lead charmed lives. The 2011 death of carriage horse, Charlie, as he pulled a carriage, is only one disturbing event say opponents. In 2006, a carriage horse named “Smoothie” was euthanized after an accident says Edita Birnkrant, New York director of Friends Of Animals. Many incidents of animals collapsing and dying go unrecorded, especially if they occur out of public sight in the stables, she says.

Quinn, like Mayor Bloomberg, affirms the industry as a valuable source of jobs but critics say the largely foreign carriage drivers are not even legal American workers and lack basic empathy toward their equine charges. The issue has proved a wedge between Quinn and her natural constituencies, spawning web sites like Queers Against Quinn, Christine Quinn Sold Out and Anybody But Quinn. One site, Quinn Hates Animals, itemizes other anti-animal stances Quinn has allegedly adopted such as opposing humane education in public schools and allowing circus animal abuse.

Feminist icon Gloria Steinem calls the carriage horse issue a “sticking point” in her support of Quinn because Steinem is also an animal advocate.

Anti-establishment candidate Bill de Blasio has promised to make banning the “inhumane” carriage rides one of his first Mayoral acts if elected.

Last summer, the carriage horse issue came to a head when tennis celebrity and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) spokesman Martina Navratilova and others were berated by a driver with shocking slurs, using the N word, C word for women and D word for lesbians, while they were protesting the carriage rides.

Stephen Malone, a stable owner, carriage driver and spokesman for the industry, admitted that only two of the approximately 150 drivers are American in an interview. But, he says the industry is a New York “tradition” and animal advocates are trying to take “food” out of his children’s mouths.

According to Edita Birnkrant of Friend Of Animals, the New York Department of Health and Department of Consumer Affairs nominally regulates the carriage horse industry but gives complaints to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) which has 12 to 18 officers, only one or two monitoring carriage horses. But Stephen Malone, the carriage horse spokesman, disputes that there are only one or two officers watching the industry and rattled off several ASPCA names that he says drivers work with.

According to animal advocates, the life and fate of the city’s 200 to 220 current carriage horses is cruel.  After facing heat prostration, exhaust pipe fumes, inhumane stable conditions and driver mishandling, they are bought by killer-buyers for slaughter at a mere four to seven years says veterinarian Holly Cheever. Every year, as many as 60 horses “disappear” from city records, presumably dying in the stables or going to Mexico or Canada for slaughter, say Dr Cheever.

Ruth A. Juris, a former equine veterinarian who testified about the carriages over twenty years in front of Mayor David Dinkins, agrees. “Horses are among the most skittish and sensitive of living creatures and the most humane solution would be to ban the carriage horse industry at once because all measures to confine horses to Central Park, and to ensure that the horses have proper food, water, and humane stables, have failed,” she says.

Would the retired horses earn a one-way ticket to the slaughterhouse? Not necessarily, says Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, who has worked for 30 years against the carriage rides. Feral believes all the animals could be placed in sanctuaries, preferable to slaughterhouses where horses “are not always dispatched humanely” but killed by rifle fire, which can require up to 15 rounds.

Horse meat, not commonly eaten in the US, is a popular commodity in other countries though it can harbor butazolidine (“bute), steroids and toxic veterinary drugs since the animals were not raised for food. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) supports the “humane” slaughter of horses which the USDA has taken steps toward approving, though legal battles continue.

One alternative to the carriage horse industry is electric cars, which would still please tourists and provide jobs. While the New York City Council would have to pass prototype legislation and pre-empt the Central Park Conservancy’s electric car ban, PETA is one group that supports the transition. Still, some suggest that the potential money im electric cars is behind Bill de Blasio’s anti-carriage stance. Real estate tycoon Steven Nislick, founder of the anti-carriage group, NYCLASS, is a donor to the de Blasio campaign. Meanwhile Quinn has thus far blocked electric cars.

As the primary approaches, animal advocates are not letting up on Quinn. “She is the driving force in actively suppressing any humane and progressive legislation that would improve the lives of animals in New York,” says Edita Birnkrant.

Nor are they letting up on the carriage horse industry. “There will never be a humane carriage industry,” says Dr. Cheever. “Regulation has been tried and does not work.”

Could carriage horses be a dark horse effect in the Mayoral primary? Perhaps. Animal cruelty issues are emotional and tend to override voters’ other affiliations—whether Democrat, LGBT or feminist. Over 50 years ago, when the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act was passed, President Eisenhower said, “If I depended on my mail, I would think humane slaughter is the only thing anyone is interested in.”

Robert Wilbur is a New York City based writer whose work has appeared in legal and scientific publications. 

Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of  Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).