By Emily B. Hager
the new york times
A ride through Central Park in a horse-drawn carriage is one of New York City’s most storied attractions, the rhythmic clip-clop offering a respite from the hustle of everyday life.
But now this old-fashioned industry is facing unprecedented turmoil.
After campaigning for decades, animal rights advocates are gaining support for legislation that would ban the hansom cabs, including endorsements from mayoral candidates and celebrities. The carriage owners say they are being harassed, but they also acknowledge carrying out a campaign to infiltrate the activist groups and secretly record their strategy sessions.
Both the animal rights advocates and the carriage owners say they have been subjected to threats of violence by the other side.
The struggle is so tense that when an accident last summer left a carriage driver in a coma, the hospital where he was recovering was not immediately disclosed, out of concern that activists would stage protests there.
One of the nation’s oldest animal rights groups, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, has become ensnared in the debate over the carriages. The group’s chief equine veterinarian, Dr. Pamela Corey, said her supervisors pushed her to slant her conclusions about the death of a carriage horse, to generate sympathy for a ban.
Besides the animal rights campaigners, the industry is facing a classic New York peril: rising real estate values. Developers covet the stables on the Far West Side where the horses have long been kept.
New York City’s carriage horses have been a cause celebre for animal rights advocates for decades. Now, though, even the trade’s staunchest defenders say its survival is threatened as never before.
“People in our business probably think that we probably won’t survive forever and are asking, ‘How long will we last?”’ said Conor McHugh, a carriage driver and the manager of Clinton Park Stables, one of four stables in the city that house the horses.
“But we will keep fighting,” McHugh added.
The city’s licensed carriage horse industry – 68 carriages, 216 horses and 282 drivers – brings in roughly $15 million annually, officials estimate. Drivers charge $50 for a 20-minute ride through Central Park, and $20 for each additional 10 minutes. On a good day, they can make 15 trips, grossing at least $750 plus tips.
Drivers’ earnings are said to range from $40,000 to $100,000 annually, depending primarily on whether they own their horses, what shifts they work (day shifts are better) and how bad the weather and the economy are.
So far this year, seven incidents involving carriage horses have been reported, including a collision with a taxi. With each accident, animal rights campaigners raise alarms. They say carriage horses work under cruel conditions: nine-hour shifts, wading through Manhattan traffic, in almost any weather, with no space to frolic in a pasture.
The activists have rounded up endorsements from celebrities like the designer Calvin Klein and the actresses Pamela Anderson and Lea Michele, while lawmakers allied with them have introduced bills at the state and city levels to abolish the industry. Last year, the City Council approved a measure to improve working and living conditions for the horses but would not pass a ban.
Many weekends, one group or another gathers across from the Plaza Hotel, where carriages congregate at an entrance to Central Park, to hold a protest.
“Horses frighten very easily,” said Edita Birnkrant, the New York director of one of the advocacy groups, Friends of Animals. “The noises of New York City, the chaos – it is all just an inherently dangerous environment, and they don’t belong here.”
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has been an ardent supporter of the carriages. After a horse fell Sunday in Midtown Manhattan, Bloomberg dismissed criticism of the industry.
“Carriage horses have traditionally been a part of New York City,” he said. “The tourists love them, and we’ve used from time immemorial animals to pull things. They are well treated and we’ll continue to make sure that they are well treated.”
The ASPCA is one of the groups leading the effort to ban the carriages. It is also one of the three entities – along with the city’s health department and Department of Consumer Affairs – that regulate the industry.
“I don’t see it as a conflict,” the society’s president, Ed Sayres, said last month on the steps of City Hall after a rally against the carriages. “If we don’t bring forward the risk factor that we are observing, then it would be negligent.”
In 2009, Sayres teamed up with Stephen Nislick, chief executive of the development company Edison Properties, which owns Manhattan MiniStorage, to develop a plan to replace the carriage horses with electric-powered replicas of antique cars.
“The cars provide an economic win for the drivers, owners and for the city,” Nislick said.
With $400,000 from the ASPCA, and a contribution from Nislick, the two men started NY-Class, a nonprofit organization that has collected more than 55,000 signatures backing city legislation that would carry out their plan. But their campaign has been roiled by a dispute over the death of a carriage horse named Charlie in October. The ASPCA at first quoted its chief equine veterinarian, Corey, as saying the horse “was not a healthy horse and was likely suffering from pain.”
Soon after, Corey retracted her statement and said the society had pushed her to distort her findings to turn public opinion against the carriages. “I was under a lot of pressure during the writing of that press release,” she said.
She said there was no evidence that Charlie was experiencing pain or had been abused.
The society suspended Corey after she spoke out. She then filed a complaint with the state attorney general’s office, contending that on several occasions, she had been pressured to slant her professional opinion to help achieve a ban.
A spokeswoman for the ASPCA, Elizabeth Estroff, said it was baffled by Corey’s claims, Corey had “ultimately reviewed, edited, and approved the final statement” about the horse.
The carriage industry has filed its own complaints with city and state agencies against the ASPCA and NY-Class. Some carriage owners have gone to NY-Class meetings, without disclosing their identities. They have recorded discussions that they maintain show that the activists are bent on distorting the carriage industry’s record.
On one recording, Nislick describes efforts to gain the support of city politicians by giving them campaign contributions.
The politicians “want money from people and they want your vote,” Nislick said, according to one recording.
Asked about the recordings, Nislick declined to comment.
The carriage owners also assert that Nislick wants to be able to gain control of the land under the carriage horse stables.
Two of the stables are located on a prime block between West 37th and 38th Streets in the heart of Hudson Yards, a sprawling commercial and residential development.
Nislick denied being interested in the land, but other developers envision the lots transformed into hotels and office buildings.
If the stables were sold and then closed, the carriage horses could end up homeless, and their owners could go out of business. Relocating uptown, and closer to Central Park, may not be an option with real estate scarce.
The stables on 37th and 38th Streets are in the district of the City Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, a Democrat who is expected to run for mayor.
Like Bloomberg, Quinn has supported the carriage industry, though she has called recently for increased oversight of the horses.
Two other likely Democratic mayoral candidates – Scott M. Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, and William C. Thompson Jr., the former city comptroller – have supported the ban, as well as the electric car initiative.
NY-Class and other animal rights groups pledge that if the carriages are eliminated, they will find safe pastures for the 216 horses. But many veterinarians say horse sanctuaries around the country are full, and facing difficulties because of the economy.
“If we banned the carriage horse industry tomorrow, they would go straight to slaughter,” said Dr. Nina Winand, an upstate New York veterinarian who is a member of the American Society of Equine Practitioners. “There is no big field out there, there is no one to pay the bills.”
By Emily B. Hager