Reining In Cruelty At Last
“I’m truly sorry man’s dominion Has broken nature’s social union…” – Robert Burns
January 31 marked the beginning of the Chinese New Year, the Year of the Horse, honoring an animal that Chinese folklore admirably regards as strong, noble, loving, and wild. It is this majestic animal that is on many people’s minds since the new mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, recently stated that banning the city’s horse-drawn carriages is amongst his top priorities:
“We are going to quickly and aggressively move to make horse carriages no longer a part of the landscape in New York City. They are not humane. They are not appropriate to the year 2014.”
With this bold intention, the years-old horse carriage debate – as well as its many facets, including the value of tradition, the importance of animal welfare, and the anxieties of job security – has found new life.
I was quick to celebrate the end of this antiquated so-called tradition, and posted a New Year’s Day congratulations to de Blasio on Facebook, along with a recent article on the topic. Much to my surprise, there was an overwhelming number of posts in support of the NYC horse-drawn carriage. I honestly thought the suffering the horses endured in this industry was as common knowledge as the abuses in the circus industry or the slaughtering of baby seals for fashion. The division amongst the posts’ content illustrates the general confusion over the bleak intricacies of these handsome cabs: some asking or assuming the horses would be killed, and even fewer acknowledging the number of horses that have deteriorated and died in this industry over the past centuries.
Tradition is an important component of our lives; it connects us to our past, helps shape our identities and relationships, gives us something solid to revisit when everything else around us seems to change. Having lived in NYC in the mid-nineties as the NYC Animal Care and Control Director of the Manhattan shelter coupled with my experience in leading dozens of large-scale horse rescues over the past 23 years, I am well aware of the NYC horse-drawn carriage industry and the issues of cruelty and neglect that go along with it. With roots that stretch back to 1858, there is no denying that the horse-drawn carriage has a long history in New York City, but equally historic in my favorite city is promoting compassion and justice for non-human animals.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the country’s oldest humane organization, was founded in New York City in 1866 by Henry Bergh in response to the cruelty he witnessed against working horses. By 1870, a humane society or SPCA was established in nearly every major city in the U.S., with the primary mission to protect horses who were abused, overridden, and overworked. The unnatural life and abuse of carriage horses dates to the practice’s inception and tradition should never stand as an excuse for cruelty.
The city’s landscape has dramatically changed in the last hundred and fifty years and the urban streets have become even more dangerous to animals who belong in open fields. Horses, who are highly sensitive to movement, are naturally inclined to rear and run when spooked, such as by the cars and sudden noises inexorable to a busy city. The blinders designed to inhibit a horse’s monocular vision and the harnesses that strap them to the carriages do not allow natural movement and do not prevent accidents.
Opponents to the ban often argue that the industry is regulated and therefore somehow safe or humane, but this is simply not true. The New York City carriage horse industry is regulated by The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) and the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA). These two agencies are tasked with the licensing of horses and drivers, the inspection of carriages and stables, and the welfare assessment of the industry’s 220 working horses. The regulations are often difficult to enforce and sadly, even when enforced, suffering, accidents, and tragedy still occur. Distressingly, an audit conducted in 2007 by the former city Comptroller found that both departments, DOHMH and DCA, had committed gross abandonment of their duties. In addition to neglecting to assemble the required advisory board, it was reported that the DOHMH veterinary consultant spent an estimated 25 minutes in total during stable inspections, which included travel time, physical examination, and paperwork completion, and had entirely failed to examine the condition of any of the horses in the field. The DCA was found to be no better, improperly issuing carriage licenses and failing to perform the required number of carriage inspections. The report concluded that the departments were “not ensuring that all of the carriages are licensed, safe, and that the horses, drivers, and public are not at risk”.
