Horse carriage driver Peter Wilson waits for customers near Central Park. Credit: Bess Adler/Metro
Every workday, Peter Wilson wakes up at 6 a.m. and goes to one of New York City's most controversial jobs.
"I can't imagine doing anything else," said Wilson, 41, who drives a horse carriage for a living. "I love it."
On the morning Metro spent with Wilson, he arrives at the Clinton Park Stables and dons a top hat before heading into traffic at 9:30 a.m. with Gino, a horse he's steered for five years.
Gino expertly weaves through 10 blocks of cars, bikes and pedestrians, eventually arriving at a Central Park hack line where Wilson offers passers-by 20-minute rides for $50.
The job would be stress-free, Wilson said, except he's not sure how much longer he'll be able to do it.
Wilson is just one of 240 licensed buggy drivers who will be out of work if Mayor Bill de Blasio and anti-horse carriage activists are successful in banning the decades-old Central Park tradition.
Activists argue busy city streets are no place for horses and say that the animals are subject to inhumane and dangerous conditions. Carriage horses have spooked, run away and collapsed. There have also been several incidents with drivers, including those accused of working their horses in temperatures above 90 degrees or trying to pass off an older horse with a breathing problem as young and healthy.
"When you're using an animal to put cash in the pocket, it's inevitable that you're going to cut corners when it comes to the animal's care," said Allie Feldman, executive director of animal rights group NYCLASS.
There are about 300 people who work in the industry, which brings in roughly $15 million a year by most estimates. Wilson said their livelihood depends on the health and safety of Gino and some 220 other licensed horses in the city.
"We cannot afford to abuse the horse," he said.
Carriage driver Peter Wilson waits with Gino the horse before getting customers. Credit: Bess Adler/Metro
Wilson emigrated from St. Lucia 15 years ago and sends money to family, some of whom he wants to help move to the United States. Most carriage drivers are also immigrants, according a spokesman for the Teamsters Joint Council 16, their union.
When he first became a carriage driver eight years ago, Wilson spent several weeks shadowing other drivers before going out on his own.
"They teach you the most important thing about the business: the horse," Wilson said.
He said he's developed a relationship with Gino in their years working together. Wilson jokes about the horse's appetite for treats in between rides, but can't help obliging Gino every time he turns around expecting a carrot.
Gino the carriage horse waits near Central Park. Credit: Bess Adler/Metro
There's a palpable anxiety in Wilson's daily routine, partially from the threat of harassment from activists who occasionally attempt to dissuade potential customers. Wilson also worries about job stability.
Horse carriage naysayers have argued an electric, old-fashioned automobile could keep drivers employed if the buggies are outlawed. Wilson said no one would want to pay for a "taxi" through the park — and he doesn't want to drive one either.
The City Council doesn't have a set timeline for drafting legislation to ban the carriages. A spokesman said the de Blasio administration is considering a "range of options" to get the horses off the street as well as protect the livelihood of those in the industry.
As City Hall waffles, Wilson and other drivers continue to wait for the ban they have anticipated since de Blasio's victory last November.
And while he's uncertain of his future, Wilson is confident of one thing: he supported the right candidate when he voted for Republican Joe Lhota.
"What choice did I have? I'm not going to vote for someone who said he is taking my job," Wilson said.