Neglect and the Manhattan Carriage Horse

This week a horse that pulled tourist carriages in New York dropped dead in the middle of Manhattan, provoking cries of cruelty and mistreatment. I’m aware that there’s a long-standing campaign to end the practice of using these horses in the city, and that the only other equines in central New York, at the Claremont Academy, have now gone. I’m aware that some of the carriage drivers may not have great records, that a nine-hour shift is very long and that the worst days of summer in that sweltering city are not good conditions for horses. However, it’s autumn now, not August, and humane societies are satisfied with the welfare measures that are in place for the horses, as Mayor Bloomberg pointed out in this NYT piece:

“The horses here are supervised by the health department, the A.S.P.C.A.,” he said. “They’re well taken care of. And most of them wouldn’t be alive if they didn’t have a job.”

And this, I think, is the nub of it. The grey who died had only been working a month, and frankly from the photos I’ve seen, he did not look neglected. He looked like he was in great shape. Horses are mortal and, like humans, they do die of heart attacks without being overworked – in fact, they’re far more likely than humans to have such an episode. As this Horse and Hound article shows, a horse doesn’t have to be “worked to death” to have a cardiac crisis:

In a recent study funded by the International League for the Protection of Horses 25% of sudden death fatalities were pleasure horses, and exercise doesn’t even have to be that strenuous or fast. Healthy horses are on average 50 times more likely to die during exercise than healthy people, but the causes of death are very different. The human casualties who collapse during marathons are much more likely to have succumbed because of an inherited disorder of the heart muscle or of the electrical activity in the heart. These conditions do not exist in horses to our knowledge. When the sudden death of an apparently healthy horse occurs during exercise, almost half are due to massive fatal haemorrhage (bleeding) from arteries or veins of either the chest or abdomen.  The remaining, largest and most perplexing group of sudden death fatalities has no distinct abnormalities to explain the demise at post-mortem, except non-specific signs of sudden cardiac failure. Unfortunately, the underlying reason for a large blood vessel in the abdomen or chest breaking and causing major bleeding in a horse is usually not clear.

Bloomberg may sound callous when he says that the horse would be dead if it had no job, but he’s also correct. The US horse population is in crisis. Even before the recession a surge in hay prices led to a rise in welfare cases, and this problem  has only worsened – as I noted in an earlier post, there are an estimated 100,000 unwanted horses in the States, and only 13,400 places in sanctuaries and recues. If you want to see what neglect and cruelty look like, here are some current cases in the US, drawn from a quick Google News search of the last week or so:

And that’s without counting the 140,000 horses per year making long, cruel journeys to slaughter in Canada and Mexico.

EDITED TO ADD: Aaaaand the necropsy results. Charlie had only been on the job a few weeks after a working life with an Amish farmer, and by the looks of it, a more thorough vetting should have been done.  He had a tooth problem and stomach ulcers. Would a five-stage vetting have picked up the ulcers? The teeth should have been one of the first things to be checked. Whether either of these resulted in a heart attack, I have no idea, but if something like a cracked tooth wasn’t assessed before he started work in the city, then there needs to be stricter monitoring of the horses chosen for work.

EDITED TO ADD: the vet who spoke on behalf of the ASPCA on the necropsy has retracted her allegations of neglect. The ASPCA promptly suspended her. From the NYT:

… a few days later, the society’s head equine veterinarian took it upon herself to issue a “correction” stating that in fact there was no evidence that the horse, Charlie, was experiencing any pain, that the ulcers he had were common in all breeds of working horses, and that any implication that Charlie was being abused was misleading.Now the vet, Pamela Corey, has been suspended without pay by the society in the latest volley over the contentious subject of carriage-horse welfare in New York City.

The society declined to discuss why Dr. Corey had been suspended but said it had gone back and forth with her over drafts of its original news release about Charlie’s death. “We believe there are no factual differences between our original statement of 10/31/11 and the one Dr. Corey asked to issue,” said Elizabeth Estroff, senior vice president of communications for the A.S.P.C.A.

Here’s a link to an open letter concerning the pressure Dr Corey felt she was under to spin the necropsy results – which, along with Charlie’s body, have not been released by the ASPCA.


December 4th, 2011, update. A new piece in the New York Post:

An NYPD cop-turned-animal-welfare agent is stepping forward to charge that the ASPCA is cutting ethical and legal corners in its attempt to abolish the city’s horse-carriage industry.

“It’s like targeting. It’s like racial profiling,” Henry Ruiz said of the agency’s efforts to uncover wrongdoing in the century-old industry.

Ruiz said the ASPCA commissioned an independent study about four years ago that determined the horses were well cared for. He said the study was never released because it clashed with the ASPCA’s agenda. The agency claimed no such study exists.

In his nine years with the ASPCA, Ruiz said he never witnessed cruelty involving a carriage horse.

But he said that didn’t stop the agency from routinely dispatching agents to patrol the horse line outside Central Park, especially around the Christmas holidays.

“You were supposed to give out at least 10 [summonses] that night,” he recalled.

Necropsy report for the horse here.