The news is good these days on the Famous Horse Drawn Carriage Horses Of New York Facebook Page. It seems there is another endorsement for the carriage horses every day – veterinarians, teenagers on websites and Instagram, the New York State Horse Council, horse lovers from all over the world, the Central Park Conservancy, the Manhattan Chamber Of Commerce, the Teamsters Union, editorials in the New York Times, The New York Post, The New York Daily News, which has launched a spirited old-fashioned tabloid war on behalf of the horses, complete with petitions, steaming editorials and bumper stickers.
Curiously, the horses seem to have united the city in a way that was almost unimaginable just a couple of months ago. When I first began writing about the carriage horses in January, I did not think there was any chance they would survive the massive, well-funded and politically powerful assault on their work and their industry.
That has changed. There is sense of cautious optimism in the carriage trade these days, but the owners and the drivers are wary, and for good reason. They have had so much bad news for so long – years. This battle is far from over.
There is also a sense of triumph and vindication. The city's struggling mayor has postponed the ban for at least a few weeks, and the New York City Council is in disarray, many of its members running for cover in the face of polls showing New Yorkers want the horses to stay by a three-to-one margin. The animal rights organizations pursuing the ban – just a few weeks ago crowing about finally having a mayor in their pocket - seem in a near melt-down, their websites lashing out at the reporters who accepted their accusations for years and relayed them unthinkingly for so long, and at anyone who speaks out for the horses.
I think the rather unselfconscious genius of the carriage trade people and the secret to their turnaround is their fortitude – they have the iron will and determination of the Irish. And their ordinariness. They are open, direct, and likeable, average people fighting for their livelihood and their way of life. Beyond that, they may be the most passionate animal lovers anywhere, they would rather hang onto their work and their horses than sell out to developers for many millions of dollars. They could do it any time. They come across as precisely what they are - not perfect people, but average, working-class people, the sons and daughters of immigrants caught up in a nightmare.
It is very easy to identify with them, most New Yorkers are.
They are us, the faces of all of us, I feel badly for what they have suffered. Can we really have compassion for animals if we have so little for people?
If you open your eyes and mind, or rummage through the facts that underlie this controversy, It is almost impossible to see these people as cruel and abusive. Every day this conflict continues, fewer and fewer people are seeing them that way. Everything they have told me that is verifiable in any way has turned out to be true. That is what most reporters are finding.
Truth does still matter, it lives in the light and the light is shining on the horses, at long last.
Unless, that is, you are one of the people who call themselves animal rights activists.
I have to be honest, the carriage trade, for all of their troubles, is lucky in one way. They are blessed to have some of the most unlikeable, tone-deaf, tin-eared and self-righteous opponents any embattled group could wish for. They are fortunate to be stalked by a mayor whose every statement seems more bizarre and unknowing than the previous one. They are starting to call him Mr. deMagoo in New York. I am really not into name-calling, but if you have ever seen that cartoon, it makes more sense than is comfortable. Mr. Magoo – his real name was Quincy Magoo – was a cartoon character created in 1949, who gets into series of awkward and comical situations as the result of his extreme nearsightedness, compounded by his absolute refusal to admit he has a problem, or that anything in his view of the world is wrong or off-kilter.
Rather than seeing him as afflicted, the people he encounters tend to see him as a lunatic, or simply not that bright. The mayor does not seem like a lunatic to me, and he certainly seems bright and, in many ways, good-hearted. But more and more, he does seem impaired, he seems to have no sense that almost everything he says about the horses is irrational, alienating more and more people every time he opens his mouth about it.
He does remind me of Mr. Magoo. He seems uncomfortable, trapped, caught between the rich and politically active animal rights groups that helped him win the mayoral campaign, and the resurgent carriage trade, which has captured the heart and soul of the city. There does not seem to be an easy way out. "I feel bad for him," the wife of a carriage driver told me, "he's got us on one side, those screaming ass—– on the other."
Mayor deBlasio said in an interview this morning it's fine to have police horses working all over New York City, but "inhumane" to have carriage horses. Comparing the two, he said, is like comparing apples and oranges. Perhaps some of you reading this can tell me what he means.
