By Amy Zimmer
DNAinfo News Editor
CENTRAL PARK — A top-hatted horse carriage driver was midway through his sales pitch to two visiting couples at the southeast corner of Central Park when a protester swooped in with a flyer alleging the industry's abuse of horses.
"We're not an outrageous group," Jessie Streich-Kest, an activist with New Yorkers for Clean, Livable & Safe Streets, told the tourists, who were from the Dominican Republic. "We're just trying to show what's going on."
She was one of a bunch of NY-CLASS activists who spent Friday handing out literature about alleged abuses of the horses around the park, and claiming to have 30,000 supporters for a campaign to replace the carriages with electric vintage cars.
The horse carriage driver stuck to his talking points: the industry is regulated, the horses work no more than nine hours a day, they don't work if it's hotter than 90 degrees.
Streich-Kest stuck to hers, telling the tourists that these urban horses live an average of ten years — half the life expectancy of a normal horse.
"You're trying to defend those who cannot speak," Gabriela Cabral, of Santo Domingo, said to Streich-Kest.
She decided to take the horse and carriage tour anyway.
As she stepped into the carriage, Cabral told DNAinfo, "The horses are treated better here than where we are from. This is not really bad for us."
The horses in her country's carriage industry have "all their bones showing," she said.
"I thought I had them for a second," said Streich-Kest, who then ran across the street to snap pictures of horses eating oats not from buckets, but off the sidewalks.
Some drivers greeted her with threats. One told her she should have been aborted.
The drivers justified their taunts, saying that her group, which was founded by Manhattan Mini-Storage and Edison ParkFast owner Steve Nislick, was threatening their livelihood.
NY-CLASS is ramping up support for legislation City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito introduced last March — which only has 11 sponsors so far – that would ban carriage horses and replace them with electric 1920s-era replica cars.
The idea has now been circulating for years.
"You're going to replace me with cars?" Frank Rodden, a horse driver for 24 years, said to Streich-Kest. "You're not going to replace anyone around here."
Rodden, who owns four horses and one of four stables in a recently rezoned pocket in Hells Kitchen, invited her to look at his stable on West 52nd Street to see the conditions his horses live in for herself.
He disputed allegations of animal cruelty and pointed to his shiny-coated horse, Jethro, as an example.
He said this current fight was less about his horses and more about what's at the heart of so many fights in New York: real estate.
"We look at it as a land grab under the guise of animal rights," Rodden told DNAinfo, claiming that their stables are now hot property that could be developed for residential towers.
The Hells Kitchen area where the stables sit have been blanketed with posters from PETA featuring "Glee" star Lea Michele, urging people to "help put horse-drawn carriages out to pasture."
Rodden, who has a 108-acre farm in the Catskills where he sends his horses on a rotated schedule every five or six weeks, disputed the groups claims about life spans — which NY-CLASS got from searching death records.
"I had Hanover who worked in the city for 16 years and lived to be 34," Rodden said.
"I've been in this business for 24 years. The animal rights people have been saying these things even longer," Rodden said.
"Where's the proof? They've been throwing manure on the walls for years hoping it will stick."