New York Times, City Room
September 21, 2009
City oversight over horse-drawn carriages has improved since an audit two years ago by the city comptroller’s office, but the two agencies that oversee the business have acted too slowly in putting reforms into effect, a new report has found.
The new report, from the office of Comptroller William C. Thompson Jr., is critical of the two agencies: the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which is responsible for the well-being of the animals, and the Department of Consumer Affairs, which licenses the horses, drivers, carriages and stables.
In the new assessment, the comptroller’s office found that the two departments implemented 7 of the 11 recommendations made in the 2007 audit, including a key one that to create an advisory board first proposed two decades earlier.
However, it found that the Health Department had acting too slowly on the recommendations made by the advisory board and for failing to find new ways, other than tagging, to identify horses. Effective identification is considered important in keeping track of the horses and ensuring their safety.
The horse-drawn carriage business, while modest in its size, has generated fervent protests. The Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages wants the business to be outlawed in New York City, as it has been in other metropolitan areas around the world. A 2008 documentary, “Blinders,” which some people criticized as being selective in its use of evidence, documented some of the problems in the business.
Fueling their arguments is the continual drumbeat of accidents, including one over the weekend, in which a horse-drawn carriage and a taxi collided on the Upper East Side when the cabdriver reportedly suffered a seizure.
The new report did find signs of progress since the last audit. For well over a year, for example, the Department of Consumer Affairs has completed the required inspections of every carriage on schedule. There are currently about 200 licensed horses, 280 licensed drivers and 70 licensed carriages. Nearly all of them operate in or around Central Park.
One of the ongoing issues is how a method other than tag numbers can be used to identify working horses. The 2007 audit found a startling inconsistency: the paperwork for at least 57 carriage horses described different animals from year to year, including changes in color and sex, while the license numbers did not change. The advisory board recommended the use of microchips, a practice that has been adopted in other cities.
However, the Health Department responded that the main problem is a requirement in the city’s administrative code that horses to be branded on their hooves. Until that is changed, the department said, the city cannot being requiring the use of microchips to identify the horses.
The Health Department said on Monday that its commissioner, Dr. Thomas A. Farley, was “following up on the work of his predecessor,” Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, and that Dr. Farley had “received the recommendations of the Rental Horse Licensing and Protection Advisory Board and is reviewing” them.
Carolyn Daly, a spokeswoman for the Horse and Carriage Association of New York, said, “The industry has always been committed to implementing stronger measures to ensure the safety of our drivers, horses and passengers. We appreciate the Mayor’s office intensive efforts over the last two years to review all operations and issues and look forward to real improvements being implemented soon.
However, animal-rights activists said nothing short of a ban would be sufficient.
Dan Mathews, a senior vice president at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which is part of the coalition to ban the carriages, said in a statement:
"The comptroller’s audit shows that the city is incapable of even addressing the ongoing problems with the carriage horse trade, much less enforce the weak regulations that exist. After 25 years the city is still trying to figure out how to identify horses properly so that drivers don’t illegally double-shift them. They don’t even touch on other issues, such as compelling drivers to keep the horses in stables when freezing weather or violent storms are forecast, or to document the many accidents involving horses that don’t make news. We hope this report convinces the city to go the way of Paris, London, Toronto and Beijing and conclude that big city traffic and easily spooked large animals don’t mix. The horse-drawn carriages need to be banned outright."