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The Confiscation of a Horse Industry
Friday, January 31, 2014 - by Chris Wittstruck, Esq

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Chris Wittstruck

Guide dogs serve extremely useful roles in our society. For the sight impaired, these canine companions are literally a lifeline to their masters. So, too, search and rescue dogs have been credited with countless instances of saving lives where human skills and prowess fall short. The services provided by Guinea pigs and lab mice are rightly credited with saving lives as well. Their sacrifices ensure that humans aren't exposed to harmful products and verify the efficacy of new medications and treatments.  


Of course, there is also a distinct reality attributed to each of the foregoing statements.


Guide dogs spend the overwhelming part of their lives harnessed. Unlike the Standardbred racehorse who spends no more than several minutes a day hitched to a jog cart or sulky, the guide dog is at the total beck and call of its needy patron, both day and night. When the impaired individual is at a fixed location, the dog remains confined to the human’s feet. If the dog experiences any leisure time at all, it is assuredly short lived and can be abruptly terminated as the owner’s next need for mobility arises.


The plights of search and rescue dogs are even more disquieting. After a fire, earthquake or other tragic circumstance, these heroes are pressed into service by human handlers in precarious places like collapsed buildings. The danger to the canine is real. Moreover, these animals live a paramilitary life, as they go through rigorous training and years of continuous, spur of the moment service analogous to their human supervisors.


Plainly put, and with no embellishment necessary, the laboratory animal is sacrificed for the betterment of mankind.


Cows, pigs and chickens are commercially slaughtered and eaten. Animals like bears, deer and rabbits are hunted. Zoos, circuses and aquariums confine animals for the amusement of humans.


In sum, the claim that animals possess “rights” is a farce. Humans possess rights, and one of the rights that humans enjoy is to make use of animals for human benefit. If those statements sound harsh, consider this: While animals possess no rights, humans have a continuous obligation, detailed by law, to see to it that the welfare of animals is genuinely protected.


Animals don’t have a right to be free from torture; humans have the obligation not to torture animals. Deliberating over the nature and extent of animal rights is meaningless. Where the human obligation for animal welfare begins and ends is the proper point of debate. Should cosmetics be tested using the eyes of rabbits? Without drawing a conclusion, the simple answer is that the determination is made by balancing the welfare of the animals against the needs, desires and, yes, the rights of the humans.


In New York City, the newly elected mayor has made it a top priority to remove the carriage horse industry from the streets of Manhattan and substitute it with a fleet of electric vintage automobiles that currently exists only on paper. Why? The mayor’s supporters view the industry, which dates back to the 1850s, as cruel, inhumane and anachronistic, purportedly because the horses breathe exhaust while dodging dangerous traffic. There are also reports that the move might be part of a scheme to reward campaign contributors by freeing up the valuable real estate which presently is occupied by the stables which house the horses.


The true motivation for the mayoral move aside, the over 200 carriage horses presently in service, as well as their living quarters, are heavily regulated. Chapter 4 of the Rules of the City of New York’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene provides stringent requirements for those who operate with the industry.


The Rules state that each horse must be licensed. There are mandatory reporting requirements in the event of a horse’s death or ownership transfer. The stables are under the continuous inspection of the City’s Department of Health, and any persons designated by the Commissioner to enforce the provisions of this title, agents of the ASPCA, police officers, and employees of the Department of Consumer Affairs. There are numerous regulations that detail minimum requirements for stable maintenance, including internal temperature, ventilation, lighting and sanitary conditions.


The horses are subject to mandatory veterinarian checks and a health certificate for each horse must be maintained and filed. Business logs detailing the daily movements of each horse are required to be kept. There are requirements regarding intervals for feeding, water consumption and rest. Carriages horses are prohibited from working more than 10 hours in any 24 hour period, and are not permitted to work at all when the temperature is above 90 degrees. Also, a horse may at any time be removed from service by any number of government agencies if deemed necessary for health reasons.


Click here to view N.Y.C. carriage horse industry regulations:


It would appear that city government has ensured that the welfare of the horse is of paramount importance in the conduct of the carriage industry. Still, limited, anecdotal instances of horses collapsing while in service or being spooked by traffic have fueled the clamor by the “rights” activists to terminate the industry’s operation. The overall safety of the industry, as well as its tradition and charm, are ignored by the animal rights folks. As a spokeswoman for the industry put it: You cannot just get rid of a business, a perfectly legal well-regulated … just because a few people don't like it.”


Worse yet, the new mayor’s plan for the horses presently in service is to retire them to “sanctuaries.” The daunting task of placing over 200 horses out to pasture aside, the more important question is what right does the rights’ activist mayor have to confiscate the private property of the horses’ owners? First, can confiscation of the horses truly be classified as for a public use like the condemnation of real estate for purposes of building a school or hospital? Moreover, where is the provision for the horse owners to receive just compensation? Both the Fifth Amendment to the New York State Constitution, as well as Article I, Section 7 of the New York State Constitution, ensure that private property shall not be taken for public use without just compensation. It appears that in their crusade for misplaced animal rights, the mayor and his activist supporters have totally forgotten the guaranteed rights of citizens.


What does all this matter as far as harness racing is concerned? Is it that hard to figure out? A highly regulated industry doesn’t appeal to a handful of rights’ activists. It doesn’t matter to them that for every Barbaro and Eight Belles there are thousands of horses who spend their entire racing careers without major incident. It also doesn’t matter that there are almost no catastrophic incidents in harness racing. The activists use the extremely limited, often inapplicable instances as sensationalized examples of why animal racing is inhumane, and further why all of the equine participants should immediately and permanently be put out to grazing paddocks.


Five years ago, the rights’ activists were completely successful in a similar campaign that led to the eradication of the entire greyhound racing industry in New England. Now, this same type of campaign is being supported by the mayor of one of the nation’s largest cities in an attempt to seize the private commercial property of an entire blue collar industry. If successful in destroying a 150 year old business sector that it had previous been content to vastly regulate, what industry will be next?


Can you hear the hoof beats?


Chris E. Wittstruck is an attorney, a director of the Standardbred Owners Association of New York and a charter member of the Albany Law School Racing and Gaming Law Network.

Editor's Note: The views contained in this column are that of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association.

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