Taking carriage horses off Chicago's streets is an idea whose time has come

If you’re like me, your heart has ached witnessing horses hauling carriages down congested Mag Mile area streets in the brutal cold of a Chicago winter night, or the scorching heat of summer, and you’ve felt helpless to do anything for these creatures.

On Wednesday, September 12, at 11 a.m., the Chicago City Council Committee on License and Consumer Protection will hold a hearing and vote on a proposed ordinance that would ban horse-drawn carriages from operating within the city.

Ordinance 02017-8598 would amend Section 9-108 of the Municipal Code, which licenses and regulates the carriage business, by replacing it with language prohibiting any carriage license from being renewed.

The ordinance was sponsored by 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly and co-sponsored by Aldermen Hopkins, Lopez, Napolitano, and Silverstein. Since its introduction, numerous other aldermen have signed on as co-sponsors.

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Having closely studied and followed the carriage-horse controversy in New York City, which has a much larger carriage presence, I’m familiar with the general issues and arguments surrounding this anachronistic practice.

It forces horses to work in an unnatural and dangerous environment with many stressors including honking horns and vehicular traffic passing on either side of them and cutting in front of them, leading to the risk of “spooking” and bolting.

Horses experience strain and injury to their limbs and hooves from hauling weight on the asphalt surface of city streets, when they are anatomically more suited to walking on dirt surfaces.

The “nose-to-tailpipe” conditions horses work under on city streets puts them into close proximity with exhaust fumes from buses, trucks and other vehicles, which is detrimental to their respiratory health.

The extreme weather conditions the horses are forced to work under, especially the summer heat, are inhumane.

No matter where the controversy is located, carriage operators and their supporters use virtually the same defenses:  Outlawing the business will deprive them of their livelihood. The horses are well cared-for by the carriage owners, treated like “members of the family.” Horses are bred and built to haul heavy loads and walk long distances, therefore it is not mistreating them to force them to toil many hours on urban streets. Current municipal regulations are adequate to protect their welfare and public safety. And (the lamest of all in my opinion), horse carriage rides are a charming, quaint tradition that attracts tourists to downtown.

All of these claims, except possibly the first, have been debunked.

Not only are there mountains of expert testimony that traffic-congested urban environments are inherently detrimental to horses and their well-being despite the best regulations, the regulations that do exist are poorly enforced. The Chicago Alliance for Animals, which supports the ban, has documented multiple violations and lax city enforcement over the past several years.

According to CAA, Chicago’s carriage companies regularly violate both city regulations and the Illinois Humane Care for Animals Act by overworking their horses. The animals are legally allowed to work no longer than six hours in a 24-hour period; CAA observed some horses forced to work longer than twelve hours. They are also forced to work when temperatures exceed 90 degrees and fall below 15.

According to the city, horses are considered to be “working” whether pulling a carriage or standing outside Water Tower park waiting to pick up passengers. But CAA claims it caught drivers working horses over the legal limit and carriages still on the street after midnight on a Saturday, then many of those same horses working again Sunday afternoon and evening, violating the 24-hour law.

Attempts to alert the police and Animal Care and Control were unsuccessful when calls were not returned.

The city’s Business Affairs and Consumer Protection department (BACP) is responsible for enforcing the carriage regulations. But according to CAA’s Jodie Wiederkehr, BACP is more of a reactionary enforcer that only takes action and issues fines after complaints are made. Animal-welfare activists must spend hundreds of hours of their own time documenting the violations. She notes that BACP doesn’t work weekends, the primary time carriages are out.

“CAA has witnessed drivers work their horses when it’s 90 degrees and higher, throw lit cigarettes at their feet, use their whip excessively, not provide water, and when they do, we’ve seen drivers wash their hands in the drinking water. And they overwork them on a regular basis,” according to the group’s website.

A Freedom of Information Act request to the city revealed that Chicago carriage companies received more than 334 citations and $20,000 worth of fines for 2017 alone, for noncompliance with regulations.

Even when they are off the streets, many of these horses are not housed in healthy environments. Horses are social animals that need to graze on grass, exercise and interact with other horses. But according to CAA, “we know [one company’s] drivers take them back to small, dark stables in a run-down, graffiti-stained building in the middle of the city.”

horse-accident

Ald. Reilly, whose 42nd Ward includes part of the downtown area where the carriages operate, says he is concerned about traffic safety issues with the horses in close proximity to cars and buses. Indeed, there have been quite a few horse fatalities and human injuries as a result of carriage accidents in New York and other U.S. cities, including Chicago.

“We know of at least four accidents in Chicago since 2014 including one where the carriage driver and four children had to be rushed to the hospital,” says Wiederkehr, adding that car seats and seat belts are not required, or even available, in carriages.

Additionally, as is the case with New York, no tourists travel to Chicago for the sole purpose of riding in carriages, therefore they are less a tourist “attraction” than an ancillary activity, and it’s unlikely banning the business would drive tourists away.

“We have 53 million tourists that come to Chicago,” Ald. Reilly told the Cook County Chronicle. “None of them comes for carriage-horse rides. The city has a lot to offer without endangering public safety.”

Reilly said the amount of traffic in the city’s central business district does not make it conducive for carriages to be operating.

“I don’t think many people contemplated horse-drawn carriages to be co-mingled with semi-trailers and CTA buses and tour buses and Uber and Lyft and taxi cabs and everything else we’ve got out there,” he told the Chronicle.

Horses are naturally jittery animals that are easily spooked; not only does hauling carriages through city streets raise the risk of a horse bolting while hitched to a carriage with a family inside (which has happened in other cities), they are forced to carry loads on hard pavement, which is known to cause concussive leg injury and lameness.

hooves

Carriage operators continually claim that horses are bred and built to walk and carry loads for many hours. But horses are meant to walk on grass and dirt, not pavement. There is ample veterinary evidence that continuously carrying heavy loads on these surfaces is detrimental to their legs and hooves.

Also, because asphalt surfaces can reach as high as 200° Farenheit in the summer, the ground-level temperature that the horse is actually experiencing can be up to 45° F higher than the official air temperature.

Reilly said he was willing to negotiate with the carriage companies about limiting where the carriages could operate and other concessions, but when the companies showed no interest in meeting or working with him, he decided to push for the citywide ban.

If the proposal passes committee, it would probably go up for a full city council vote next week.

According to a Chicago Sun-Times report, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has suggested he would support a carriage ban. “It’s a step forward and the right thing,” he said at a city council meeting. “Obviously, we’ll have a debate and a discussion. But [it has] my general support.”

How you can take action:

Go to this page to find out if your alderman is a member of the Committee on License and Consumer Protection, and call or email him or her to attend the Wednesday hearing and support the ban. Many of these aldermen have already expressed their support, but others remain uncommitted.

If possible, please attend the committee meeting on Wednesday at 11 a.m. to give testimony. Address is City Hall, 121 N. LaSalle St., Room 201-A.

If you’re unable to attend, please send your written testimony to: ChicagoAllianceForAnimals@gmail.com. This only needs to be a brief statement expressing why you believe the carriage business should be banned. Please include your name, email, address, city & state at the bottom of your letter.

If successful, we will join London, Beijing, Toronto, Rome, Las Vegas and other cities around the U.S. and the world that have relegated this outdated, inhumane industry to a bygone era.

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