The Horse-Drawn Carriage Debate Continues; Local Groups and Celebrities Call for a Ban

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Michelle D. Anderson
The effort to ban horse-drawn carriages in New York City rages on.

Another report of a carriage horse collapse in a two-week span has left animal-rights advocates -- including celebrities such as Glee's Lea Michele and Pamela Anderson -- with a renewed passion to end the use of horse-drawn carriages.

Today the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages (CBHDC) will hold a rally and tourist-hotel crawl on Central Park South at 6:30 p.m.

According to Elizabeth Forel, CBHDC's president since the group's inception in 2006, the latest horse collapse, which occurred Friday, is not the second in two weeks but rather the third. Forel tells us that on Oct. 28, a horse bucked and nearly hit several taxis after racing along 59th Street.

The most recent horse accident occurred Friday, Nov. 4, during the evening rush hour, on 60th Street and Broadway. A horse named Luke bucked, causing his hind leg to get caught in the carriage's shaft, which led to his fall. Witnesses say the horse remained on the ground for 15 minutes.

Just a few days earlier, on Oct. 23, a 15-year-old horse called Charlie collapsed and dropped dead on West 54th Street and Eighth Avenue while in transit to work. The horse had been licensed to work in August. A necropsy conducted by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) found that Charlie suffered from a chronic stomach ulcer and a cracked tooth and had been "suspended pending a veterinary examination."

This summer, a cab rear-ended a horse carriage near Central Park, throwing a woman out onto the sidewalk and the horse onto the street, with the carriage on top of it. Four people suffered injuries.

"Every time one of these accidents happens, I get e-mails from people I don't know," Forel said. "People are very concerned about this."

After Luke's collapse last week, Pamela Anderson, a longtime celebrity PETA affiliate, posted a message on her official PETA Facebook page stating, "Horses do not belong in a congested, urban setting where they are constantly breathing exhaust and sharing the streets with cars, buses and taxis." She included a link to sign a petition started by NY-Class, also known as New Yorkers For Clean, Livable & Safe Streets. The group is behind an initiative to replace the carriages with vintage replica electric cars.

The page includes a YouTube video featuring actress Lea Michele, who has, via Twitter, been asking her fans to sign the petition. Michele, a New York native, also recently asked Mayor Bloomberg to support Intro 86A, a bill introduced by Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito of East Harlem that seeks to replace horse carriages with vintage replica eco-friendly cars.

New York senator Tony Avella and assembly member Linda Rosenthal have co-sponsored two bills to ban the horse carriages. The legislation, S5013 and A7748, will be deliberated when the state legislature convenes in January. (Back when he was a councilman in 2007, Avella proposed a bill to ban the carriages to much opposition.)

Forel said the Oct. 28 horse accident that went largely uncovered by local news media occurred at 11 p.m., just three hours after local groups, including CBHDC, held a vigil for the Charlie. According to an account by North Carolina tourist Philip Powell and his wife, a horse bucked and ran west before making a U-turn and speeding east along Central Park South, racing past pedestrians and cars. The horse eventually crashed with an empty carriage on Seventh Avenue.

New Yorker Scott Graham caught the tail end of the incident and took a picture, which was later used by a local CBS affiliate in a news report. Powell notified the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages after the accident, Forel said.

Forel called it an example of a "spook" incident, which occurs when horse responds to something such as a shadow, sound, or smell and reacts in an unpredictable manner that can be dangerous to people nearby.

"They become unwitting weapons," Forel said. "They act as though their life is in danger. [I] think it's only a matter of time before a person gets killed."

Aside from compromising the safety of pedestrians, which Forel said is the most compelling reason for the ban, animals-rights activists say horses suffer from serious respiratory problems because of the "nose-to-tailpipe" exposure to car pollution, along with lameness caused by standing or walking on hard pavement for extended hours.

Activists also contend that the horses don't receive any pasture time to run free or interact with other horses, nor do they receive adequate care despite two mandatory annual exams. Others say the horse-carriage industry is outdated while nearby residents have complained about the smell and sight of manure.

Current laws require horses to receive five weeks of vacation annually and carriage operators are prohibited from driving the horses in temperatures below 18 degrees and above 90 degrees. While some groups have called for an outright ban, other groups have called to restrict the use of horse-drawn carriages to Central Park to keep the horses away from cars.

Brendan Fearon, a horse-carriage operator veteran who has worked in the business for 30 years, said he is amazed by the amount of energy and attention given to carriage horses and the subsequent call for bans, compared to other issues like helicopter crashes and accidents involving cyclists.

"I don't see anyone screaming, 'Ban helicopters!'" Fearon said.

Fearon, who stations his horse, Dennis, near the General William Tecumseh Sherman monument near Central Park, said the carriage horses are not tortured. "This is far from torture. Torture is what Saddam Hussein did. Torture is what happened in Libya," Fearon said.

Fearon said he spends about 50 hours a week with Dennis, and during that time, he cares for the horse, feeding him apples, brushing his mane, and maintaining his hooves. He said horse owners and tourists approach him in particular because they can tell the horse is well-maintained and also because of Fearon's attire. The Liverpool native sports a black top hat adorned with a multicolored feather and a red vest with gold polka dots.

But Fearon said people have been approaching him more often to express disgust with the horse-carriage industry, and that recently a woman told him he was an "uneducated slob" after they debated the issue.

"Any time you're working with animals in the 21st century, it's always going to be controversial -- especially in a public space," Fearon said. "There are people abandoning horses every day in this country," he said, suggesting that the carriage horses would not be better off in the "back shed of a farm in Pennsylvania."

Proponents of horse-drawn carriages, including Bloomberg and Christine Quinn, say the industry supports tourism and contributes to the heritage of the city. Bloomberg said the horses were often adopted or rescued from dire circumstances and that animal-rights activists should be happy the horses are not abandoned.

"The horses here are supervised by the health department, the A.S.P.C.A.," Bloomberg told reporters on October 26. "They're well taken care of. And most of them wouldn't be alive if they didn't have a job."

Today's rally will begin on "The Hack Line" near the north side of Fifth Avenue.

[manderson@villagevoice.com

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