It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. A campaign, sponsored by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, started out on August 21 as a seemingly hard-to-fault effort to publicize working and housing conditions of the city’s carriage horses. Instead, last week, a New York Post column by Andrea Peyser reported that Sara Whalen, executive director for Pets Alive, an upstate group that cares for horses and other animals, had accused the ASPCA of exploiting the animals to raise donor contributions.
On August 25, the day after actress Mary Tyler Moore spoke at a City Hall press conference about the equine issue, Peyser wrote, “Something is horribly wrong when people expend far more perspiration fighting on behalf of critters than, say, human children.” She said that she’d told Moore that “the ASPCA’s unwritten agenda” is “to eliminate horses from the city’s landscape altogether.” The focus, it seemed, had shifted away from the goals of the 134-year-old organization’s campaign to questions about its motivation and credibility.
What was a New Yorker to believe? According to Rodney Rodriguez, one of a dozen or more drivers whose carriages were lined up near Central Park along 57th Street at Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh avenues last Tuesday, the ASPCA campaign “doesn’t make sense.”
“[ASPCA agents] regulate us,” said the five-year veteran, who currently works part-time for the Manhattan Carriage Company. “If there’s anything wrong, it’s their fault, basically. They always send us in if it gets too hot [or too cold].” In fact, Local Law 89, enacted by the City Council in 1989, regulates the trade, setting the hours and areas in which carriage horses can work. In 1994, the law increased the horses’ workday from eight to nine hours and expanded their work areas to include more of midtown Manhattan at night. The ASPCA is working to amend the regulations.
Michael Regan, spokesperson for City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, said that “[the speaker] looks forward to reviewing any proposed legislation that the ASPCA may offer. He is particularly pleased that the ASPCA has recognized in its [public] comments that Speaker Vallone is a longtime supporter of animal rights.”
On a recent balmy evening, the carriage horses seemed (at least to the untrained eye) reasonably healthy, if somewhat listless. Several nibbled on buckets of oat mix while drivers either smoked, chatted, or pitched customers. One of the drivers (who asked to remain anonymous) pointed to an ex-race horse described as a Belgian. “These are beautiful, large, parade-quality horses. They’re up to weight. We build up their muscle by consistent exercise and feeding.”
This same driver accused some ASPCA agents of excessive ticketing. “They did this at times and in places where we’re allowed to be. They have a secret agenda.” Dr. Larry Hawk, president and CEO for the ASPCA, responded: “We have had no credible complaints and have no knowledge of our officers ticketing carriage horses erroneously for being out of Central Park during restricted hours.”
As for allegations that the ASPCA is using the issue to raise money, Hawk said, “The campaign’s motives are purely altruistic. . . . Under the new law we are proposing, the ASPCA would have an increased role in protecting the carriage horses, and we are therefore voluntarily willing to assume additional expenditures with absolutely no assurance of any increased revenues.”
A recent ASPCA press release stated: “Current City law allows these animals to work and live in conditions that are deplorable. . . . The ASPCA is proposing changes ranging from healthier temperature restrictions [no working below 20 degrees or above 88 degrees, or 86 degrees with a humidity index of 65 percent or more], work restricted to Central Park, and larger stalls and safer stables.”
According to the fall 1999 issue of ASPCA Animal Watch, “Today the carriage industry consists of 140 horses living in six stables around Manhattan. Some of these buildings, which are located in out-of-the-way sections of the borough, are around 100 years old.” Rodriguez’s horse, Duncan, a Percheron, is housed at a stable on 52nd Street and Twelfth Avenue. He said that some stables have box stalls, which provide more room for horses to move around than “regular” stalls. “But at the farms, that’s what they have—regular stalls.”
“We get our horses from the Amish. They were pulling plows. They didn’t have a 90-degrees law,” said Rodriguez.
One international Web site for commercial owners (www.mrhorse.it) advises that “carriage horses should be prohibited from working in areas of excessive or unsafe motor vehicle traffic during peak traffic hours. . . . Ideally some city zones should be restricted to horse-drawn vehicles. . . . During slow tourism periods, exercise by working without passengers, handwalking or pasture turnout is recommended.” Sounds pretty close to what the ASPCA wants.
The ASPCA is also pushing for increased compensation for drivers and owners, from the $34 to $45 for the first 30 minutes of a ride, and from $10 to $15 for each additional 15 minutes. Despite observations to the contrary, the ASPCA obviously cares as much about two-legged animals as four-legged ones.