BY JUSTIN CHAN
On a busy street by Rockefeller Center, Diane Oltarzewski wore a sign around her neck urging tourists to stop riding horse-drawn carriages. She could barely navigate through the crowd as she talked about her upbringing with horses.
“I grew up riding horses,” said Oltarzewski, a calligrapher who has spent the past 15 years writing letters to animal rights organizations to stop the practice. “And the first thing you learn when you’re at the barn is never ride a horse on pavement. It’s bad for their legs.”
Oltarzewski was one of approximately 10 protesters from animal rights coalition Horses Without Carriages who spent Saturday afternoon encouraging passerby around Rockefeller Center and Central Park to spend their holidays without riding horse-drawn carriages. At times, the demonstrators got into heated exchanges with nearby horse carriage drivers who were waiting for customers.
“They’re strapped into these contraptions by a buffoon like this gentleman,” said Eddie Sullivan, as he pointed at a horse carriage driver who had just dropped off a couple. “This is not a veterinarian. This is not an animal care expert. This is a glorified taxi cab driver.”
The protesters walked around Rockefeller Center before arriving at the corner of Central Park South and Fifth Avenue. Though most pedestrians walked by them, some of the demonstrators caught the attention of two Central Park guards, who cautioned them to stay at least 20 feet away from the drivers. But most of protesters remain undeterred.
“New York City is probably one of the most, if not the most, congested cities in the world,” said Mary Beth Artz, who has been involved in efforts to save Prospect Park’s Canada geese. “Horses just don’t belong on city streets. It’s a no brainer. It’s not the 1700s.”
The carriage business is subject to city regulations. During the winter, drivers are not allowed to operate carriages when temperatures are below 19 degrees or during a blizzard, according to Central Park’s website. Operators also cannot drive carriages below 34th Street, the site says.
“I just think that in society, in general, you’re always going to have people objecting any time you own an animal,” said Brendan Feron, who has been a horse carriage driver for the past 30 years. “They’re the ones attacking us. We’re not going out and attacking them.”
Some horse carriage drivers cursed at the demonstrators as they got in the way of tourists who wanted a ride.
“You’re dealing with a sector of people that are very loud and are very vocal,” said a spokesperson from the Horse and Carriage Association of New York. “They’ve never interacted with horses. They don’t know anything in regards to our horses.”
Roughly 150 licensed operators out of 300 currently work in the city, he said. Local 553, a labor union that represents the drivers, did not respond by deadline.
The carriage business has been the center of criticism from animal rights organizations that say that the operators have not treated their horses properly. In August, a spooked horse ran through traffic on Columbus Circle and its carriage flipped over. The incident left the driver and his two passengers injured and two cars damaged.
“The A.S.P.C.A. is not categorically opposed to the use of horses and other equines in pulling carts and carriages for hire, provided that all of the animals’ physiological and behavioral needs are fully met, housing and stable conditions are humane, and their working hours and conditions are carefully regulated,” Bret Hopman, a spokesperson at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, wrote in an email. “In New York City, however, we believe the horses’ living and working conditions are inadequate.”
The carriage industry has received strong support from Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In October 2011, he rejected calls from councilmembers to ban the carriages. Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito had introduced a bill that would have replaced the carriages with electric vehicles that look like vintage cars a year before. State senator Tony Avella, then a councilmember, said he had also introduced legislation that would have shut the industry down.
“This is a tremendous cruelty to the animal and a huge safety issue for the driver and pedestrians and motorists,” said Avella, who has proposed a similar bill in the state senate and is waiting for the senate to convene on the matter. “When is the city of New York finally going to ban the practice?”
As some of the protesters confronted the drivers, some tourists who had gotten off the carriages said they did not agree with the demonstration.
“It’s a horse’s job,” said Jennifer Funck, a Pennsylvanian tourist who went on a ride with her husband and granddaughter. “I mean, as strange as it may seem, that’s what they’re made to do. That’s what they’re made to do. That’s what they’re bred for, and so they’re probably happier.”
Gary Funck agreed.
“These horses probably have it better than a lot of people in New York City because they’re not homeless,” he said. “They’re fed. I assume the city regulates this.”