Some facts to consider: In December of 2013, according to the NYPD, 25 people died in New York City traffic accidents, 4,227 people were injured seriously enough to require medical attention or hospitalization. In that year, 16,059 pedestrians and cyclists were injured, 178 people were killed in traffic accidents. In December of 2013, there were 17,260 motor vehicle crashes in New York City, in that year there were a total of 203,260 total accidents and crashes in New York City.
This year, there have three incidents reported involving New York Carriage Horses running away or colliding with a motor vehicle. No person or horse was injured. The script is familiar by now, so rote and predictable as to almost be hollow, even dull. Over the weekend, a carriage horse named Bernie was being groomed at a stable, he broke loose and ran down a nearby street as police cars chased him and blocked him in a side alley. His owner came with a bucket of oats and walked him back to the stable. No one was hurt, the horse was checked by a veterinarian and returned to work the next morning.
The animal rights group NYClass, the group spearheading the drive to ban the carriage horses, claimed the horse had been abused, that he was being washed with water that was too cold for a windy day in late October – this left many horse people with dropped jaws – and ran away to escape his torment. The group said Bernie's stroll proved that horses did not belong in New York City, and should be banned.
There was one departure from the normal script, and it came from New York City's media, which later – much later, and after days of breathless videos and news reports – did some reporting and found that there was no water being applied to the horse, Bernie just broke from his tether and went for a ride.
All over the world, horses and donkeys have escaped from their stalls and pastures and taken a walk or a run for thousands of years. It is not considered major news – more important than the death and injuries of thousands of people – anywhere but New York City.
Bernie was not harmed, neither was anyone else. Across the city, in Brooklyn that day, a woman and her two small children were murdered in their apartment, a six-year old child was run down and killed by an unlicensed driver, a woman on the East Side was hit and killed by a runaway truck. Last year, in Central Park, close to where Bernie pulls his carriage, two children were killed by fallen trees.
Since twice as many people have been killed by trees in one year in Central Park as by horses, and no human being, no resident of New York City, has ever been killed by a carriage horse, runaway or not, in the 150 years of the carriage trade, it makes sense for human rights groups to work to ban trees from the park and keep the horses there.
How to make sense of the inverted morality and perspective in New York City when a carriage horse has an accident? Hardly anyone believes a thing the spokespeople for NYClass say about these accidents anymore, they have been caught in so many lies and distortions about the carriage trade and the horses.
In their telling, the horses are always abused, but never really are. The plot always thins, but is never corrected.
Soon Bernie's photo will appear on the NYClass website, he will be added to the gallery of exploited animals, and lots of good-hearted animal lovers will send the group some money. More than a half-million dollars of their money went to politicians in New York City in the past few years (another half-million to try and build those vintage electric cars), according to city campaign d monitoring groups.
If NYClass has saved the life or improved the life of one single animal, there is no record of it. Go look for yourself, see if you can find one.
So here is the issue facing the horses and animals in general:
Can a carriage horse ever have an accident? Trees can, cars and bicycles can, children and buses can, so can taxicabs and pedicabs, planes and garbage trucks, motorcyclists and pedestrians. Lots of them, many thousands. The carriage horse controversy highlights many problems in the way we look at animals, one of them is what the author and animal behaviorist Temple Grandin calls the "zero tolerance" people who call themselves animal regulators and activists have for people who live and work with animals. Up until the 1960's and 1970's, she writes, the people responsible for regulating the welfare of animals actually knew something about them, they lived and worked with them. The brought reality and perspective to issues relating to animal welfar.
That is no longer true, today regulators and activists know little about the animals they are protecting – just consider the statement that it is abusive to groom a horse in windy weather, or that it is abuse for working animals to work – she cites the meatpacking industry, where the rule is no animal ever gets hurt, under any circumstances. "I constantly argue, " she writes, "that what we really need to do to protect animals is to set high standards. People can live up to high standards, but they can't live up to perfection."
Neither can the carriage trade. Horses will get sick and fall down. They will sometimes be frightened by a crane or startling sound (as they are on farms and rescue preserves), they will slip their harnesses, one horse will one day hurt someone, even kill someone, as so many cars, busses, trucks, bicyclists and people do every day in New York City. It is the cultural equivalent of cruel and unusual punishment, the worst kind of double standard, to think that of all the cars and people and bicycles and motorcyles and trucks in New York City, only horses must never have an accident or a problem.
The carriage trade is the most heavily regulated animal trade in America, there are literally hundreds of regulations and five separate city agencies who monitor them constantly, the city has set high standards for them. And according to the regulators, the carriage trade has met them, no carriage owner or driver is facing any kind of charge of neglect or abuse today.
The carriage trade ought not to be asked to set standards of perfection that can never be met – no cab driver in New York could survive that standard – and that no one else in the city is asked to meet. That is not moral, and from the lawyers I've spoken with, it is not legal either.
Temple Grandin has spent her life working for animal welfare and improving the lives of animals.
"People and animals are supposed to be together," she writes in her best-selling book Animals In Translation. "We spent a long time evolving together, and we used to be partners. Now people are cut off from animals unless they have a dog or cat."
And sadly, and as the carriage trade conflict demonstrates, people are increasingly ignorant of their true nature and need for well-being. People need animals, and animals need people. Banning the carriage horses because Bernie took a walk will not help one single animal in the world, it will take more than 200 horses out of safe and regulated environments and sent them into the holocaust afflicting horses all across America.
And if either species has taught the other anything in their long history together, is that we are imperfect beings in an unpredictable and sometimes dangerous world. Carriage horses are, by any factual account, the safest and most domesticable living things in New York City. They do no harm, and much good. Like their human partners, there will be incidents and accidents, future Bernie's who take a walk or go for a run.
They ought to live by the highest standards of care, but they and the people who work and live with them ought not be sacrificed to an unthinking and emotionalized fantasy of perfection.