By John DeSio
The clip-clop of equine feet through midtown Manhattan would be a thing of the past if City Council Member Tony Avella gets his way. But opponents of the council member say he has no horse sense.
Avella will hold a press conference on Saturday to announce a bill that would ban horse-drawn carriages, hansom cabs if you’re olde tyme-ish, from all City streets. The bill will be officially introduced in the City Council next Wednesday, and represents the first time any elected official has pushed for an all-out ban on perhaps the City’s most famous tourist trap.
For animal rights activists, Avella’s bill cannot be passed soon enough. Edita Birnkrant, spokesperson for the non-profit Friends of Animals, said there has been discussion of simply reforming the industry in the past. Such reforms, she added, would offer only cosmetic changes to a barbaric practice. “There’s no way to make it better,” said Birnkrant, calling horse-drawn carriages “horrible” and “cruel.” “It’s time to get it out of the City.”
Not so, says the horse and carriage industry.
“This is just a cheap publicity program he is running on the backs of these horses,” said Carolyn Daly, spokesperson for the Horse & Carriage Association of New York “He should be ashamed.” Avella has aligned himself with extremists, said Daly, knows nothing about horses and does not truly care for the animals, only his political career. “This is not about the horses,” said Daly. “This is about Tony Avella. He’s the worst kind of elected official.”
The genesis of Avella’s bill came two years ago, when he proposed limiting horse drawn carriages to Central Park and the surrounding streets. That proposal went nowhere, but Avella has decided to branch out to a full ban in part due to safety concerns for motorists. When he drives next to horses in Manhattan he often worries that something bad will happen. Will the horse move towards the car? Will it buck? Will he accidentally strike the horse? But the animal rights aspect weighs on Avella, too. The council member implied that the mistreatment of horses is inherent in the industry. “It’s just time to say, ‘enough is enough.’ We’re better as a society today,” said Avella.
“He’s just making stuff up as he goes along,” said an enraged Daly, who dared Avella to find a mistreated or abused horse among the 220 licensed by the City for use with 68 licensed carriages. “He’s not going to find one.” She said that veterinarians and the ASPCA regularly visit the horses, and they don’t seem to have a problem with the treatment of the animals. And the industry’s record with the Department of Consumer Affairs, she said, is spotless. In fact, Daly said that one year ago Avella visited the stables himself and proclaimed them, and the horses within, to be in great shape. “If a horse is in bad shape, it’s not working,” she said.
“The more you know about him, the more I feel like I could hate him,” said Cornelius Byrne, owner of Central Park Carriage, said of Avella. Byrne’s own personal tragedy has played a major role in Avella’s current push. In September he lost Smoothie, a ten-year-old mare, after the horse was distracted by a snare drum playing nearby. The horse panicked, lurched forward, struck a tree and died. Following the incident, animal rights activists held a vigil for Smoothie, to which Byrne was not invited. “There was nobody more sorrowful to have lost that horse than me,” said Byrne.
Byrne, whose family has been in the business for about 50 years, said there is a certain significant level of insincerity within the ranks of the animal right extremists that make up the opposition to horse drawn carriages. They do not mourn Smoothie or any other horse, he said, but are actually happy to see tragedy befall an animal so long as it might advance their argument. “They think its going to help prove their extremist, radical points,” he said. Those activists might have mental health problems, said Byrne, but Avella should know better. “He’s only doing this to get his name in the paper.”
The economy plays a major role in this horse drawn argument, with Avella and others stating that carriage business is down, in large part due to ethical concerns over the use of the animals. That, said Avella, is why the Horse & Carriage Association of New York is pushing for a fare increase. Nonsense, said Daly, who noted that the industry has not seen a fare increase since 1989. “The taxi fares have been raised 15 times during that same time span,” she said, pointing out that the cost of feed, for example, has gone up roughly 400 percent during that same time span. “A raise is perfectly reasonable.”
And plenty of people are still riding these hansom cabs, said Daly, noting that right now during peak carriage season wait times for rides can run longer than an hour. Both sides lay claim to the intents of New York’s tourists, with Birnkrant stating that numerous tourists her group has spoken to oppose the carriage industry, and that many of those tourists have signed the petition available at the website of the Coalition to Ban Horse Drawn Carriages. “We don’t need the horse drawn carriages for tourists,” said Birnkrant. “Most tourists don’t care about it. It won’t make a difference.”
“We’re a landmark,” said another horseman, Ian McKeever of Shamrock Stables. “We’re just as important as the Empire State Building or the Plaza Hotel.” McKeever said he resents any claims that he, or anyone else in his business, does not care about the horses under their care. He recounted stories of waiting with animals through the night to ensure their health, and pointed out that sick, decrepit horses do not do his business any good. These animals, said McKeever, live wonderful lives. “Nobody cares more for my horses than myself.”
McKeever and Daly both said that Avella might know the work of the carriage industry better if he listened to his own constituents. Daly said one-fifth of the industry’s close to 300 drivers live in Bayside, right in the heart of Avella’s Queens district. A ban on hansom cabs would cost them their jobs. But more than just those drivers would suffer, said Daly. They would be out of jobs, but so would the men and women who deliver feed, put shoes on horses, and clean the stables. “He should be looking after his own people in Bayside,” said McKeever, “not these extremists in Manhattan.”
Both Avella and Birnkrant are hopeful the bill will pass, though circumstances paint a bleak picture for the bill’s immediate future. The council member noted that both Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn have indicated a reluctance to pass any ban, mostly due to the importance of carriages to the City’s tourism trade. Without Quinn on his side Avella will have an extremely hard time rallying fellow council members to his side, a task made even harder due to his pariah status in City Hall. Still, whether it happens today or down the line, Avella is confident that eventually horse-drawn carriage rides will be a thing of the past. “They’re not appropriate for City traffic anymore,” said Avella. “It may take some time, but eventually its going to happen.”
Though Daly and others see Avella acting on the issue to boost his own mayoral ambitions, Avella insists he is only looking out for the welfare of the horses. There was certainly a time when such transportation was necessary but today horse-drawn carriages are only in the way, he said. Smoothie was spooked by the sound of a drum, added Avella, who wondered how many more similar accidents could happen down the line given the thousands of other potential noisemakers that fill midtown Manhattan.
Birnkrant agreed. A City environment, especially the biggest City in the world, is no place for wild creatures like horses. ““When you look beyond the surface and the façade and charm, it’s crazy,” she said. You could hardly create a more hostile environment for a horse than midtown Manhattan.”
Whatever the objections, and personal ire, the City’s horsemen have for Avella and his bill he insists that New Yorkers are on his side, and passing his ban is the only humane thing to do. “There’s a reason horse-drawn carriages don’t exist anymore in society, especially in midtown traffic,” said Avella. “I hope we can pass this before we have more accidents.”
He added, ““I hate to use the pun, but I think it’s time to put them out to pasture.”
Avella is likely running against Quinn and others for mayor in 2009, and Byrne made it crystal clear that he and others in his industry will take tremendous pride in costing him votes down the line.
“He needs to be exposed for what he is, a terrible person. He’s a scoundrel, an opportunist,” said Byrne. “If he runs for mayor, I’ll do everything I can to be part of what makes him lose.”