Updated at 6:30 a.m. with information from private veterinarian's report.
ST. LOUIS • City health director Pam Walker is pushing forward on a ban of horse-drawn carriage rides — despite a veterinarian’s examination of a horse on Monday that conflicted with Walker’s assessment that it suffered from a chronic disease.
“It’s my opinion that the only sure way to ensure the welfare of these horses is to ban the practice in St. Louis,” Walker said Monday.
However, a veterinarian hired by the owner of Moose, the horse at the center of the growing controversy, gave the animal a clean bill of health on Monday.
“He is in great physical condition with a Body Condition Score of 5/9, which is perfect,” the veterinarian, Mark Cassells, stated in his report. Cassells, who was hired by the horse's owner, Jerry Kirk, stated in his report that the city's veterinarian, Sarah Frei, assisted in Monday's examination
On Sunday, citing concerns for the horse's well-being, Walker forbade the animal from working in the city. She also had inspections performed on Sunday of the downtown stable operated by Kirk's business, Brookdale Farms, and the city's other horse-drawn carriage business, St. Louis Carriage Company.
Walker declined on Monday to comment on the results of Moose’s examination or to release the stable inspection reports.
In a statement, she said those issues would be addressed today in a press release.
“It will include my vet report and a corrective action plan which are being developed (Monday) night,” the statement read.
Walker got personally involved in the situation on Saturday evening. The health director, who lives downtown, was walking her dog when she saw what she said was a horse “showing classic signs of heatstroke.” She intervened to stop riders from boarding the carriage being pulled by that horse, Moose, and stopped another horse, Ben, both owned by Brookdale Farms.
“That horse (Moose) was obviously under duress on Saturday night,” Walker said Monday.
On Sunday, Walker had Frei examine Moose.
Walker said Frei, who reports to her, found that the horse suffered from heaves, or COPD, which hindered its breathing.
Kirk disputed that diagnosis. He said Walker misinterpreted his horse’s normal reaction to pulling a carriage.
“Moose had just finished a ride and was breathing hard, which is normal, just like you’d be breathing hard if you walked fast or ran,” Kirk said.
Kirk asserted that, contrary to the opinions of critics he described as “citified,” his horses thrive on pulling loads.
“The horses love the work, the attention and the interaction with people; they love every bit of it,” Kirk said. “We couldn’t make these horses work if they didn’t want to work. They’re big enough not to do it if they don’t want to.”
Cassells noted in his report that an ultrasound of Moose's lungs showed "little to no evidence of COPD."
The veterinarian said he examined the horse both before and after exercise.
Kirk said the diagnosis vindicated him.
“This horse is fit for work. This horse wants to work. And Walker has no right to stand in the way,” he said.
Kirk said he rotates about two dozen horses between his downtown stable, at 218 Lombard Street, and his 110-acre farm.
St. Louis Carriage Co. operates a stable at 1000 Cerre Street, just south of Busch Stadium. The manager there, Jennifer Emigh, said her drivers do not overwork the horses and that the animals get two days off a week.
“I’ve been working for this company for 22 years, and these horses are very well cared for,” Emigh said. “I don’t agree that carriage rides should be banned, but I would not be opposed to consistent regulations. If nothing else, it would put people’s minds at ease if there were some clear rules on the books.”
St. Louis isn’t alone in attempts to rein in horse-drawn carriages. Officials have taken similar steps in Charleston, S.C., Philadelphia, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Atlanta and Chicago.
Last week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio reiterated his campaign vow to ban carriage rides in that city’s iconic Central Park but provided few details as to how he would go about implementing such a ban. The proposal has run up against organized resistance. Meanwhile, a poll indicated that two-thirds of New Yorkers favored keeping such carriages legal.
Kirk described Walker as “an animal-rights activist with an agenda.”
“She is part of a certain segment of the population that does not want anyone else to do something because they don’t believe in it,” Kirk said.
Walker described herself as an “animal advocate” but said she is not a member of any organized animal-rights group.
“I think I’ve been pretty outspoken about having a no-kill shelter and urging people to be pet friendly in the city. But all of that is irrelevant,” she said.
Adding to the controversy is confusion about what city agency currently regulates the business.
For years, the Metropolitan Taxicab Commission regulated Brookdale Farms and the St. Louis Carriage Co. However, late last year, the commission’s executive director, Ron Klein, notified both businesses that his agency had been forced to relinquish its authority over them in the wake of a lawsuit.
“We lost a case involving a promotional vehicle and the court opinion implied that we no longer had authority over nonmotorized vehicles, including horse-drawn carriages,” Klein said. “We have been looking to the city for an ordinance that would clearly indicate who has the authority over these carriages. But so far, that has not happened.”
For her part, Walker contends the city’s charter gives her that authority.
“The fact is, I have a legal obligation under the city code to make sure that no unfit animal is allowed to work, that no animal is overloaded and no animal is overworked,” she said.
Not surprisingly, Kirk said he does not recognize Walker’s control over his business.
“Nobody from the city has ever told me she’s in charge of us,” Kirk said. “She’s in charge of animal cruelty and is under the misconception that it’s cruel for a draft horse to do what a draft horse has been bred to do.”