Welfare advocates long have said that New York's air pollution, hard surfaces and sweltering summer streets are too hostile for horse-drawn carriages, which are commonly pulled by animals "essentially rescued from killer sales," says Holly Cheever, DVM, vice president of the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights and a mixed animal practitioner in upstate New York.
She wrote a letter to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York City Council detailing how the city's harsh conditions affect horses.
"You really cannot have a fleet of horses in that kind of traffic. They are prey animals with millions of years of evolution to do the flight response; that's how they are wired," she says. "So, I don't think horses belong in New York City other than the mounted police horses, which are in a very different condition, situation and care level. But if we can't get them off the streets, then they should be restricted to Central Park and get them the hell out of traffic. It seems like a no-brainer."
Dr. Jay Merriam, former Welfare Task Force chairman for the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), says air quality, proper exercise and stall conditions are major concerns for urban horses.
Horse-drawn carriages currently are allowed to travel as far as Times Square during certain times of the night, Avella says.
"There is a reason that there is no longer horse-driven carriages in today's society," Avella tells DVM Newsmagazine. "Horses don't mix with automobiles, so it's designed to protect the horses; it's designed to protect the drivers and the passenger and pedestrians. In my opinion, it's a huge safety issue."
But the about 375 horse-drawn cab drivers in the city, who drive about 70 horse-drawn cabs, are charging into the debate. They formed the Horse and Carriage Association and hired a lobbyist to fight the proposal.
The Central Park Commission might not be to keen on the idea, either. Cheever says historically, the commission frowns on the idea of added equine traffic in city's most popular sanctuary.
Avella says he will grant the Horse and Carriage Association a hearing before any legislation goes further.
"They feel they are taking care of the horses properly, that any restrictions to Central Park would negatively affect their business and that they would have to lay off drivers," he says.
While the historically pro-business city weighs the rights of small business owners, the safety of the city's residents likely will continue to put pressure on carriage operators and City Council, and the decades-old battle to bolster welfare of working horses is bound to add ammunition around town.
"It's a pretty brutal existence with as hot as it gets in the summer and as cold as it gets in the winter, and these really horrendous stables are so ill-suited for what we now consider proper horse care," Cheever says.
As good as it gets?
But it's not all doom and gloom on New York City streets. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) regularly visits carriage horse companies to observe basic maintenance and care. Last summer, they consulted with Dr. Jay Merriam, then Welfare Task Force chairman for AAEP, to gauge how well the working animals were cared for.
"Quite honestly, I didn't see any horses that looked to be in bad condition," Merriam says. "They looked decently cared for and decently shod, and my talks with the ASPCA convinced me that they had access to good veterinary care. The ASPCA is working pretty hard on keeping the stable up to snuff in terms of air quality, which is a huge issue."
One of the stable challenges is airflow, as many operators retrofit older building to be stables. High levels of ammonia and urea build-up can pose greater health concerns than the actual pollution on the city streets if ventilation isn't up to snuff, Merriam says.
"If the EPA would go in and take air-quality tests, then they probably wouldn't allow people to work there," he says. "The problem is that air-quality stuff is not very romantic. It doesn't get headlines or a lot of attention."
Another concern for the working horses is lack of exercise. Although carriage horses work for a few hours at a time, much of it is spent standing on the street waiting for a customer. When off duty, they typically return to their stalls, which doesn't give them a lot of time for appropriate exercise, Merriam says.
"Some municipalities take horses in and out of the city on a monthly basis, to farms and such for exercise. So there are ways around all this," he says. "But the idea of keeping a horse 365 days a year living in New York City does expose them to an awful lot of pollution and air-quality problems that can lead to short- and long-term health problems."
Limiting a horse to Central Park is an improvement, Merriam says, but it still doesn't address stall quality or proper exercise.