There is no better way to grasp the true import of the New York Carriage Horse controversy that to go to 59th Street in Manhattan, stand along the southern boundaries of one of the world's most beautiful man-made creations, Central Park, and wait until a mother and child approach the carriage horses. It happens a hundred times a week, perhaps more. I would encourage anyone reading this to go and see this for themselves, it speaks it's own truth, cuts through the fog of argument like a spear.
At first, the mother is anxious, the child is shy, overwhelmed by the big horse, by their big eyes, their snorts.
But the scene always – always – unfolds the same way, and if the Mayor and the City Council members of New York came to stand on 59th street to watch, this long and anguished debate about the future of the horses would collapse unto itself. It is nothing, really, more than a sad reflection of how twisted and confused human beings have become about love, mystery and the meaning of animals in our lives.
Yesterday, I saw this child, Ina – she is from California, her parents came to New York City for the first time, the first thing they did was take Ina to Central Park to see the horses, it was one of the reasons they came. Ina came up with her mother, then approached on her own. The carriage driver took a carrot from the bucket of them he keeps tied under the carriage.
Like almost any child, Ina is not shy for long, Soon enough, she was smiling, turning to her mother in wonder, eyes points of joy and amazement. She can hardly believe it, hardly believe she did it. She wants to do it again, of course, her pride and confidence growing by the second.
I moved closer, and I could feel the joy in this moment, the four points of light. The smile on the mother's face – she was giving her child something she would never forget. I loved the wonder in the child's face, she could give this big animal a carrot and then touch his nose, and he would accept her and submit to her, gently and comfortably. What a gift to a small girl, to feel the power and connection of that, her entry into the natural world, the animal world.
The driver, patient, is smiling, happy also. He is, he says, showing yet another human being – two really – the gentleness and affection of the horses, their comfort and ease with people, the smiles and pleasure they bring to people all day, the grace they add to the park.
And then there is the horse, calm, curious, affectionate. He is patient and gentle with Ina, she drops the carrot two or three times, at first in fear, then because she has to reach up so high. He does not lunge or bite, he waits calmly for her to reach up high enough, he gently takes the carrot from her hand. His ears are up, his eyes wide and curious, he is happy for the carrot, happy to sniff the child and have her pet his nose. The driver is not anxious or concerned, he holds the bridle to be sure, then lets it go.
Is this the horse, I wonder, that they tell us is too dangerous to work in New York City, too anxious and unstable, too depressed and abused and unhappy? A horse that will kill a person, given the opportunity, even if no carriage horse in 150 years ever has.
Do you know, I asked the mother, that the mayor and several animal rights groups are seeking to ban the carriage horses, they say they suffer from unthinkable suffering, that it is cruel and abusive to pull carriages through Central park, that they are dangerous and it is cruel for them to breath the air of the city day after day? The mayor says it is immoral work for horses to pull carriages in Central Park in New York in 2015. And immoral to support them or ride in their carriages.
Immoral, then, for Ina to hand the horse this carrot.
She said she could hardly believe it. " This is so wonderful to see. What kind of people take something like this and turn it into something awful and ugly?," she asked. "When would Ina ever see a horse like this again in her life if these horses are taken away?"
It was the right question, of course, the most important question in the carriage horse controversy, I felt it very strongly Saturday as I stood in the park watching one child after another come up to pet the horses, to look at them with love and wonder, a love and curiosity as yet unspoiled by human greed, cynicism and self-righteousness.
What kind of people would take this moment and turn it into something angry and divisive and ugly?
Into a crime.
What kind of mayor would seek to steal this from the children and visitors and tourists and many residents of the city who love it so much, and who show their love every day in the park? This love and connection is not an opinion of mine, it is a beautiful thing, it is there for anyone to see for themselves.
What kind of people, then, have forgotten the power of animals working with people, touching their hearts, opening their eyes, working with them, for them?
What kind of people have lost their love of magic and history, have broken faith with the natural world, claim to speak for the rights of animals they neither know nor understand?
What kind of leaders entrusted with Ina's welfare would turn this love and connection into something dreadful and unthinkable, and pull us closer to a joyless and disconnected and sanitized world? A world where cars and trucks and condos can warm through the park and surround it on every side, but these beautiful horses – for whom the great park was designed – must be sent away to slaughterhouses or rescue farms where they will stand idle for the rest of their lives?
What kind of people value animals more than people, and claim to speak for the rights of animals when they trample on the rights of people? It is not the horses who need rescuing, it is the people all around them. Ina and her horse remind us that we have lost our bearings, lost our way.
Must Ina join the many human beings disconnected from the natural world and the world of animals, thus broken and confused and angry? Is our world better without them, are they really safer and better off without us?
When people can no longer speak civilly to one another, can they decide the future of the horses, of animals in our world? Does Ina get a say or a vote? Does anyone doubt what she would tell the mayor of the members of the City Council if they asked her what she thought about the movement to ban the horses.
Will the mayor be in the park when Ina returns to New York with her own child and brings her to the park to give one of the horses a carrot and a pat on the nose?
And what will he tell her when she asks where the horses have gone? That her love of the horse was immoral?
Will you be the one to tell her what what she did in Central Park on that cold February morning in 2015 was cruel and abusive, so inhumane that the horses had to be sent away, where they vanished, like so many of the animals of the world.
I will not be there to answer her questions. Will you?
It is time to save the horses, and save the children as well.