Is Philly carriage company committing animal cruelty, or is it just a victim of a changing city?

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A photo by an activist of a horse at Philadelphia Carriage Company. When a city-contracted veterinarian visited the stable, two of eight horses were found to be in less than the acceptable condition for working horses.

Tourists who pay $100 for an hour-long horse-drawn carriage ride with the Philadelphia Carriage Co. expect to see Philadelphia at its most beautiful.

But animal-control inspectors and veterinarians who visited the company’s stables just north of Center City say what they found there was downright ugly.

They described miserably cramped stalls, inadequate and wet bedding, a lack of exercise space, and an uncontrolled rodent infestation. A horse named Da Vinci suffered from equine asthma, possibly due to poor ventilation. Another horse, Tucker, “was heavily stained with manure and urine on his chest, legs, elbow, and haunches,” Audra Houghton, director of operations at Animal Care and Control Team (ACCT) of Philadelphia, told the city’s Licenses and Inspections Review Board on Tuesday.

City officials — including the Department of Licenses and Inspections and ACCT — have been monitoring the situation at the Philadelphia Carriage Co. for months, refusing to renew the stable’s license and issuing numerous violations. The owner, Han Hee Yoo, had appealed the citations, saying that the horses are well cared for and that the inspectors misinterpreted what they saw.

The L&I board on Tuesday rejected the carriage company’s appeal of the findings. That could mean the beginning of the end for one of the city’s two remaining carriage operators.

Yoo’s lawyer, Barry Penn, said she intends to relocate — or more likely wind down — the business within a year. But, for now, she plans to appeal the board’s decision to Common Pleas Court.

Penn suggested that the 38-year-old stable on the 500 block of North 13th Street has become a victim of gentrification and the political pressures that come with it.

The vacant lot where Yoo’s horses once exercised is now condos. “It’s become a residential neighborhood. Forty years ago, this was classified industrial … and in the last five or 10 years, it’s completely changed,” he said.

City Councilman Mark Squilla, whose district includes the stable and carriage routes, said that for now, his concern is for the safety of the horses.

If Yoo is planning to shut down the business anyway, Squilla said, “perhaps we can work with her to transport the horses to a safe place.” He said many animal-rights activists had been contacting him regarding the horses’ welfare, and suggested some of them might be able to locate sanctuaries and transportation and even pay Yoo for the horses.

Camera icon Anne Harney
Philadelphia Carriage Co.’s stable was cited for numerous violations.

The carriage company has been operating without a license since June.

The city, however, has avoided taking aggressive action until now. The concern, lawyer Leonard Reuter said, was that preventing the company from doing business could put the horses at risk.

“If we cease the carriage company’s business, we have no control over how the horses are going to be kept,” he said. “We made the decision not to push forward during the pending of the [cease-operations order] because we didn’t want the animals to disappear.”

In cases of inhumane treatment, the city has the authority to seize the horses; but the Pennsylvania SPCA, the organization that enforces state laws regarding animal cruelty, was not able to make such a finding.

Nicole Wilson, director of humane law enforcement for the PSCPA, said that ACCT had notified her of possible violations, but not quickly enough.

“Oftentimes, we’re not getting that information until a day or two later, and by then some of the evidence is compromised,” she said: Sanitation problems are resolved, or ailing animals are moved offsite.

The number of carriage operators in the city has dwindled since the city implemented more extensive regulations for stables, Wilson said. Reuter said regulations Yoo violated included those governing minimum stall size and required “turnout” or exercise areas.

“It’s true that years ago, this facility and facilities like this were allowed to operate,” Reuter told the board.

“We like to think that we’re getting better as a society and that we’re doing things better now — and that the care of animals and especially animals you are making a living off of are going to get some modicum of care. I don’t think it’s too much to ask, and in fact the law requires that horses be allowed to be outside once a day and feel free … to simply be a horse.”