Media Coverage 

Globe & Mail  - June 23, 2008

Doc reveals dark side of iconic carriage rides  

Vegetarian hors d'oeuvre and small talk about overfishing of the Chilean sea bass aren't usually on the menu at celebrity-studded movie screenings, but they're de rigueur at events hosted by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. So on a rainy evening last week, while about 100 guests mingled at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts awaiting a screening of a damning documentary about the local horse-drawn carriage industry, you could get your fill of earnestness while drinking in the low-fat spectre of celebrities.   

Every day, hundreds of tourists pay $34 plus tip for a 30-minute taste of old New York, riding in an elegant carriage around Central Park. Men pop the question during carriage rides, parents try to show their children that pleasure can be gleaned from an activity that doesn't involve a computer. But it's hard to square the pleasure with Blinders, a new 52-minute doc which catalogues the fatal accidents and incidental deaths that happen with sad regularity, and presents a litany of endemic problems in the carriage trade, including alleged overworking and underfeeding of the animals.  

And pressure on the industry is growing. Last fall, spurred in part by PETA and the ad hoc Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages, city councillor Tony Avella sponsored legislation to end the practice.   

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which doesn't tend to weigh in on such matters, is fully behind the legislation.   

PETA's stable of personalities speaking out against the carriage trade now includes the singers Pink and Nellie McKay, Martha Stewart's daughter Alexis, and Chrissie Hynde, who joked at a rally in Central Park last January that she'd wedded Jim Kerr of Simple Minds in a horse-drawn carriage and hoped the industry suffers the same fate as her marriage, which lasted only six years.   

Kristen Johnston (3rd Rock from the Sun) is the latest celebrity to come on board. Before the screening, as I munched on a curried black-eyed pea cake and a sushi-like concoction called "sweet potato summer roll," she explained to me that she'd felt legislation to improve the horses' living and working conditions was probably the way to go, before she realized, "even if we did that, the amount of exhaust they inhale every day is equivalent to three packs of cigarettes for a human." Then she excused herself and went outside for a smoke.   

The official host of the screening was Alec Baldwin, who has been talking up the issue since the early 1990s. After mugging for the paparazzi, and then for cameras from Extra and Entertainment Tonight, he had 65 seconds to speak with me. "I'm not opposed to the carriage-horse trade," he said. "I'm all for the carriage-horse trade, if you just get all the cars off the streets of New York and build a farm on the west side of Manhattan for the horses to graze in - great.   

"The biggest hypocrisy in this city is you have a mayor who wants to impose a congestion traffic tax in midtown Manhattan, but is perfectly willing to let those horses go into that traffic that he recognizes is unsafe and unhealthy," he said. (Mayor Bloomberg has supported the industry.)   

Up on stage before the screening, Baldwin's rhetoric got hotter, as he noted the tendency of some in the carriage-trade business to threaten physical force when confronted with protesters. "The other side is loud, vulgar, and angry because they know they're wrong," he said, as the PETA audience applauded, blithely ignoring the organization's own notorious guerrilla tactics which tend to be (how else to put this?) loud, vulgar, and angry.

But PETA's hypocrisy doesn't lessen the essential justice of its cause. And Donny Moss, the first-time filmmaker who made Blinders, is a refreshingly untraditional poster boy. Though a carriage-horse industry spokeswoman calls him an "animal extremist," Moss, 36, has never done any previous animal advocacy work. A former stand-up comedian, he supports himself by working in HIV/Hep-B community relations for the pharmaceutical company F. Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd. "You'd be hard-pressed to find too many animal-rights extremists who work for a pharmaceutical company that does animal testing," Moss told me.   

In the film, he notes that the official carriage driver's manual states that horses - natural prey animals - can be spooked by stimuli that include sirens, potholes, manhole covers, flashing lights and barking dogs. (In the last two years, a number of horses have caused accidents after having been spooked: All had to be put down.)   

He depicts a grim existence for the horses, explaining that they are between the shafts of a carriage for a nine-hour shift each day, they must walk up to two miles along dangerous streets to and from the stables, and they're never permitted time or a place to be social with other horses, which is in their nature. He captures many pictures of animals with apparent respiratory illnesses, displays footage of stables that veterinarians say are much too small to permit horses to stretch out, questions the hygiene of the horses' feed and water, and bemoans their "nose-to-tailpipe existence" out in traffic. One former ASPCA veterinarian articulately argues that there is no way to fix the problems; the industry must simply be abolished.

Blinders has flaws: Moss was refused on-camera interviews with the stable owners he contacted, so he never presents a legitimate argument from the industry's perspective. And he suggests that many former carriage horses end their careers being sold for meat at auction after they have outlived their usefulness, but he doesn't cite any hard statistics. That's because he can't: The industry is vague on what happens to the horses, just as it is vague on details on its claims of giving months-long vacations to the animals every year. After decades of sharp allegations, the onus is on the industry; it must open its stables and its practices for everyone to see.   

The film concludes with a list of cities around the world that have banned horse-drawn carriages, including Toronto. Though I was born and bred there, I couldn't recall much of a carriage horse trade, so I called the Toronto Humane Society for more information. The organization's helpful spokesperson Lee Oliver said that the Society had led the charge back in the early 1980s against the carriage horses that were then working Queen's Park and Yorkville. "Toronto has always considered itself New York's younger brother, so we try to do a few New York things."   

It's true: Toronto too often slavishly follows New York. But with horse-drawn carriages, my hometown found its moral centre decades ago and took the lead. Your move, New York.

Coalition To Ban
Horse-Drawn Carriages

A Committee of the Coalition For New York City Animals, Inc.

The Coalition for
NYC Animals, Inc.

P.O. Box 20247
Park West Station
New York, NY 10025


To honor
Bobby II Freedom
previously known as Billy
ID# 2873 rescued by the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages and Equine Advocates on June 25, 2010 from the New Holland auctions.

In memory of
Lilly Rose O'Reilly
previously known
as Dada ID# 2711
R.I.P.August, 2007