A recently published Time magazine article takes an odd and disturbingly pro-horse-drawn carriage stance. Not only does the author suggest that millions of Americans would envy the carriage horses’ privileges (nine-hour workdays, food, shelter, health care, compulsory time off when the temperature falls below 18F or rises above 90F), she also contends that “unless they get to run around in pastures all day long,” depriving a horse of a proper “job” leads to a range of debilitating behavioral disorders, from cribbing to blanket-chewing. In one bold, misguided sentence she declares, “The life of a New York City carriage horse is actually not bad.”
On the contrary.
• Lameness; because many of the horses were previously used on unforgiving racetracks or on Amish farms, they often come to carriage work with pre-existing injuries and/or arthritis, and are forced to pull tourist loads in upwards of 700-800 pounds on hard concrete. Coupled with inadequate farrier care, a horse’s working lifespan is cut considerably. As the old (and accurate) saying goes, “No hoof, no horse.”
• Air Pollution; yes, all New Yorkers are subject to the unrelenting smog of the big city. They are not, however, forced to work in near constant nose-to-nose contact with tailpipes. Years of inhaling exhaust fumes while exerting themselves to pull heavy loads, almost universally leads to corresponding respiratory impairment in the horses.
• Quality of Life; the horses are obligated to work both in the extreme cold and heat (the allowable minimum and maximum temperatures do not consider wind chill or humidity), nine hours a day, seven days a week. A 15-minute break is required every two hours, though there is no official enforcement, and the horses remain shackled to their carriages during their “rest”. There is no opportunity for life-extending turnout, and their stables are cramped, stuffy, and often housed on upper floors, making fire evacuation virtually futile. The law mandates the stalls be a minimum of 60 square feet (half of the expert-recommended space), making even a comfortable lie- down an impossibility. They are never given one moment to socialize, or to move boldly and freely – essential freedoms necessary for the mental and physical health of large herd animals.
• “Retirement”; the options carriage horses face when they are retired after as many as 21 years working on the city streets are few and grim. Spent horses are not typically offered the security of placement with a rescue or sanctuary, rather they are callously disposed of. Many go to auction, where they are often bought by the pound for the slaughterhouses. If the industry continues, endless horses will suffer through a miserable existence only to be discarded to experience a terrifying and unjust death. Contrastingly, there are reputable organizations earnestly committed to upholding the requirements of the proposed ban to place 100% of the 220 NYC carriage horses into private farms, rescues, or sanctuaries if their current legal owners are willing to comply
Another concern that has been raised is the future livelihood of the current carriage drivers. When working in the field of animal protection, it is not uncommon to be accused of caring more about non-human animals than fellow humans, but this could not be further from the truth. True compassion extends across all boundaries and encourages us to cooperate and seek solutions that ultimately benefit everyone involved when possible. The current proposal allows for a three-year phase out of horse carriages and proposes the introduction of electric vintage-replica vehicles, registered by the city and driven by drivers regulated by the city. Current carriage licensees would be given priority in applying for such licenses. These vehicles would provide the nostalgic benefits of the current horse carriages, along with a superior safety and environmental profile, as well as a cleaner conscience.
Carriage horse rides are promoted as an idyllic glimpse into the past but the truth is that they aren’t, never were, and never could be a fairy tale for the horses who simply donot belong in congested urban environments; it’s not in the best interest of the horses and it’s not in the best interest of the people. Many cities, including Biloxi, Mississippi; Camden, New Jersey and Palm Beach, Florida, have already recognized that horse carriages belong in their rich history and not on their streets today by banning use of such vehicles. Join me in celebrating the Year of the Horse by honoring our American icons and recognizing that horse-drawn carriages belong in our history, not on our streets; We can choose to continue the cruel history of horse carriages or we can choose to further the tradition of love and compassion, of being leaders and positive exemplars in the fight against animal cruelty. Which would bring you more pride?
For more information: Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages and New Yorkers for Clean Livable and Safe Streets (NYCLASS) have worked for years to educate the public on the inherently inhumane and dangerous nature of horse carriages. Their sites are great places to start if you’re looking to get informed or involved. You’ll find everything from horse carriage facts, to information about the proposed ban and how to take action.
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