Many US cities have quintessential sights and sounds: San Francisco’s clanging cable cars, New Orleans and its raucous Mardi Gras and Washington’s political mudslinging.
New York has an abundance of them too, and the new mayor has ignited a firestorm by announcing plans to nix one that is a century old — the horse-drawn carriages in Central Park — calling them inhumane.
In their place, if he gets his way, get ready to kick back in electric cars.
“We are going to get rid of the horse carriages. Period,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, said in December last year, one month after being elected.
“We are going to quickly and aggressively move to make horse carriages no longer a part of the landscape in New York City. They are not humane. They are not appropriate to the year 2014. It’s over,” he said.
This month he hammered away further, calling his idea non-negotiable.
However, he did promise to discuss things with the people who make a living from this very Big Apple tourist attraction, which involves 220 horses, 170 drivers and 68 carriages.
NYClass is one of the groups pressing to get rid of the carriages.
“New York is one of the most congested cities in the entire world. These horses are working in midtown traffic with their noses against the tail pipes,” the group’s Chelsie Schadt said.
“Horses don’t belong in traffic,” she said.
The group donated US$1.3 million to the campaigns of De Blasio and other mayoral candidates opposed to this attraction — which has been immortalized in romantic fashion in many movies.
“It is absolutely about defending animals,” said Schadt, adding that the carriages had been involved in about 20 accidents in recent years.
“Horses are not like people. They need daily turning out, time every day to behave like a horse, pasture-grazing and socializing with other horses,” she added. “They go from the confines of their stalls to the streets of New York City, back to their stalls.”
So nerves are on edge at the stables housing the horses.
Conor McHugh, the husky manager of the Clinton Park Stables on 52nd Street, gladly opens up the facility, built in 1860, for a tour.
On the ground floor are the carriages themselves, adorned with plastic flowers and US flags. In the basement, pedi-cabs are lined up. And upstairs are the horses, 79 of them, each in its own stall measuring 3m by 2.4m.
McHugh shows off the water troughs, the hay and the sprinkler system in case there is a fire.
He says that all the horses that take people for rides in Central Park must spend at least five weeks a year on a farm and cannot work more than nine hours a day, from the time they leave the stable until they get back.
Nor can they toil in temperatures above 32oC or below minus-7oC.
“People who are against our business keep insisting that our horses never see time on the farm, or never get to run in the fields and never get to be, according to them, a horse,” McHugh said.
“By law, they have to do all of those things,” he added.
Schadt counters that even if there are rules to protect the horses, “there is simply no way you can regulate that industry to make it truly humane.”
So NYClass wants to replace the carriages with electric-powered copies of early 20th century cars to offer that same “nostalgic feel.”
The horses would be retired to “sanctuaries” and looked after by the people who drove the carriages, the group said, calling this a very fair alternative.