Sleigh of Hand

Sleigh of Hand

Animal-rights advocates enjoy quiet success as horse carriage debate rages
May 15, 2015

The City Council is preparing to bring its measure banning horse carriages to a vote as early as June, and parties on both sides of the issue are expected to escalate their voluble public relations campaigns in the weeks to come. But regardless of the outcome of this lengthy and heated fight over the horses, the animal-rights advocates behind the protracted legislative battle have, in the process, significantly advanced their wider agenda in New York City.

The proposal to dismantle the horse carriage industry, which employs several hundred Teamsters and is a touristic staple for thousands of visitors eager to pay $100 to clop around Central Park for 20 minutes, has struck a nerve among its proponents and detractors. Both sides have levered up their rhetoric to extreme heights, and social media spills over with rancorous, nasty commentary on the weight and sex lives of the respective opponents.

The force behind the push to ban horse carriages has been New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets, largely funded by property magnate and horse lover Stephen Nislick. Nislick was so angered by what he saw as former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s betrayal of the animal-welfare cause that he formed an independent expenditure committee during the 2013 mayoral election called New York City is Not For Sale 2013, which was behind the “Anybody But Quinn” campaign. ABQ is credited as perhaps the first strictly negative political committee, endorsing no one, and opposing one person in particular.

ABQ galvanized the animal-rights movement into behaving as a political force rather than a fringe assortment of pet owners. “ABQ let people know that the animal rights movement has wised up and organized,” said Allie Feldman, director of NYCLASS. “This is a true constituency that is motivated to seek positive change, not just a bunch of cat ladies.”

Emmett Hare, a veteran elections operative who managed the ABQ field operation, added that “while paid canvassers were a major element of the campaign, there is no doubt that the energy and commitment of the volunteer base shaped and helped define it.”

Councilman Corey Johnson, who as a labor advocate opposes an outright ban of the carriage-horse industry, nevertheless concedes that the animal welfare lobby has emerged as an important player in the city’s political scene. “NYCLASS was born out of a highly visible issue and has been extraordinarily savvy in being able to parlay its organizing prowess into getting heard,” Johnson said. “They have gotten passed more legislation this session than in the previous eight years, and it is a testament to their hard work that they have done so.”

Indeed, in the year and a half since Quinn’s defeat, the animal welfare agenda has, almost stealthily, significantly advanced through the council. Feldman acknowledged that “most of our wish list has been filled” in the last 18 months. The council passed a law requiring strict regulation of pet stores, banning the sale of pets from unlicensed breeders. Targeting so-called puppy mills, the law requires pet stores to provide detailed information on the breeders of the cats and dogs they sell.

The same law also bans the sale of rabbits in city pet stores. Bunnies are frequently given to children as Easter gifts, and then turned over to animal shelters when the rabbits mature. Shelters currently teem with rabbits, and advocates insist that there is no reason for stores to sell them. Laws have also been enacted to mandate microchipping of pets sold in stores; to establish an animal abuse registry; and to require the spaying or neutering of any animal sold at a pet shop.

Hearings were recently held to discuss a bill, sponsored by Johnson, that would mandate the installation of sprinkler systems in veterinary clinics and pet shops. Existing law requires sprinklers in kennels and animal hospitals, as well as in barbershops, banks and offices; the bill that would extend coverage to pet shops already has more than 40 co-sponsors, virtually ensuring passage. 

Animal-welfare supporters recently won a surprise victory when Ringling Bros. announced it would no longer include elephants in its circuses. Banning the use of bull hooks, which are the primary method of control and discipline used by elephant handlers, was a key plank for NYCLASS, which was preparing to push the issue among sympathetic legislators. The capitulation of Ringling Bros. in advance of an actual fight indicated that the circus industry was likely looking to avoid negative publicity and an ugly and expensive public relations battle.  

The voluntary ban also promoted the status of the animal welfare advocates as a group to be feared, or at least considered. Who wants an enraged constituency of committed volunteers tirelessly hammering away at your business, when an easy compromise is at hand? 

The horse carriage question is still in play, and the fact that both the mayor and speaker support a ban has made it possible for the bill to come this far. Supposedly the supporters have enough votes to move the bill out of the Transportation Committee, chaired by Councilman Ydanis Rodríguez, the legislation’s co-sponsor. Getting enough votes to win passage on the floor of the council is another question: NYCLASS won’t claim it has a majority yet, but informed insiders say many of the existing “No” votes are really just waiting for phone calls from Melissa Mark-Viverito in order to extract concessions on other matters.

Seth Barron