The Central Park horse carriage industry has been a beloved fixture of New York City since the park first opened in 1858. It has survived the coming of the automobile, the Great Depression, two World Wars, an era of high crime (and misdemeanors) and myriad other changes.
But it might not survive Mayor Bill de Blasio and the animal rights activists.
The mayor signed a City Council bill on Monday that extends the existing restrictions on hot weather work. Until now the rides were banned when temperatures reach 90 degrees; the new stricture makes 80 degrees the limit, and takes into account the “equine heat index” — temperature plus relative humidity — which would put the carriages out of action when that hits 150.
The measure delighted New Yorkers for Clean, Livable, and Safe Streets (NYCLASS), outraged the carriage drivers, and dismayed many others who believe that the regulations have been adequate to safeguard the horses’ health, and don’t want to see the carriages go extinct.
Actually, the joy of the NYCLASS crowd was only partial. The group hitched its wagon to de Blasio in his 2013 campaign, when he promised an all-out ban on Central Park horse carriages “on day one” of his administration.
Day one came and went, but the mayor failed to get the ban passed. Six years and lots of lobbying and campaign contributions later, the ban has still not materialized, but at least the group has managed to impose a regulation that may permanently cripple and eventually destroy the business — which has always been their goal.
As NYCLASS executive director Edita Birnkrant said on Monday, “You cannot justify forcing horses to pull thousands of pounds in brutal heat waves. There is still a lot to do, but this is a great step.”
The drivers dispute the contention that working in 80-degree heat is injurious to the horses. They maintain that, on the contrary, the legislation will actually hurt horses’ well-being, denying them the exercise they need to stay strong and energetic.
Veterinarian Harry Werner testified at City Council hearings in June that “there is absolutely no evidence-based data to support any lowering [of the temperature limit] … There is simply no equine benefit to be achieved. The current protocol is working well.” Apparently, these horses are hardier, made of sterner stuff than some people think.
What about humane treatment for carriage drivers?
This seems to be less of a concern to the bill’s supporters. “There are 35 days last year where this law would provide some relief for these carriage horses where at the hottest part of the day, they wouldn’t have to work,” a NYCLASS spokesperson said, according to the One Green Planet site. Drivers said the new law would have increased the number of work suspensions this summer from 24 to 44.
Whatever the exact number, it’s not only the horses who get a rest. So do their owners, even if neither wants it.
As it is, business is down and the 300 or so people employed in the industry may soon be facing unemployment. Earlier this year, when nobody was looking, the city summarily tore up Central Park South and parts of the southern park drives to force the carriages off the street and into the park, thereby divesting them of a parking location which had been granted since 1862.
Inside the park, they are less visible. Customers are fewer. The drivers complain that pedicab vendors have moved in to cut off prospective customers before they get to the horses. Some drivers are talking about quitting at the end of the year.
OGP declared it a victory for animal rights. Hansen responded, “It is only a victory for the power of money in politics at the expense of working people. The horses, due process and science are the losers here.”
That “money in politics” swipe is a reference to the cozy cash link between the de Blasio campaign and NYCLASS that was uncovered by the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) last year. When de Blasio ran for mayor in 2013, he received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from NYCLASS, which had neglected to register as a lobby group. JCOPE imposed a fine of $10,000.
The horse carriage bill was only one part of a whole package of animal rights legislation signed by de Blasio on Monday. It also included a ban on the sale of foie gras — force-fed meat — starting in three years, and five other laws.
This overheated concern for equine welfare is meanwhile jeopardizing livelihoods and threatening to deprive New Yorkers and visitors to the city of a unique, historic attraction. Should it succeed, the animal rights footprint will be larger — and the city will be smaller for it.