Montreal's horse-drawn carriages, a fixture of the cityscape for generations, are being abruptly yanked off the streets this season as their image of old-world romance collides with modern-day animal welfare concerns.
Mayor Denis Coderre announced Wednesday the city was suspending the permits of 24 carriage drivers for a year as it tightens regulations. The move comes after a series of mishaps involving carriage horses, including one captured on video last month showing a horse trotting off with an empty carriage and colliding with a car.
The mayor's announcement caught the owners and drivers of the carriages, known popularly in Montreal as calèches, by surprise. The clip-clop of horses' hooves on Old Montreal's cobblestones has been part of the soundtrack of the city for decades, and the sudden suspension of the activity left industry workers worried about their short-term livelihood and long-term prospects; some invoked the spectre of the horses ending up at the abattoir.
"Everyone was eating Kraft Dinner all winter because they thought they were going to be making money this summer. I just feel like sobbing," said Luc Desparois, owner of Lucky Luc Calèches, who has had run-ins with inspectors over the treatment of some of his horses. "I feel like the mayor just cut the grass from under our feet and is sending me into bankruptcy."
In front of Montreal's majestic Notre-Dame Basilica, posing for selfies with tourists and his horse Cocotte, calèche driver Raymond Mireault said he would be sitting out the season for the first time in 32 years.
"The City of Montreal just killed my job and forced me onto welfare," the 59-year-old said.
The mayor said he recognizes that horses are part of Montreal's history – last January, Monsieur le maire showed up in a horse-drawn sleigh to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the first horses in New France. Fourteen horses got off the boat from France in 1665 and have been hauling everything from milk wagons to tramways to tourists ever since.
But he says the industry needs reviewing.
"I know it's part of our identity, but first and foremost we have to take care of the condition of those horses," the mayor said. "There will never be good timing for anything, because you have pros and cons … but to govern is to choose, and so I took the decision and that's it."
In fact, studies have shown the health of the city's 56 calèche horses has been steadily improving since veterinarian visits have been stepped up in recent years. A veterinary report for the city last July said the calèche industry didn't violate animal welfare or constitute "an act of animal cruelty." The city's own veterinarians concluded the city's calèche horses had never been healthier.
Still, animal welfare groups have been pressing city hall to end a practice they consider inhumane, noting that cities worldwide have been removing horse-drawn carriages from their streets (though New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was thwarted by his city council in his campaign to limit the horse-carriage industry in Manhattan.)
Alanna Devine of the Montreal SPCA says urban environments that include car exhaust, traffic, construction zones and noise are stressful for horses, who spook easily, and her group receives regular reports of horses working in temperatures of more than 30 degrees. The group calls the calèche industry "a subsidized form of animal cruelty" and hopes Montreal's temporary suspension will lead to a permanent ban.
"There simply is no humane way for this industry to operate in a city core," Ms. Devine said. "It's an antiquated tradition that if anything gives Montreal a bad reputation. The way of the future is to look at something else to attract tourists."
The mayor says the one-year ban begins Tuesday, meaning that Monday would be the last day to take a ride on a calèche in Montreal. The mayor said permits, which cost $550 for the carriage and $120 for the driver, will be reimbursed.