Hundreds of people gathered at New York City Hall on Friday, January 30, to give testimony on a proposed bill by Queens Councilman Tony Avella to ban horse drawn carriages in New York City. Approximately 250 horse drawn carriage drivers, a large amount Irish, and even more animal rights activists sat side by side at the City Council chambers on Friday as members of the council listened to testimonies from both sides of the argument. Avella told Friday's hearing that the proposed ban, Intro 658 A, is necessary to prevent the horse drawn carriage industry from making its living "on the backs of these animals." "The sentimental idea of enjoying a carriage ride through New York... can no longer be justified," he said. Brian O'Dwyer, president of the Emerald Isle Immigration Center and a New York attorney, who testified as a private citizen on Friday, told the City Council that he "fully supports the carriage industry." O'Dwyer, the son of Irish immigrants - his father was the legendary Co. Mayo born lawyer and civil rights activist Paul O'Dwyer - said his father provided for him and his family by driving a horse drawn carriage in the city "like thousands of other immigrants before and after him." The horses' living conditions weren't the only thing up for debate on Friday. If Avella's bill succeeds, up to 400 horse drawn carriage drivers - nearly a third Irish - could face the possibility of losing their jobs. Challenging Avella's proposal, O'Dwyer asked the council, "Are we really going to take the food out of the mouths of our most deserving people - our immigrants?" Outside City Hall, Kevin Brudie, a member of the Local 553 Teamsters Union, asked hundreds of protestors holding up signs of mutilated horses with the word "Ban" scrolled across them, "Do you know what it is to have a job and not be able to pay your mortgage?" Avella, who plans to run for New York City mayor, said he will do "everything to get them (drivers) jobs and train them" in another area. A spokesperson for NYC and Company, the official marketing and tourism organization for New York City, described the horse drawn carriage industry as "part of the fabric and texture" of the city. "Forty-seven million visitors came to New York in 2008 to make those memories," said the spokesperson. Angry and emotional animal rights activists, who feel that the use of horses to bring tourists around New York City is inhumane, stood before the council in an effort to convince members that it is in the best interest of the horses to be outlawed from working in New York City. Michael McGraw, a New York City resident speaking on behalf of PETA animal rights activists, told a full chamber that he is "requesting a permanent ban" on horse drawn carriages in the city. "End the suffering of the poor, worn-down animals," suggested McGraw. Father Brian Jordan, a Franciscan priest, said he had surveyed every aspect of the horse and carriage trade and found nothing cruel. "I can tell you, if there was any cruelty I wouldn't be here. I'd be right over there with them," he said pointing at PETA members and other activists. Jordan, who is responsible for blessing the 220 horses at the five various stables in the city, said the issue on the table on Friday wasn't about animal rights, "it was about workers' rights." Said Jordan, who has visited the stables many times, "The horses are well taken care of." Christine MacMurry, vice president of the Coalition to Ban Horse Drawn Carriages, said that the issue of wanting to ban the use of horses for escorting tourists around New York has been around for a long time. "This has been going on for years, but we couldn't get any politician to support it and introduce a bill until Tony Avella came along," said MacMurry. "We lose horses every year, they die in the streets or are put down anyway." Three carriage horses have died in various accidents between 2006 and 2007. Irish comedian and actress Fiona Walsh, who has been living in New York for 14 years, said she felt nothing but "sadness and pity" for the animals in New York City. "It always seems wrong and inconsistent with humane society to have horses in the middle of busy traffic and in all weathers and temperatures," said Walsh. The Department of Health, which regulates the industry, along with the Consumer Affairs Department, is not in favor of the ban. Edgar Butts of the Health Department said, "It is our position that strengthening the current regulatory environment is preferable to an outright ban, therefore we oppose it." Two experienced veterinarians told the City Council that they had been involved in examining the horses, and concluded that the animals were well kept and in good condition. "I couldn't find one horse that even had a cough," said John Lowe, a veterinarian for 50 years. He added that the work the horses are carrying out on a daily basis is "not hard" for them because "they are draft horses, bred to do this job." The horses are permitted to work eight to nine hours a day, seven days a week. They are prohibited from working under 19 degrees Fahrenheit, or if the temperature exceeds 90. A second bill, called Intro 653 A, was also up for debate on Friday. The proposal includes a rate increase for rides in the city. The bill suggests charging $54 for the first half hour of a ride and $20 for each additional 15 minutes thereafter. The current rates are $34 for the first half hour and $10 for each 15 additional minutes. The horse drawn carriage industry, which according to NYC and Company draws in 550,000 to 700,000 tourists a year, joined the Teamsters Union in December. Edward Ott from the Central Labor Council told the City Council on Friday that a rate increase was "long overdue" for the carriage industry. "A bailout just for a bail of hay is needed," he said. Ian McKeever, owner of the Shamrock Stables, spoke passionately about his job and the "necessary rate increase." McKeever said the last time the horse drawn carriage industry received a raise was when Ronald Reagan "had just left office." Walter McCaffrey, a former 16-year member of the City Council from Queens, described the horse drawn carriage industry as an "honorable institution." Instead of outlawing the industry, McCaffrey suggested reviewing certain regulations to ensure the industry remains honorable. Edward Callaghan, a 21-year veteran in the business, took the stand to inform the City Council and those against his industry that he has "never gotten a ticket or a violation" in all his time as a driver. "Each day I make four trips each way through the city and I've never got a ticket," he repeated. Inviting all the animal rights activists in the room on Friday to come out and view their treatment of the horses, Callaghan said, "We have a highly visible business and nothing to hide." Following in Callaghan's footsteps, other drivers stood tall and proud of their industry. Conor McHugh, a driver for 22 years, said the love that he and his three young kids have for the horses is visible every time they are with the horses. Patrick Byrne, a horse drawn carriage operator for 44 years said, "We are horse men." Speaking after Friday's hearing, McKeever, owner of eight horses, four carriages and employer of six drivers, said he felt that the horse drawn carriage industry provided far more credible witnesses than those opposing the ban. "A lot of those people are uneducated in regards the type of care and pride we have for our horses," he said. No vote was set on either proposed bill on Friday, but experts believe without the backing from Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who both oppose the ban, it is highly unlikely Avella's bill will ever see the light of day. If the bill to ban the horse drawn carriages does pass, New York City would join the ranks of London, Toronto, Paris and Beijing, which have all banned the practice.
Raise a glass to Robert Emmet, the Irish rebel leader executed on this day in 1803