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TURNING UP THE HEAT

By Kyle Stock
The Post and Courier - Charleston - Friday, July 28, 2006

A long-running feud over guidelines for Charleston's animal-drawn
carriages during summer months has reached a boiling point. Now, amid
volleys of vitriolic e-mail, insults and accusations, a special committee
struggles to cool things down.

The city of Charleston is getting around to regulating one of its oldest
industries, animal-drawn carriage tours, but a coalition of residents
argues the process has been hijacked by tour companies and says officials
won't go far enough to protect tourism's beasts of burden.

After spending more than two years discussing proposed regulations, a
city-appointed committee is struggling to make headway as a
long-simmering debate boils over.

"I really felt like we were hitting a spot where everyone was pretty
happy, and all of a sudden it was like a political movement just jumped
up," said John Malark, an equine veterinarian on the committee writing
the new rules. "They are trying to do everything they can to limit the
amount of trips that are done. ... I hope they don't derail the whole
process and cut down two years of work."

Although City Council will not see the proposed legislation until
September or October, critics are already hot under the collar about
several issues, particularly the proposed temperature thresholds at which
guides must stop animal-drawn tours.

A group of residents calling itself the Carriage Horse Safety Committee
said draft animals often get sick and die in cramped stables because of
their workload, citing a carriage company employee they declined to
identify.

Carriage companies deny those claims and have suggested that those
pushing for tighter guidelines are more interested in keeping carriages
away from their peninsular homes.

In the balance hang six companies and a multimillion-dollar industry that
loads about 30,000 carriages a year.

For some time, the city has had rules detailing acceptable carriage
routes and traffic levels and requiring a "diapering apparatus" on each
horse and mule. But it has little on the books about animal welfare.

Voluntary Guidelines

The carriage industry in Charleston has been operating voluntarily on a
set of veterinarians' "guidelines." Draft animals are fed, watered,
rested and monitored based on these loose, but largely unenforceable,
rules. Tour guides are supposed to check animals' temperatures when the
weather hits 95 degrees, and stop tours when the mercury ticks up to 98
or when the total heat index degrees plus humidity level is 185.
The city has paid a third-party veterinarian $200 to $300 a day to check
up occasionally on the animals and businesses.

Amid a push for stricter regulations, the city formed a six-person
committee in early 2004 to research the contested issues and write a
comprehensive ordinance. After almost 2 1/2 years, the committee has a
draft that reads much like the current guidelines.

Under the proposal, companies would start taking the temperature of draft
animals after every tour when the mercury hits 90 degrees. They would
have to stop tours when temperatures hit 98 degrees or when the
combination of heat and humidity tops 180.

Residents and animal-welfare advocates are arguing for lower thresholds.
They say they have spent a great deal of their time in the past two years
following the committee's progress and debating issues.

Vocal Critic

One of the loudest critics of the proposed regulations has been downtown
resident Ellen Harley. In a June 5 e-mail, Harley wrote that the
committee's draft ordinance is weaker than the 1993 guidelines.
"The carriage operators right now 'own' the committee; they are in
complete control," she wrote. "Don't think that the SPCA or the
veterinarian will protect the animals," Harley wrote, referring to Malark
and another committee member from a local animal-welfare organization.

The e-mail was forwarded to the committee and prompted a response from
its chairman and at least one other member. Cathy Forrester, the
committee head and director of development at the Coastal Conservation
League, said the message was disturbing. "To suggest that the carriage
operators 'own' the committee ... is a disservice to all of us and does
not advance the process," she wrote.

Committee member Tom Doyle, owner of Palmetto Carriage Works Ltd., wrote
of Harley: "The collection of lies and insults in the e-mail sent under
your name went well beyond the committee and into the community."

War of Words

The debate continued this week in a string of e-mails copied to The Post
and Courier. Harley called Doyle's response "unfortunate and hysterical"
and again criticized the makeup of the committee. She noted that in South
Carolina animals can be euthanized without a veterinarian present, a
loophole that she said may have allowed carriage companies to keep a
clean record on animal mistreatment.

Doyle, in turn, called for Harley to reveal evidence of heat-stressed
horses. "Put up or shut up," he wrote.

Pat Jones, president of the Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood
Association, supported Harley's statement. "We have been rebuffed by the
committee at all stages," Jones wrote.

Conflicts of Interest?

In an interview, Harley and Jones also said Malark, the veterinarian on
the committee, has a conflict of interest because he counts carriage
companies as clients. Malark said the only other equine veterinarian in
the area also does business with carriage tour operators.

"Most of these critics are downtown Charleston residents, and they have
some issues with the carriage companies for a lot of other reasons than
the care of their horses traffic issues, etc.," Malark said. "I don't
know that anyone that lives downtown with a complaint doesn't have a
conflict of interest of their own."

Harley and Jones said their push for tighter carriage rules is not selfishly motivated. "What we're seeking is humane treatment for the animals, period," Harley said. "That's the only agenda we have."

Whatever regulations go into the city code, the bitterness of the debate will no doubt linger - much like the acrid smell of the historic district's pavement where the animals have left their mark.

Boiling Points

A draft of rules heading to City Council for a vote is not much different
from the ones carriage companies have followed since 1993. Here are some
of the most- contested issues.

CURRENT GUIDELINE:  Animal temperatures are taken at 95 degrees. Tours are stopped at 98 degrees or when combined temperature and humidity hits 185.

PROPOSED ORDINANCE:  Temperatures are taken at 90 degrees. Tours are stopped at 98 degrees or when combined temperature and humidity hits 180.

CURRENT:  Maximum 12- hour workday.

PROPOSED:  Maximum 10- hour workday with a 1.5- hour break and 15- minute break
between tours.

CURRENT:  Properly fitted shoes.

PROPOSED:  Rubber or elastomer shoes with reflective ankle cuffs on all four legs.

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