Animal rights activists want Salt Lake City to ban horse-drawn carriage rides in the wake of an incident Saturday, when a runaway horse pulling a family of tourists created a spectacle downtown.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sent a letter to Mayor Ralph Becker and the Salt Lake City Council on Wednesday asking the city to put a moratorium on the carriages -- a popular tourist attraction -- in response to Saturday's episode where "Jim," a 12-year-old black half-draft horse, became spooked and took off running with passengers in tow.
Jim became frightened when a metal sign attached to his carriage made a loud sound as a carriage door accidentally swung open, driver Jason Kirton said Wednesday.
Jim lurched forward through an alleyway behind the Gallivan Center that cuts through to the Wells Fargo Center on 300 South, Kirton said. Kirton steered Jim toward the Wells Fargo building and got the horse to stop. He exited the carriage to try to calm Jim but the horse inexplicably bolted again, dragging Kirton with him as he tried to stop the carriage. Kirton was forced to let go of the reins.
A family of seven from Idaho Falls in the carriage braced themselves as the horse ran. A Salt Lake City police officer on a bike fell down trying to stop Jim, who came to a halt when he slammed into a parked car a half block later, near the intersection of Main Street and 300 South.
The scene alarmed Salt Lake City resident Scott Packer, who nearly collided head on with Jim and the carriage racing down 300 South. Packer was eastbound on 300 South, en route to a friend's birthday party at Junior's Tavern on Saturday evening, when Jim came running toward his 1986 Suburban.
Packer swerved to miss the horse and carriage, then watched as Jim hit a parked car directly behind him. He estimated that between 50 to 100 people were on nearby sidewalks at the time of the crash.
"It probably would have been a lot worse had they gone head-on with me rather than the parked car," said Packer, whose vehicle ended up in the middle of the intersection at 300 South and Main Street in order to avoid the horse. He contacted PETA to report his concerns, he said.
PETA criticized Salt Lake City for allowing carriages to operate, citing inhumane conditions the animals are forced to work in as well as safety hazards the carriages pose for the public.
"Horses are forced to work in extreme weather conditions while walking on hard pavement next to passing cars and buses, which can terrify them. Local cyclists, pedestrians and motorists are put in harm's way when cumbersome carriages are pulled by frightened, unpredictable animals," Desiree Acholla, an animals in entertainment specialist with PETA wrote in her letter to Becker and council members.
She asked the city to put a ban on the practice, following suit with places like Biloxi, Miss.; Reno, Nev.; Palm Beach Fla.; and Santa Fe, N.M.
Marla Kennedy, a spokeswoman for Becker, said the mayor will review PETA's request and respond if necessary.
Carlton Christensen, chairman for the Salt Lake City Council, said he has concerns about Saturday's incident, but is waiting to review police reports and any subsequent investigations.
He said the city council doesn't have "immediate plans" to make any changes to regulations that guide horse carriages. He said the council wants to learn more about the circumstances surrounding Jim, to see if the situation was a one-time fluke or if the carriage operators need more stringent rules, before they make any decisions regarding city policy for horse carriages.
Carriage for Hire, the Salt Lake City-based company that owns the horses and carriages available for rides downtown near Temple Square, said PETA's claims are inaccurate.
Annette Overson started Carriage for Hire in 1987. The company has grown to include 25 horses that rotate, working two to three shifts each week, she said. The horses -- mostly Clydesdales, Belgians and Percherons bred for work -- generally work about five hours at a time.
She said the animals are well-cared for at Overson's stable when they aren't working. Horses have around-the-clock access to food, water and veterinarian care should they need it. The animals' stable features a misting system to keep the horses cool on hot days, Overson said, and the company regularly passes inspections.
"I think it would be too bad for the City Council to entertain the idea of closing down a business over a single incident. We feel like we're ambassadors to the city. We get people all day and all night when drivers are out asking for information, suggestions and directions," Overson said.
"Our drivers enjoy the horses. We don't do this because we're making a lot of money, we do this because we love what we do. We love our animals."
Saturday's carriage crash, however, isn't the first reported in Utah.
In April, the driver of a horse-drawn carriage in Logan was hospitalized after the carriage went off the road and tipped over, Acholla said.
On July 4, 1999 nine people were hospitalized after a horse pulling a covered wagon at This is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City ran amok. A halter slipped off one of the two draft horses pulling the passenger wagon at Old Deseret Village, causing one of the horses to bolt down the historic site's Center Street before it was able to break free of the wagon, according to a Salt Lake Tribune story about the event.
Overson and Kirton emphasize that such events are rare in the Beehive State.
Horse carriage rides around Temple Square are a holiday tradition for many Utah families and a staple for couples on Valentine's Day, Overson said.
And Kirton, a carriage driver since 2002, isn't worried about returning to the streets despite the bruises and cuts he received as a result of Jim's unexpected excursion.
"Our horses are very calm and very stable. They're used to the noises they hear in the city. What happened with Jim is something entirely unusual," Kirton said.
"I know it wasn't my fault and it wasn't Jim's fault. It was something external to us."
PETA tracks publicly reported incidents involving horse-drawn carriages that have created public safety concerns for people and animals. According to the organization, incidents in 2009 so far, beginning with the most recent, include:
Aug.29, Philadelphia, Pa. »A horse suffered a leg injury after being spooked. The animal ran through a crowded intersection, eventually wrapping the carriage around a pole.
Aug. 8, Savannah, Ga. » A horse pulling a carriage fled through a downtown neighborhood and hit a car containing two passengers .
July, San Antonio, Texas »A horse spooked by air brakes on a city bus fled down a busy street, upending the driver near the Alamo. Two hours later, while being taken back to the barn, the horse slipped and fell after the carriage hit a curb, sending the driver to the ground.
June 6, San Francisco »A horse pulling a carriage became spooked, ejecting the driver. After spending two weeks in a coma, the driver died on June 23.
April 24, Pratt, Kansas » A man died, and his wife was injured, after a wheel came off the carriage in which they were riding and spooked the horses. The carriage went into a ditch and up an incline before overturning. The man suffered a chest injury that punctured his lung, and he died during surgery. His wife suffered a sprained ankle. The couple was conducting a "test run" in preparation for an upcoming wedding.
April 12, Logan, Utah » The driver of a horse-drawn carriage was hospitalized after the carriage went off the road and tipped over.
April 3, Nebraska City, Neb. »A carriage pulled by horse ran out of control, hit a curb and damaged a vehicle.
March 26, Charleston, S.C. » A horse pulling a carriage with Classic Carriage Tours company was startled by the sound of construction machinery and ran down the street "at a high rate of speed." The carriage overturned, bending a stop sign over onto the sidewalk.
March 23,Salem, N.Y. » A horse pulling a carriage with eight to 10 passengers ran down a steep embankment. A 9-year-old boy injured when the carriage overturned was airlifted to the hospital. The other passengers sustained minor injuries.
Feb. 14 in Waseca, Minn. » Two horses pulling a carriage during Waseca's Sleigh and Cutter Days Parade broke free and took off down the parade route. Witnesses reported the driver was thrown into the street. One woman suffered a foot injury, and a parked city truck was damaged.
January in Charleston, S.C. » A carriage with the Palmetto Carriage Co. hit the rear bumper of a police car. The carriage driver told police that the horse was "spooked" by a puddle of water.
Jan. 17 in Eureka Springs, Ark. »A horse died of a heart attack while pulling a carriage for Southern Pride Carriage Tours.