For generations of tourists, and even some residents, taking a ride on a horse-drawn carriage through Central Park has been a key part of their New York City experience, along with watching a Broadway show and ice skating in Rockefeller Center.
Those days -- as far as the carriage ride goes -- may soon be coming to an end.
New York's new Mayor Bill de Blasio says he will make good on a campaign promise to shutter what he considers to be a cruel industry, a view backed by animal rights groups. The drivers of the 200 or so carriages that have meandered around the country's first landscaped public park are crying foul and one prominent horse veterinarian has said he found the horses to be well treated.
How de Blasio, who was inaugurated as New York City's 109th mayor earlier this week, handles this issue may offer some hints on how he handles economic issues. Tourism is big business for the city, which attracted more than 52 million visitors who spent about $37 billion in 2012, the latest year where data is available, according to the city.
Some observers question his prioritization of the horse carriage issues. "De Blasio is starting his term as dictator by dictating," writes Judson Phillips in the conservative Washington Times. "He is dictating a group of people out of their jobs. These are the iconic horse drawn carriages in New York."
DeBlasio has proposed replacing the carriages with antique replica electric cars that could be driven by the same drivers. A de Blasio spokesperson couldn't immediately be reached for comment. The ban requires approval of the City Council. The carriage drivers promise a court fight if the ban is passed, asserting the horses are treated well.
Indeed, when Dr. Harry Warner and several other veterinarians who specialize in the treatment of horses accepted an invitation a few years ago from owners of New York City's horse-drawn carriages to inspect their operations, they found no evidence that the animals were being mistreated. He also rejected the notion offered by de Blasio and animal rights groups that horses were unable to adapt to modern city life.
"I didn't see a single horse that didn't show all the signs that we associate with contentment," said Warner, former chairman of American Association of Equine Practitioners' (AAEP) Equine Welfare Committee, in an interview, adding that, like people, there are horses that don't have the right temperament to live in the city. "No it's not too much stress. ... There are horses who don't want to be a race horse. There are horses that don't want to chase cattle."
Werner, who has 40 years experience and a practice in North Granby, Conn., said none of the veterinarians who took part in the inspections received any compensation from the carriage operators and paid their own expenses. He hasn't conducted a follow-up visit.
Ashley Byrne, a PETA spokeswoman, argued that Warner's comments were a "publicity stunt" for the carriage operators and argued that putting horses in contact with cars and trucks is "extremely cruel when you are talking about an animal who is sensitive and easily spooked."
Ally Feldman, the executive director of the animal rights group NYCLASS, argued that the time has come to shut these anachronistic businesses. "We've seen, time and time again, evidence of accidents and abuse," she writes in an email. "Accidents, unsafe action, sick and lame carriage horses."
Animal rights groups said that if the carriages are banned, they will find homes for the 220 or so horses working in New York City.