The carriage trade people have best spokesperson and movie star ever – the likeable and authentic Liam Neeson – up against one of the most arrogant blowhards in the entertainment world - Alec Baldwin, making videos for PETA and NYClass, calling the carriages "torture wagons."
And make no mistake about it, if you want to win a battle like this in a city like New York, or understand it, you can not count on logic, fact or reason, they are nowhere to be found. When Liam Neeson came to the Clinton Park Stables to call out the mayor as a wussy for hiding from the carriage people, there were 200 reporters on hand to capture his every word. The fortunes of the carriage trade began to turn that crisp winter day. In a city with a thousand reporters, the stable people could count on the fingers of one hand the number that had come to check out the stables for themselves before that day in the previous five years.
The mayor is somewhere between a mystery, an enigma, and a deer trapped in the headlights of an onrushing tractor trailer. He refuses to meet with the carriage owners or drivers or visit the stables, but insists there is no doubt in anyone's mind that the horses should be banned, even as he is nearly drowned in a great chorus of doubt. A man who has never even owned a dog or a cat, he seems at a loss when it comes to explaining his set-in-stone position, he clearly knows nothing about horses, he ducks the conversation at every turn. The mayor claims to be progressive, even as he moves to put hundreds of people out of work and abolish a cherished 150-year-old tradition without any evidence of wrongdoing, any kind of negotiation, due process or compromise.
He insists still that removing the horses was his most important priority in a city with staggering human and social problems, and he promised to do it in his first week in office. There is growing evidence that he will not be able to do it at all, or if he does, it will be squashed in the courts.
And then, there are those cars. The mayor insists they are misunderstood, those hideous $160,000 "cruelty-free, eco-friendly" fake vintage electric cards cooked up by an animal rights group that spent nearly a half-million dollars (the equivalent of saving 1,000 endangered horses, horse people tell me) designing them. The debut of these awkward and enormous things – the designer must have gone to Disneyland for inspiration - was marred when the leader of the movement to ban the horses threatened to punch a female New York Daily News Photographer in the face.
Good lord, what a disaster those cars already are. This may be the first time in history that huge and expensive cars are being offered as more environmentally friendly than horses. If there need be any further proof that the animal rights activists trying to ban the horses are completely out of touch with reality in their own city, check out the cars. New Yorkers are lining up in horror and outrage at the idea these cars should replace the carriage horses or that the carriage drivers ought to be pressured into driving them around Central Park. The powerful Central Park Conservancy, which has overseen the restoration of the park in recent years, was horrified at the idea. "God," one of their members told me in an e-mail, "just what we need, a bunch of big new cars in the park." If these cars ever get to Central Park, I will go there and kiss one of the tires, I promise.
If they didn't have so much money, and weren't so nasty, the animal rights groups pursuing the horses would be fun to watch. Outraged that Liam Neeson had the temerity to disagree with them, between 40 and 60 protesters, one dressed like a horse, demonstrated outside Neeson's condominium and accused him of supporting cruelty to animals and the abuse of horses. In this debate, there is no such thing as genuine disagreement, all disagreement is just another form of cruelty and abuse. In another life, I was a media critic. What a dumb thing that demonstration was. It's only purpose was to punish Neeson for differing with them.
Bad idea. Liam Neeson is far and away the most popular figure in this intensifying drama, he is the last person these groups ought to be attacking for speaking his conscience.
At this point, all the carriage trade people have to do is nothing, their opponents are working both sides.
The sad thing is that the New York Carriage Horses present us with one of the great opportunities in modern times to have a real conversation about the future of animals in our world, what rights animals do or don't deserve, who speaks for animals and their welfare. Sadly, it will not happen in New York. The carriage owners and drivers are the only people who seem willing to talk.
In modern-day America, we have become sadly familiar with this kind of civic conflict. Everyone lives in their own bubble, no one talks to anyone in any other bubble, there is no compromise, no negotiation, not communication. Generally, the battle rages until one bubble is bigger than all of the others. This is the template of politics, of cable news, of the carriage horse debate. The interesting exception is the carriage trade, who have altered the rules of civic conflict. They say over and over again that they are willing to talk to anyone, their stables are open, they are happy to compromise or negotiate, they are just not willing to see the work and the lives of their families and their horses taken from them by ideologues with no just or legal cause.
