Political Animals

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By Adam Janos

Photographs of horses.

Pamphlets full of geese.

At the New Yorkers for Clean, Liveable and Safe Streets Mayoral Forum on Animal Rights, the fate of New York's non-human residents was brought into sharp focus as five candidates for mayor hashed out their light-on-policy thoughts about the place of other species in our society.

The show ? which took place at the Union Theological Seminary on Broadway and West 121st ? was colorful, and prior to the start of the debate lead organizer Allie Feldman set the tone by putting the office number for Speaker Christine Quinn (absent) on a large screen and instructed those present to call and say "hey, I'm a voter, and I'd like you to pass 86A to stop carriage abuse."

That message preceded a debate that turned flimsy and pandering, with candidates frequently turning to anecdotes about the places of pets in their lives, rather than giving thoughtful answers to complex questions that all circled, ultimately, around the idea of animal personhood.

At the surface level, the candidates, (Democrats Bill de Blasio, Bill Thompson, John Liu, Sal Albanese and lone Republican John Catismatidis), were warm; being "pro-animal" is an easy position to claim, and each scrambled for the mantle. Bill de Blasio was the clear favorite of the crowd, and as the sole supporter of the above-mentioned legislation seems likely to receive the group's endorsement. He whipped up the crowd with the most ardent line of the forum, which he gave in response to a question about the proposal.

"This is inhumane," said the public advocate, of carriage horses. "It's in front of our very eyes. We don't say, 'look at that, it's inhumane, but it's so quaint and historic.' It doesn't make any sense."

Comptroller John Liu meanwhile tacked to his left and was the only candidate who supported legislation to stop "puppy mills" from supplying animals to pet stores. Currently 25 cities in America, (including Los Angeles), have passed laws that mandate pet stores only sell rescue and shelter dogs, in response to high rates of euthanasia and the overpopulation of their animal shelter systems. De Blasio, Albanese, and Thompson hemmed and hawed on whether they'd enact such a measure.

Republican John Catsimatidis, (aka "the Cat-man", according to his opening statement), struck a more pragmatist, market-driven tone in answer the question, in keeping with his record as the entrepreneur of the race (CEO: Red Apple Group, Gristedes). Arguing that a rescue-dog only policy in city pet stores would drive consumers to nearby counties on Long Island, Cat-man counter-proposed tax-incentives for stores that sell rescue dogs, and free pet-food for the consumers who buy them.

It was a brazenly unsentimental but logical policy idea in a debate full of softball answers, and he was able to sell it well enough to avoid heckles, no small feat for an animal-rights crowd. Unfortunately for Catsimatidis, he brought the boo birds out when discussing the Central Park carriage rides.

"I was raised in New York, and my kids were raised in Central Park. I believe the horses provide a kind of ambiance?you know how much I love animals; I believe they should be safe. I think they should be limited to Central Park. The city should provide barn space, keep all the horses together, make sure they're safe, make sure they get proper care, and make sure they're not too old to work. And when those horses are ready to retire, you know what I'd like to do? I'd like to build a small stable and have them as part of the zoo."

After the boos subsided, the debate moved on. None of the candidates seemed to provide much substance or policy to show true commitment to animal rights, no bold policies were discussed, and the philosophy behind animal advocacy was never really tackled. The group's champion, Bill de Blasio, went so far as to try to win points for the vegetarianism of his children. By the time they reached closing statements, every candidate had pre-maturely exited the stage except for Comptroller John Liu and darkhorse candidate Sal Albanese.

The Horseless Carriage and the Future of Coachmen

At the NYCLASS forum, moderator Tom Allon repeatedly brought up City Countil Intro 86A, a piece of legislation sponsored by Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito that would phase out horse-drawn carriages in Central Park and replace them with eco-friendly vintage-replica cars. The horse ban legislation has raised some concern amongst councilmembers regarding economic viability. Some in the council have wondered if tourists would be as enamored by the cars as they are by the mares, and ? if the tours drop down ? there is concern that the jobs of coachmen would be largely cut from the equine-free park.

In response to those concerns, NYCLASS has used private donation money to sponsor a prototype mode, for use in a proposed pilot program. Costing $450,000, they've outsourced the construction of the all-electric replica (a done-up 1909 Pierce Arrow) to the Creative Workshop, a small, custom car building franchise based out of Florida. The pilot vehicle will seat eight plus a driver, and has a speaker system built in, so as to allow the driver to safely narrate the park to passengers without taking his eyes from the road.

According to the group's lead organizer Allie Feldman, 32 councilmembers have signed a letter endorsing the pilot program, including all the councilmembers in the Bronx and Manhattan, save for Speaker Christine Quinn. The pilot program would need the council's (and Speaker Quinn's) support for legislation that would allow their prototype vehicle onto the park's roads, which the horse carriages currently have exclusive domain over.

Speaker Quinn did not return calls for comment.

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