By Robert Wilbur and Martha Rosenberg
Last year, a coalition of animal lovers seeking to ban Manhattan's carriage horse industry helped defeat Christine Quinn, once the front-runner for mayor, because she opposed such a prohibition. Mayor de Blasio, who beat Quinn, pledged his first action as mayor would be to ban the controversial rides. Yet where is the ban?
Last month about 30 protesters gathered across from Gracie Mansion to exhort Mayor de Blasio to fulfill his campaign promise. New York's carriage horses are "stripped of the ability to do anything horses would naturally do. They don't belong here in the city," said Donny Moss, a member of the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages "It's inhumane and unsafe."
Time to retire this industry, many say by Martha Rosenberg
The carriage horses are getting hurt and spooked on streets and some spend nights standing in narrow stalls agreed Brian Gari, another member of the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages, with the mournful sound of bagpipes in the background.
People would be "appalled" at the conditions of the stables that are not shown to the public as the stable on 52nd Street was, added Moss.
While Mayor Bill de Blasio reaffirmed his sentiments this week and indicated that legislation would soon be introduced paving "the pathway to an ultimate ban" of carriage horses from Central Park, some predict a ban will have a hard time in City Council.
Councilman Rafael Espinal, head of the Consumer Affairs Committee where previous carriage-related bills have originated, recently declared his opposition to the ban on the basis of lost jobs. "What will these 300 workers do?" he asked. Demos Demopoulos, a leader of Local 553 of the Teamsters, which represents the carriage drivers' union, is also against the ban and predicted it will go nowhere.
Just over a year ago we wrote an article on how a pledge to ban the horse-drawn carriage industry was thrusting the political unknown, Bill de Blasio, into the forefront of the mayoral race. The hapless carriage horses not only brought de Blasio early exposure, they helped to fill his campaign coffers. Why? Because the horses inspired parking lot czar Steve Nislick to bankroll NYCLASS, an organization devoted to phasing out the carriage horse industry. The backing included help from Wendy Neu, a Manhattan businesswoman who also reportedly poured money into the de Blasio campaign.
Riding past Central Park South in an air-conditioned cab this past summer, one of us surveyed the bedraggled horses hooked up to 1500-2000 pound carriages in the ferocious heat. There is a law that authorizes the police to order the horses back to the stables in such weather, but only after a one-hour warning. That and a cornucopia of other toothless laws affecting the horses, are rarely enforced. While NYCLASS is still very much in business, Nislick and Neu did not answer our requests for comment on de Blasio's long- delayed carriage horse ban.
One of the leaders in the campaign to abolish the carriage horses is Edita Birnkrant, director of New York Friends of Animals (FOA) whose offices are only a short walk from Central Park South, where the carriage horses can be observed.
Nothing is happening, Birnkrant told us. Contrary to the impression that most voters were given last fall, the mayor cannot abolish the industry by executive fiat, but must introduce a bill in the City Council. Mayor de Blasio has not honored a request to meet with Birnkrant and other animal welfare activists, Birnkrant told us.
Priscilla Feral, President of FOA says she is hopeful that de Blasio will respond to what she characterizes as "a united front of sane people." Although FOA would prefer an immediate ban, they will go along with NYCLASS's agenda to replace the horses with electric mini-vans over a three-year period. According to a spokesperson for NYCLASS who spoke to us but requested anonymity, a prototype for such a van already exists and was displayed at the 2013 New York Auto Show. In addition to sparing animals hardship, the vans are environmentally responsible.
Feral say she is sympathetic to de Blasio's political plight. As a liberal Democrat he is particularly vulnerable to pressure from organized labor, and the carriage horse industry, as Birnkrant explained to us, made a shrewd move back in 2010 of affiliating with the Teamsters Union. This "partnership" is being wrung for all the mileage it can produce yet Birkrant dismissed the claim that the carriage drivers' association is a union as a "total scam....not a real union."
A Life of Pain and Thanklessness
To get a sense of the life of a New York City carriage horse, we interviewed Susan Wagner, president and founder of Equine Advocates, a horse sanctuary and welfare group. Some of the carriage horses are burned-out workhorses from farms belonging to the Amish, she told us; others are trotter racers which are considered highly desirable because they are already "broken in" from pulling a wagon, though their new "wagon" will be several times heavier.