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Drivers vow to fight de Blasio plan to eliminate NYC horse-drawn carriages

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    Dec. 31, 2013: Passengers enjoy a horse-drawn carriage ride near Central Park on New Year's Eve day. (AP)

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    Dec. 31, 2013: A girl feeds a horse near Central Park on New Year's Eve day. (AP)

Horse-drawn carriage drivers are vowing to fight New York City's new mayor in his bid to eliminate the carriages from the Big Apple and replace them with vintage-style electric cars. 

Mayor Bill de Blasio, citing the complaints of animal rights activists, singled out Central Park's horse-drawn carriages as he took the helm of New York City last week. "We are going to get rid of the horse carriages. Period," de Blasio said. "They are not humane, they are not appropriate for the year 2014. It's over. So, just watch us do it."

Yet despite his strong rhetoric, carriage owners say de Blasio has not contacted them or visited the stables -- and instead was taking the claims of animal rights activists as fact.

“De Blasio has never visited our stables,” Christina Hansen, carriage driver and liaison for the Horse and Carriage Association of New York City, told FoxNews.com. “This really has nothing to do with the welfare of the horses. If it did, we could sit down with Mayor de Blasio or the City Council ... and have a discussion. This is about radical animal rights ideology, it’s about money, power, politics and real estate.” 

The plan to replace the horses and carriages with vintage-style electric cars also has been attacked. Critics argue that few people will pay the current fare -- $50 for 20 minutes and $130 for an hour -- to be driven around in a car in a city in which cars and cabs are already legion.

Details of the plan are scarce, but Hansen was told that the cars would be offered first to the carriage owners -- who own the approximately 68 medallions and loan them to roughly 300 drivers. Owners would be offered the option of leasing the cars for $21,000 a year, a plan that Hansen dismisses as turning carriage owners into sharecroppers.

“There would be a novelty factor for a little bit,” she said. “But who wants to ride a car in New York City?”

The real motivation for the plan, carriage owners claim, comes from the close-knit bond between de Blasio and an animal rights group called New Yorkers for Clean, Livable, and Safe Streets (NYCLASS) -- whose motto is “Get political for animals.”

"They constantly breathe exhaust while dodging dangerous traffic," says the group’s website, "confined to the shafts of their carriage and their tiny stable stalls, with no access to green pastures."

It is unclear how many claims of animal cruelty have been filed against carriage owners. According to The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, since 2007 more than 230 summonses have been issued on matters pertaining to humane care and animal cruelty. 

NYCLASS, which did not return a request for comment by FoxNews.com, played a significant role in the defeat of de Blasio’s Democratic rival in last year's mayoral election, pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into a political action committee called “New York City Is Not For Sale” -- a PAC set up expressly to defeat one-time front-runner Christine Quinn.

NYCLASS was founded by Steve Nislick, former CEO of Edison Properties. His opponents claim that should the carriage stables close, the prime real estate would be available, and Edison would be likely to snap it up. According to the New York Post, Nislick also donated the personal maximum to de Blasio’s campaign, while in December, de Blasio attended a fundraiser for NYCLASS.

Such connections lead to accusations that the ban has little to do with animal welfare. Even if it did, say carriage owners, such claims are baseless. Hansen says that horses are usually given four to six months off per year, much more than the five weeks required by law.

“We know that these horses have it just as good as in Lexington, Ky., which is the Disneyland of horses,” argued Hansen, who grew up among horses in Kentucky herself.

“I can’t understand how someone can look at a fat shiny horse, strolling down the street minding its own business, and see animal cruelty. These are people who don't know anything about horses.”

If the horses were sold, carriage drivers argue, it could lead to the neglect or even death of the horses if they were not allowed to work.

“A horse that doesn’t work is going to be neglected or go to the slaughterhouse,” said Hansen, pointing out that the carriage owners already have a retirement program for horses -- the Blue Star Equiculture -- which works to allow horses to retire with dignity and in comfort.

With approximately 300 drivers' jobs at risk in what the carriage owners are calling “completely antithetical to the progressive movement” by putting working-class jobs in jeopardy, the carriage drivers are not taking the move lying down.

The drivers have set up a protest website, and are planning protests and possible legal action against the de Blasio administration should he continue with his campaign promise to end the service that has been in place since the 1800s.

“It’s absolutely infuriating,” says Hansen. “Central Park is unimaginable without us."

Some tourists agree. Catrin and Meriel Dudfield, visiting Central Park from Portsmouth, England, were stunned when told about the mayor’s plan to replace the horses with electric cars, and didn’t think the cars would catch on. 

“When you come to Manhattan, you want to do something a bit different,” Meriel told FoxNews.com. “When you think of Central Park, you think of the horses. My sister told me the one thing I must do is ride a horse.”

“It’s a bit strange really,” agreed Catrin. “People would probably just get a taxi instead.”

Adam Shaw is a News Editor for FoxNews.com. He can be reached here or on Twitter: @AdamShawNY