MANHATTAN (CN) — With the holiday season here, families across the world have been taking rides on horse-drawn carriages in New York City’s Central Park — and facing harassment from animal-rights protesters, a carriage company claims in court.
Central Park Sightseeing sued two advocacy groups and four activists in New York County Supreme Court on Thursday for disrupting horse-drawn tours with their protests.
The advocacy groups — New Yorkers for Clean, Livable & Safe Streets (NYCLASS) and Friends of Animals — have waged campaigns to put an end to a holiday tradition they believe is based on cruelty.
NYCLASS so far has collected more than 144,000 signatures on a petition to end the practice, and their website features a photo of a carriage horse collapsed in the street from exhaustion.
This past summer, Friends of Animals reported that its campaign director videotaped a carriage driver picking up passengers after the New York City Police Department issued a heat suspension in July.
But in Thursday’s lawsuit, the carriage company insists that activism is not the problem.
“Defendants do not merely engage in peaceful leafletting or the peaceful communication of their opinions to the public,” the 13-page complaint states. “Rather, defendants’ activities involve unlawful conduct including, among other things, blocking customers from accessing horse-drawn carriages, blocking drivers from performing their job duties and loudly yelling obscenities at, accosting, harassing, threatening and intimidating drivers and customers.”
Protesters have shouted “What are you going to do about it?” or “Why don’t you make me?” at customers who object to their demonstrations while shoving pictures of dead horses in front of families with young children, the company claims.
The lawsuit does not name the particular protesters who allegedly shouted those remarks, but it accuses Queens activist Edward A. Sullivan of having assaulted a horse-drawn carriage driver on Oct. 8 this year.
The New York Daily News reported that police arrested Sullivan, who was charged with assault and harassment and issued a desk appearance ticket.
Another individual named as a defendant is Edita Birnkrant, described in the complaint as campaigns director for Friends of Animals.
But that group cited a split with Birnkrant and said it has been wrongly named as a defendant.
“Friends of Animals has long opposed the continued use of carriage horses in NYC,” Michael Harris, the Wildlife Law program director for Friends of Animals, said in an email. “It is cruel. We have been working for several years on legislative or regulatory solutions to this problem. However, as an organization, we have not sponsored or engaged in the type of direct action seen in several recent videos and alleged in the complaint. In fact, our organization and Ms. Birnkrant had a difference of view regarding this type of protest and she left the organization on October 24, 2016.”
Central Park Sightseeing says activists are discouraging tourists from taking rides with it, or they have made the experience so unpleasant that riders have demanded refunds.
The carriage company accuses the activists of public nuisance and tortious interference.
It also seeks punitive damages and an injunction restraining the protesters from blocking rides at their Central Park South locations or coming within 15 feet of their customers.
The company is represented by attorney James Goniea from Einbinder Dunn & Goniea.
NYCLASS has not responded to a request for comment.