Can You Justify This Photo of a NYC Carriage Horse?

carriage horse nyc dead central park
Charlie, a carriage horse who dropped dead on a NYC street in 2011. Photo by Matthew Miller

The Central Park carriage horse fight has pitted two groups with valid concerns against each other: the drivers, worried about keeping their jobs; and activists, worried about the welfare of the animals. Rationally, we have to judge for ourselves, personally and as a society, whose argument is weightier: is retraining a small segment of New York’s labor force worth not subjecting future horses to, uh… let’s say “unideal” conditions? Or should we protect an industry the size of a medium-company at the expense of the creatures they employ?

I wouldn’t argue the horses are treated inhumanely by their caretakers. But there have been many photos and videos of horses collapsing in the street and colliding with cars, because, though horses have been a part of New York City history, this is no longer a horse town: our goods are hauled by trucks, our people by taxis, personal vehicles, and bicycles. They have no place on city streets, inhaling tailpipe exhaust and getting spooked. We don’t need horses; we don’t even use them, except as a luxury in this one particular instance, a romantic way to be moved around the park.

The mayor’s plan to replace them with old-timey autos seems reasonable enough, then, maintaining a modicum of romance without any mistreatment of animals: no living thing should suffer so tourists can enjoy a luxury. Reasonable minds could disagree, could argue that the horses live fine lives as horse-lives go (though, again: while that photo above doesn’t capture an everyday experience, it also doesn’t capture an outlying accident), and that a healthy industry shouldn’t be regulated out of existence—that working people matter more than working animals.

But the editorial board of the Daily News lacks such rationality. In the tabloid’s frontpage crusade to “save the horses,” it calls horse advocates “animal rights extremists,” moneyed, conniving real-estate interests whom de Blasio is appeasing for their campaign contributions. (These people may very well exist, but it’s a red herring: there’s a real moral issue to grapple with here outside of the motivations of the major players.) The paper sort of hilariously declares, “No one gets to throw people out of lawful jobs in pursuit of a social goal, no matter how brightly the aim burns with missionary zeal.” What about people who designed television commercials for tobacco companies? What about the thriving firearms industry the Daily News is always insisting we regulate? Should we protect the jobs of people who club baby seals? Must we defend all employment against our sense of right and wrong? Can we ever justify that photograph above because of jobs?

It’s mad hyperbole that even carriage-industry advocates should be wary of joining. (Better to pass around Liam Neeson’s more reasonable Times op-ed, in which he argues the horses are a protection against the city’s being overcome by “sleek futuristic buildings and careening self-driving cars,” that they’re icons too beloved by tourists-with-money to eliminate. I mean, who cares about sentient beings when “local color” is at stake?!) If we’re not already there, the more mechanized our city becomes, and the greater our cultural sympathy for animals in general becomes, the closer we’ll come to ridding Central Park of carriage-carrying horses. This is the nature of progress in America—inexorability. Advocates might win this fight in a war that’s already lost, but it’ll only postpone the inevitable: it’ll only get another year of wages for another year of suffering. Enough is enough.

UPDATE: The photo previously used on this post was not taken in NYC. While it dramatically illustrated an end to which all carriage horses can succumb, regardless of place (you can see it here), we have replaced it with a city-specific image.

 Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart