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SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST -- Rong Xiaoqing -  July 17, 2007

Rebecca, a nine-year-old brown mare, waited patiently for customers in a line of horse-drawn carriages on a street next to Central Park. The air was heavy with farm-like odours. Such sights and smells have been part of New York for as long as the city has existed. But Rebecca and her peers are the subject of almost constant controversy. In the past six weeks, two carriage horses have bolted on busy streets, hitting cars and injuring themselves and the drivers. These incidents triggered a protest at City Hall last week as activists against animal cruelty called on the mayor to ban horse-drawn carriages. "These horses have to work in extreme heat and cold. They work long hours and they are overloaded. It's very cruel," said Elizabeth Forel, of the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages, set up early last year. Although the city does have laws to protect the 200 or so horses in the carriage business, such as mandating breaks when the temperature is above 32 degrees Celsius or below minus 7 degrees, enforcement relies on a volunteer inspector who has to witness violations to issue a summons.

Jill Weitz, who co-founded the coalition with Ms Forel, says she has seen many cases of cruelty when the inspectors are not around, including a carriage driver pulling the head of his drinking horse from a water bucket because customers were waiting. "I heard him saying, `I'll show him who's the boss'." She also says she saw horses forced to work in a recent heat wave. When the horses get injured, they often end up in slaughterhouses in Canada or Mexico, Ms Weitz says.

But people in the industry paint a different picture. "These horses are taken care of very well. They are happy, and they sometimes even get an attitude," says David Sansoucie, of Chateau Stables, a company that provides carriage services. He says the 16 horses his company hires out work eight hours a day and get nutritious food and health check-ups every week. And the driver always carries a bucket of about 5 litres of fresh water. "Too much water will give a horse bad indigestion," he says. Although he does not oppose the city's regulations, Mr Sansoucie says a horse's body temperature is normally higher than that of a human, and 32 degrees is merely "balmy" to them. "Most people who don't understand horses feel sorry for them. When they see a horse dropping his head down they'll say, `Look, he's sad'. But actually he's only sleeping." Attempts to ban horse-drawn carriages have failed in the city council before. And Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is known for treating his guests with rides, considers the horse-drawn carriages an important tourist attraction.

Ms Forel says the coalition has collected more than 10,000 signatures backing a ban, and many of them are from tourists. Back at Central Park, Rebecca is moving forward in the line with her driver, a student from Cornell University who only wants to be identified as Jonathan. He says working with Rebecca is how he pays for his tuition, and if Rebecca gets sick, he is out of work. "So of course I take care of her. We are team colleagues," Jonathan says. (this paper is the most established English language newspaper in Hong Kong and circulates in Asia.)

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