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Investigating the Death of Smoothie
By Sewell Chan

Published in the NEW YORK TIMES on 17 September 2007

The city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is investigating the death of a carriage horse, Smoothie, in an accident on Friday that drew new attention to the conditions of the dozens of carriage horses used to transport tourists in Central Park and Midtown.

The accident occurred around 4:50 p.m. on Central Park South between Fifth Avenue and Avenue of the Americas, where several carriage horses were parked in a row. According to witnesses, a man walked past the horses while beating a small drum, which caused a brown horse that was hitched to a carriage to bolt onto the sidewalk, darting between two poles that were about two feet apart.

The horse made it through but the carriage did not, and as the horse struggled to move forward, it collapsed and died, witnesses said. At the same time, a second horse ran into the street and leaped onto the hood of a passing Mercedes-Benz, witnesses said. That horse survived, and the passengers in the car, which was badly damaged, said they were not injured. (The drummer subsequently denied trying to scare any horses.)

“We have had staff out all day,” Geoffrey Cowley, a spokesman for the Health Department, said in a phone interview. “They have interviewed both of the carriage horse drivers extensively. They have been out to the stables that boarded both of these horses. They’re checking the health of the other horses in those stables and looking at log books.”

Mr. Cowley acknowledged that the investigation did not begin right away because of uncertainty about which agency had the primary responsibility. The Health Department, through its Bureau of Veterinary and Pest Control Services, part of the Division of Environmental Health, regulates animal care and control, but the Department of Consumer Affairs regulates the Central Park carriage industry, which is said to include 68 carriages, 293 drivers and 220 horses. Earlier this month, the city comptroller’s office issued a highly critical audit that found lapses in how the horses are cared for.

“Because responsibility for this has been so fractured among city agencies,” Mr. Cowley said, “it hasn’t been absolutely clear whose jurisdiction it really fell into.”

As the comments on City Room show, the death of Smoothie has generated strong emotions.

The Horse and Carriage Association of New York issued a statement calling on the city to install hitching posts where horses can be tethered while they are waiting; establish hack stands or areas clearly identifying where carriages may pick up passengers; and prohibit “all musical bands, street musicians or amplified music near the horse staging areas.”

The association also called for more water spigots and better drainage in the areas along Fifth and Sixth Avenues where horses line up, as well as more tie ropes on harnesses to “ensure better restraint of horses during inactive periods” and “sensitivity training for new drivers to increase horse behavioral awareness.”

The association defended its right to operate horses, saying that the carriages have been “a beloved and popular fixture” since the 19th century. The association cited the 1967 film “Barefoot in the Park,” in which newlyweds played by Jane Fonda and Robert Redford snuggled in a carriage, and said that horse-drawn carriages are operated in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, New Orleans, Vancouver, Denver, San Antonio, Ottawa and Nashville.

The Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages asserted that carriage owners were trying to evade responsibility by blaming street musicians. The animal-rights group asserted that previous horses had also been scared, when no music was involved.

“While it is highly possible that the loud drums spooked Smoothie and led to her tragic death, there were no street musicians nearby in all of the other spooking accidents,” the coalition said in a statement.

The coalition noted that a training manual used by operators of the carriages cites a number of urban phenomena that can spook a horse, including manhole covers, potholes, motorcycles and diesel trucks, ambulance and police sirens, barking dogs and noisy crowds. The coalition said in its statement:

"Horses are prey animals that rely on flight to run from danger. Particularly in a congested city like New York, many things can spook a horse — from the obvious like loud horns, sirens, cars backfiring, and motorcycles, to the innocuous, like trash blowing in the wind. A horse weighing 1,500 to 2,000 pounds is a weapon – a danger to himself and to others when spooked. Is the city waiting for a human death before it takes action? The best solution to respect these gentle giants and acknowledge the safety of the public is to ban the horse carriage industry and bring New York City into the 21st century, following the lead of important tourist cities like London, Paris and Toronto."

Smoothie, the carriage horse that darted onto the sidewalk, was spooked by a drumming sound, witnesses said. (Photo: Mark Sullivan)

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