For decades, the clomping click-clock of hooves from hansom cabs has been a romantic Central Park cliche.
Blankets and cocoa for snowy days, chocolates and bubbly in spring – the season, too, when many a bride and groom seek the perfect photo op, a nostalgic connection to the horse-drawn traditions from a more sepia-toned New York. Tourists often seek the same.
“It’s over,” said New York Mayor Bill de Blasio on Monday, two days before his swearing in. “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.”
The new mayor’s announcement, which already has elicited vows of opposition, nevertheless represented a long-sought victory for the animal-rights movement. For decades, activists had tried to rid Manhattan’s streets of its hansom cabs, arguing that behind the sentimentality and nostalgia, horses were being abused, pulling carriages with painful foundered hooves, enduring maltreatment and malnutrition from their drivers, and leading miserable, plodding lives.
“We’ve been able to put this issue of horse carriages into the New York City political conversation, which is a huge milestone for the animal rights movement,” says Allie Feldman, executive director of NYClass, the animal rights group that has spearheaded the ban-the-carriage movement. “I don’t know anywhere in the country where animal issues have been part of a major election, or any election, period.”
The issue took on surprising salience during the mayoral primaries last year as well-funded and politically-sophisticated groups like NYClass and others produced a ground-swell of opposition to one of New York’s Central Park traditions.
High-profile celebs like Glee’s Lea Michele, Miley Cyrus, and Joan Jett have also joined the protesting chorus, and Alec Baldwin only agreed to film a scene on a carriage for “30 Rock” because his character could call it “rolling torture wagons for nature’s most dignified creature.”
And there have been 20 incidents in the last two years alone, activists say, the latest coming the week before Christmas when a New York police officer arrested a carriage driver for overworking a visibly-injured horse named Blondie. The driver was charged with animal cruelty after Blondie was found to be suffering from thrush, a bacterial infection of the hoof that results from damp or unsanitary living conditions.
“That’s just a tip of the iceberg with these drivers,” says Ms. Feldman, a political operative and veteran of a number of New York and national campaigns. “There’s absolutely no reason that horses should be working in New York City’s dangerous, congested, trafficked streets.”
But tourists and carriage drivers are mounting up for a counter charge.
“It’s not over,” said Christina Hansen, a carriage driver and liaison for the Horse and Carriage Association of New York City, according to the Daily News. “You cannot just get rid of a business, perfectly legal [and] well-regulated … just because a few people don't like it. If he wants to ban them because they're dangerous and inhumane, he needs to prove that.... Our record shows we take care of our horses and our horses are treated humanely.”
Yet with at least 39 of 51 members of the New York City Council now opposed to continuing the hansom cab tradition, and with a long-stalled bill to end the industry again before it, the era of clomping hooves on city streets appears to be all but over.
“It should be left alone!” e-mails James Baussmann, a senior account manager with Text100 Boston, a global communications firm. “My wife and I just moved from NYC after 10 years of living in Manhattan/Queens. A hansom cab ride was/is on our ‘NYC bucket list’ that we created before we moved. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to it before we moved … and now we’re afraid we’ll never get the chance.”
Critics also point out that this would end the livelihood of hansom cab drivers, some of whom have been guiding carriages through Central Park since the 1980s. They also point out that most of the 200 registered horses will probably end up in the proverbial glue factory.
The bill before the City Council, however, provides for a new nostalgic tradition: the horseless carriage ride in Central Park. The plan calls for a three-year phase-out period in which horse-drawn carriages would be replaced with an antique replica car, modeled after a 1909 Pierce Arrow. Carriage owners could trade in their hansom cab licenses and transfer them to a new electric horseless version.
Supporters of the measure say this will cut carriage owners’ costs for stables, veterinary care, and food, as well as give them more days to carry passengers, since hansom cabs do not operate during cold or rainy weather.
“You can't create tradition. You can't create kids coming with smiles on their faces to pet the horses,” counters Steven Malone, a horse-carriage driver since 1987, according to CNN. "You're not getting that with an electric car... Kids can't pet fenders."
As for the horses, activists say they will find them homes.
“Adoption homes for every single one of these now pulling carriages is a huge priority for us,” says NYClass’s Feldman. “We’ve got a great partnership with the ASPCA and the Humane Society, and we’re going to be making sure that every single one of these horses go into a loving adoptive home – I have a waiting list for folks who want to adopt one of these horses when they’re ready to come off the streets.”
Some experts doubt there are resources or space for these retired horses, however, putting the costs of caring for 200 former carriage horses at about half a million dollars a year. “We do not have enough rescue space in this country for the horses we have now,” Karen Waite, an equine extension specialist at Michigan State University, told the Daily News during the mayoral campaign last fall. “To add another 200 to an already overburdened situation is not a good thing. It's distressing, actually.”
But the political winds that have swept into New York City this past year has changed its climate considerably. Liberals have swept into office across the city, and now PETA is in, and top hats – which many hansom cab riders wear – are out.
“What’s great about de Blasio is that when he comes out, he comes out strong,” says Feldman. “He’s been a big hero to the animal rights community.”