The carriage trade owners wisely opened their stables up to a stream of animal and horse lovers, veterinarians, photographers and journalists, equine specialists, and there has been a steady stream of visitors. Dr. Mark Jordan, head of an equine veterinary practice in Putnam, New York for more than three decades, wrote in The New York Daily News that he accepted an open invitation to visit the Clinton Park Stable in April. As the head of an equine veterinary practice in Carmel, Putnam County, he felt it was his responsibility to investigate the horses' treatment "from my own perspective as a veterinarian, horseman and advocate of animal rights." He went with a colleague and he acknowledged that before the trip, both of them were skeptical about the treatment the horses were receiving.
"Contrary to what many may believe about these horses and the environment that they live in, the horses are in good health and are living in an appropriate stable with excellent care. These horses are being treated with pride and compassion, often by their individual owners/drivers." He found the horses were housed in comfortable, clean, spacious box stalls which allows them to lie down in comfortable bedding. They are provided, he said, with quality food and water throughout the day. After his first visit, Dr. Jordan returned a second time unannounced and examined the stables again. He also went to Central Park to look at the horses there. "The horses at Central Park were all in good weight, well shod, and prepared for their work." None appeared to be overworked." It was clear, Dr. Jordan said, that the horses are "living happy lives with owners who truly care for their well-being."
Every veterinarian or horse trainer who has seen the stables says just about the same thing Dr. Jordan does, and in just about the same words. I am an author who writes about animals, an animal lover and an advocate of animal rights, and I saw the same thing he did, I've been to the stables and to Central Park a half dozen times. These are among the most fortunate horses in the world. The people of New York City very much want them to remain. This conflict should never have taken place, let alone be dragging on now and for months more, in the face of so much opposition. It is an enormous waste of money and energy, and an inexcusable and inhumane drain on the carriage horse owners and drivers, whose lives and futures remains up in the air.
Why is it dragging on? I can't speak to the mayor's motives, he seems lost on this issue, completely over his head, inarticulate, rigid and poorly informed. As to the animal rights organizations, that is easier to explain. The definition of a fanatic is a person with an extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal, especially in religion or politics. Fanatics are not open to reason or compromise or surrender, on one level or another, this conflict will never completely stop.
Everyone who has concerns about the horses is not a fanatic or an angry apartment-dwelling New York City neurotic, there are many good and sound people who feel the horses are in the wrong place for them. One of them, Lisa in Michigan, wrote me to say she and her husband believe the horses in New York "deserve more." She is not a New York liberal, she says, she is a farm girl. She and her husband believe, as many people do, that the horses look bedraggled and are denied the free range and socialization that they want and need. "As animal owners we owe these animals more."
Of all of the arguments made against the carriage trade, this is perhaps one of the most important, it speaks to the real, not fabricated issues behind this debate. What do we owe animals? What is best for them? What do they deserve?
These are philosophical and ethical questions, really, they are complex and difficult. I do not ask myself what my animals deserve, I ask myself if I am caring for them in the best possible way I can. Working animals deserve to live, and to work with us.
I wrote Lisa and thanked her for writing me. I told her that we do not owe animals perfect lives free of work, travail, illness and struggle. There is, I said, no "better place" for these horses in our world than the one they are in. There is no "wild," these horses are never away from other horses, horse rescue facilities are often crowded, underfunded and with little room. These horses have always been bred to work with people, have always pulled carts and carriages, this is their better place. They are healthier and live longer than any horse in the wild, and than most on rescue farms. In the real world of real animals, these horses would already be dead, sent to slaughter at auction. There are few horses anywhere who have lived or do live as well as they do, the assault on them and the people who keep them in our world is short-sighted, unfounded, and unjust.
Animals and the people who own them cannot be held to this utopian standard of life, it is simply not possible in the real world and it will lead to more banishment, extinction, suffering and death for animals than any carriage horse in New York is suffering. There is no knowledgeable animal person who truly believes there is a place for 200 giant draft and Percheron horses to go where they will be fed three or four bales of hay a day for years. It is an outrageous claim to make.
We are not obliged to be perfect in our life with animals, we are not obliged to give our animals perfect lives. Just lives of comfort and mercy, safety and affection. That is what everyone deserves, animals and people.