RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Animal rights activists have long argued that horse carriages bearing tourists and courting couples through city parks are inhumane. And those activists have been gaining some political allies. A Chicago Alderman recently called for a carriage ban in that city and New York City's new mayor has done the same. From member station WNYC, Janet Babin reports.
JANET BABIN, BYLINE: During New York City's mayoral race last year, then candidate Bill de Blasio promised to fix big picture problems, like income inequality, and universal Pre-K. So he raised some collective eyebrows when he announced what one of his first initiatives as mayor would be.
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BABIN: When the new mayor reiterated that horses don't belong in the city on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," host Jon Stewart poked fun at the proposal, asking...
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: Because it is a little, sometimes I look at their stable and I go, like, what do you think they go for, $1600 a month? What do you think?
BABIN: Stewart's studios are just around the corner from Clinton Park, the largest of New York's four carriage horse stables. I arrive one day unannounced and walk in.
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BABIN: It looks like Cinderella's parking garage, with rows of fancy carriages lined up against whitewashed walls. Driver Jean Michnej is on his way upstairs to get one of his horses. He asks a manager if I can join him.
JEAN MICHNEJ: We got the lady from the radio station. She wants to talk. OK?
BABIN: I get the OK and look around. The stalls appear clean and roomy, eight by 10 feet, with freshly laid hay and clean water available.
MICHNEJ: You're going to know he's my horse because I'm going to call his name and he's going to answer me.
MICHNEJ: All right. Put the radio on. Scooby!
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BABIN: Scooby is one of about 220 horses in the city. There are about 160 working carriage drivers. The New York City Health Department issued just 16 violations to carriage horse owners in fiscal year 2013. Despite the lack of citations, Allie Feldman with the animal rights group N-Y CLASS, says it's inherently inhumane to keep horses in New York City.
ALLIE FELDMAN: They're pounding the pavement for up to nine hours a day. They don't get any time to have turnout. They get no time to graze the grass, to roll, to socialize with other horses.
BABIN: But carriage driver spokesman Steve Malone says the activists should be thanking the carriage industry, for giving horses a job that keeps them in demand.
STEVE MALONE: A lot of these horses come from very, very bad backgrounds and are rescued from very abusive situations. This is not an abusive situation.
BABIN: Thousands of tourists take carriage rides through Central Park each year. Dental hygienist Cynthia Holt of North Carolina came last Christmas. She says her driver doubled as a tour guide.
CYNTHIA HOLT: He was just such a pleasure to talk to, and of course he knew right off the bat that we weren't from New York City. I guess it was our accent that kind of gave it away.
BABIN: Holt plans to come to New York again this year, and she's hoping to take another spin in the horse carriage through Central Park.
HOLT: I think it would be very disappointing if we just couldn't take that carriage ride. That would be one thing that I would want to do again.
BABIN: In a back to the future kind of moment, the animal rights group and the mayor's administration are crafting a plan to replace the horse and carriage with electric-powered antique cars. It would mark the second time in history that the car has supplanted the horse. For NPR News, I'm Janet Babin in New York.
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