Tourists waiting to take a carriage ride through Central Park Saturday afternoon confronted a barrage of animal rights activists that tried to persuade them not to take the iconic trip.
About 25 people holding “Compassionate Tourists Say No” and “Set Me Free” posters protested less than seven feet away from horse carriage drivers on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 59th Street. They also handed out handed out flyers to passersby.
“This has been going on for far too long,” said Elizabeth Forel, the president of the grassroots organization Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages who organized Saturday’s protest. The coalition claims that horse-drawn carriages are inhumane and unsafe.
“The horses work nine hours a day, they live in the most congested city of the world and they have stalls that are smaller than the size experts say they should be,” Forel said.
Many of the protesters said they have been attending these protests multiple times every month over the last few years.
“But this year I’m more hopeful than ever,” said Nicodemo Spadavecchia, 41, an accountant and animal activist who joined the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages in 2008.
During his mayoral campaign, Bill de Blasio had promised that if elected, he would ban horse-drawn carriages. On his mayoral campaign website, he proposed to replace the carriages with “electric, vintage-replica tourist-friendly vehicles that provide jobs for current drivers.”
On December 30, two days before taking his mayoral oath, de Blasio said at a press conference that he would “get rid of horse carriages” in his first week in office. A month later, a bill has not yet been introduced and the horse-drawn carriage rides continue unabated. The mayor’s office did not return calls and emails requesting comment.
“Nothing happens immediately and we are going to be there until de Blasio keeps his promise,” said 41-year-old Brian who did not want to give his last name as he feared reprisals from carriage drivers. He said a driver once hit him with his whip and many of the groups’ members have received threats. Several other protesters on Saturday did not want to give their last names, as they said they were scared of being harassed by the drivers.
Sitting in their carriage a few feet away, horse drivers chuckled or rolled their eyes as they watched the protesters.
“They got it all wrong,” said John McNally, a 41 year-old former hotel manager who has been conducting horse carriage tours in Central Park for four years. “Our horses have a minimum of five weeks off per year, they have a nice stall, next time I’m going to take a picture with my phone to show them.” McNally added that he feared for his job.
Many drivers on Saturday expressed concern that they would lose their livelihood and some said they were disappointed that the new mayor hadn’t visited the stalls where horses are kept or tried to talk to the drivers.
There are 68 licensed carriages, about 220 licensed horses and approximately 300 licensed horse drivers in the city, according to a 2007 report issued by New York City comptroller.
Sean Boyle, who has been driving horse carriages for the past 22 years, claimed that the protesters were “paid activists” working for property developers who want to claim the land on which the horses’ stables now stand. He insisted that he treats his 14-year-old horse Elvis very well.
“The vets come to check him two or three times in a year. He has been given all his shots,” he said.
When asked about the activists’ allegations that the horses are being made to stand in the cold without blankets, he said, “It is a nice day today. They don’t need blankets on days like this. It is 40 degrees (Fahrenheit). I am letting the sun at them. They’ll feel the cold only when the temperature dips to 19 degrees or below.”
Boyle said he is allowed to work his horse for only nine hours in a day, he said, showing a card from his stable that clocks the time he takes out the horse and brings it back in. If he exceeds the nine hours and the authorities check his card, he can be fined.
“I spend more time with my horses than with my kids, how can they accuse me of abusing my horses? ” said Oliver Joseph, 38, a horse carriage driver for 15 years, standing a few feet away from the protesters.
With reporting contributed by Asha Mahadevan