Animal Activists Rallying Support for Ban on Horse Slaughter at Central Park

Tourists taking carriage rides around Fifth Avenue and Central Park South Sunday didn’t get the quiet ride they had expected.

Demonstrators belonging to the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages were protesting the practice of sending retired carriage horses to kill auctions. They were in Central Park rallying support for a bill that would make it illegal.

If passed, it would require horse owners to either sell or donate horses to animal protection organizations, animal sanctuaries or individuals. But under the condition horses are kept as companion animals only.

Democratic Councilman Tony Avella is publicly voicing support for the bill, saying the carriage-ride practice is inhumane and incompatible with a traffic-laden city like Manhattan.

Two attempts to pass a similar bill have been made in the past. But both failed. Nevertheless, members of the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn carriages continue petitioning and staging demonstrations, urging supporters to write city council members and editors.

“We think the carriage industry is extremely inhumane,” said Elizabeth Forel, an animal advocate for over 25 years. She’s the Coalition’s co-founder and president.

Carriage rides should be banned because they’re a matter of public safety, says the Coalition. Horses are easily spooked, so a loud noise could send them running.

Smoothie, a 12-year-old mare, died in 2007 after haphazardly bolting onto the sidewalk. She had been startled by a drum sound. She collided with a tree, broke her leg and went into shock. A second horse, frightened by what happened to Smoothie, ran into a car. But he wasn’t seriously injured.

Carriage horse in traffic close to Central Park/Elizabeth Forel

New York has the highest carriage-horse accident rate in the country, a fact that received attention after Smoothie’s death. According to The New York Times, seven horse-drawn carriage incidents have already been reported this year. And each one gives animal rights activists cause to protest the conditions in which horses are kept.

They argue that rain or shine. horses are required to work nine-hour days. They should be running in pastures, but instead they’re forced to weave in and out of traffic.

Cities comparable to Manhattan like London, Paris, Toronto and Beijing have already banned the use of horse-drawn carriages for leisure.

“It makes New York City look out-of-date,” said Dimitria Fay, a coalition member and long-time animal activist. “We’re supposed to be at the forefront showing the rest of the world what to do.”

Coalition members suspect that the New York government’s reluctance to outlaw horse-drawn carriages stems in part from the industry’s role in tourism. Fay pointed out, “No one is coming to New York to take a carriage ride.”

What’s more, according to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals website, some horses have contracted respiratory ailments as a result of constantly breathing in air pollutants from traffic. Others have developed debilitating leg injuries from walking on hard surfaces. Some have even dropped dead from heat strokes.

When a horse is suffering pain from an injury, illness or old age, his owner will usually have him euthanized. But it’s difficult to dispose of or preserve a 900- to 1,600-pound corpse. And cremation would require at least 10 human-sized boxes. So the owner’s only option is to send him to a rendering plant.

Though horsemeat was once used to make glue, today it’s used primarily to feed other animals.  Horses can’t be slaughtered for meat in America, however, because it’s against the law. So they’re often shipped to Canada and Mexico, according to Jane Smiley, a New York Times horse racing blogger. She said having to travel father in worse conditions only puts more stress on the horse.

Anti-slaughter campaigners want retired horses to be cared for. But according to Robert Lawrence of the Equine Industry Program at the University of Louisville, this would cost roughly $400 million a year. Who would pay for this?

To raise awareness about its cause, the Coalition has tried to enlist the help of more influential animal rights organizations like PETA and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

In response, both groups have condemned the use of horse-drawn carriages on their websites, PETA because carriages are used solely for entertainment, and the A.S.P.C.A. because it “does not believe New York City can meet the needs of its horses.”

The A.S.P.C.A. has tried, along with the city’s health department and the Department of Consumer Affairs to regulate the carriage industry by limiting the hours horses can work and ensuring their safety on city streets. It has even held seminars for the New York Police Department about treatment of carriage horses in urban settings. In 2007, it supported the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act.

The Coalition, however, feels the group’s efforts have fallen short due to its lack of sufficient government funding and paid personnel.

The A.S.P.C.A. cannot enforce laws that haven’t been enacted, and not many carriage-horse laws have. Additionally, its level of enforcement is shortchanged, because it’s paid for via donations.

Carriage drivers usually gross $750 a day, not including tips. So on a good day, they give about 15 rides. When they were asked their opinions about the issue, most of them declined to comment. But one driver, John McDonald, was eager to talk.

“You know I’m a big animal lover,” he said. “So I’m telling you these horses are well taken care of.”

Fay likes to remind people that horses are the reason a beautiful place like Central Park even exists. She said they transported the soil used in the park’s construction, as well as did much of the digging.

“We need to protect horses, because they gave us the park.”

(Written Sept. 28, 2011 for Reporting and Writing class)

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