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New York's Horse Carriage Ban Could Right A Historical Wrong

New York City's recent horse carriage ban has prompted a heated public debate over whether Manhattan's horse carriage industry, which has been around since the mid-nineteenth century, is no more than an iconic tradition, or no less than animal cruelty. Proponents of the ban, including New York mayor Bill De Blasio, have called the horse carriages inhumane, citing several recent incidents as signs of an abusive industry. But, as it turns out, these "recent" tragedies are really historic problems. As Lee Siegel points out in this week's issue of New York Magazine, abuse has been rampant in the horse carriage industry practically since its inception:

The business was constantly being regulated and reregulated, but abuse of the animals was common practice. The ­horses were the victims of the struggling, underpaid carriage drivers' rage, as well as of the drive for profits. Children tossed firecrackers at them on the street, and one boy was observed applying honey to a lamppost in subzero weather, hoping to lure a horse whose tongue would freeze to the iron when the animal licked it.

"Such heinous behavior," Siegel writes, was actually a central concern of the early animal rights movement, and abuse of carriage horses contributed to the formation of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in 1866. Henry Bergh, the organization's founder, had several business associates who owned horse-transit companies, whom Siegel describes as being (surprisingly) supportive of the ASPCA. "They welcomed the new organization for reasons that, in the manner of the era, almost seamlessly blended moral considerations with expedient shortcuts," he says:

On the one hand, the owners needed healthy, well-treated horses from which they could extract years of work -- and the ASPCA ensured that standard was met. On the other hand, the insurance companies would not pay for lame horses if the policyholder shot them himself, so Bergh's ASPCA operatives would obligingly shoot the animals instead. The anti-cruelty society quickly became the leading killer of horses in the city.

That's not the case anymore, though: the ASPCA is now one of the leading opponents of the horse carriage industry, claiming that New York's present-day urban environment is no place for horses. And the conditions for carriage horses are bleak, according to Siegel's report. Manhattan has four antiquated stables where the horses live, on the upper floors of old buildings that only sometimes have windows in the stalls. Many of the stalls are completely dark at night -- but it doesn't get much brighter for the horses in the morning.

Carriage horses are subject to a strict schedule, spending 9 hours each day harnessed and on a loop through Central Park. Their shifts are shorter in the wintertime, when daily temperatures can reach single-digit lows, but otherwise the routine remains the same. "This goes on for years -- for fifteen, possibly even twenty years," Siegel writes. "After that, the likelihood is strong that the horse, old and tired, will be sold to a slaughterhouse, where she will be euthanized, chopped up, and packed into cans of dog food."

As we've written before, this will not be the outcome for New York's carriage horses after the industry is abolished, despite rumors that the ban will send animals to their deaths. The ban will send carriage horses out of the city soon and, as supporters have made clear, industry reform is not a viable option. "Now that we've been led... to include a belief in animals as thinking, feeling, soulful beings," Siegel writes, "mere reform would be seen as capitulation to cruelty."