Opossum piss may have made the horse sick, but why didn’t the 35-year driver see it?
NEW YORK CITY, N.Y.–– The New York City Transport Workers Union might be said to have invoked the “Ernie Paragallo defense” on behalf of carriage horse owner/driver Ian McKeever, 54, who during the evening rush hour on August 10, 2022 was videotaped in the act of allegedly whipping, shouting at, and otherwise abusing a fallen horse named Ryder.
At least one witness reportedly charged that McKeever had also abused Ryder about four hours earlier.
Ryder’s knees “buckle in video footage as the driver jerks the reins and slaps the horse in an attempt to make him stand on 9th Avenue and West 45th Street in Hell’s Kitchen,” recounted Steven Vago and Jesse O’Neill of the New York Post.
“Onlookers were disturbed”
“Onlookers were disturbed by the flogging,” Vago and O’Neill summarized.
“The dejected horse then lay down on his side and rested his head on the street as the driver removed his carriage with the help of a pedestrian.
“A group of police officers then arrived and were filmed dousing the horse with water, finally getting him on his feet after more than an hour, according to video and witnesses.”
Ryder left in a police mounted unit van. McKeever himself pulled his carriage back to his stable.
Union defends driver
Defending McKeever, fellow carriage horse driver and Transport Workers Union shop steward Christina Hansen told media that Ryder was “a danger to himself” on the street.
“They can thrash and hurt themselves, and the longer they are down, the more their weight on their limbs makes it harder for them to get up, and can actually cut off circulation to their limbs and gut. These are animals that weigh 1,600 to 1,800 pounds,” Hansen told the Post reporters.
Detailed a Top Hat NY Horse & Carriage media release the following morning, “The 14-year-old standardbred [Ryder] was heading back to his stable from Central Park when he stumbled and fell and was initially unable to rise.
“After conducting an examination and observing neurological symptoms and weakness in Ryder’s hind end,” the Top Hat NY Horse & Carriage media release said, an equine veterinarian “diagnosed Ryder with equine protozoal myeloencephalitis, or EPM.
The “Ernie Paragallo defense”
“EPM is a neurological disease caused by a parasite found in possum droppings,” the media release explained. “Between 50% and 90% of horses in the eastern U.S. have been exposed to the protozoa, though only a very few develop symptoms, sometimes months or years after exposure.”
This was the “Ernie Paragallo defense.”
Former racing thoroughbred breeder and owner Ernie Paragallo, then 52, was in 2010 convicted on 33 counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty for starving and neglecting 177 horses at his Center Brook Farm in Greene County, New York.
The New York State Racing and Wagering Board permanently barred Paragallo from ever again acquiring a license to race in New York, and prohibited him from even so much as setting foot on any of the three New York racecourses.
Paragallo was sentenced to serve two years in prison.
EPM did not explain neglect
The Humane Society/SPCA for Columbia and Greene president, Ron Perez, testified that horses of ages from one to 20 had bones showing from lack of food and were riddled with internal parasites, lice, and skin infections, as well as suffering from untreated injuries.
Paragallo, however, blamed equine protozoal myeloencephalitis.
EPM was involved in debilitating infections that hit horses at the Pimlico and Laurel Park racetracks in Maryland in 2005-2006, though equine herpesvirus proved to be the major problem.
“EPM is an infection of the central nervous system of horses. The neurologic signs that it causes are most commonly asymmetric incoordination (ataxia), weakness and spasticity, although they may mimic almost any neurologic condition,” explained Alex DeMetrick for WJZ television news.
And more than just EPM was wrong with Ryder
“Even typical racing injuries may ultimately be caused by EPM,” DeMetrick detailed. “because horses who are uncoordinated are much more likely to ‘take a bad step’ in racing or training.”
EPM can even mimic rabies, but is curable with treatment.
However, the compounded drug used to treat EPM, toltrazuril/pyrimethamine, can also be problematic.
The U.S. Food & Drug Administration in May 2014 issued an alert after two thoroughbred horses in Ocala, Florida, and two more in Kentucky reportedly died from complications after receiving a toltrazuril/pyrimethamine treatment prepared by Wickliffe Pharmacy in Lexington. Six other horses at the Ocala thoroughbred training facility suffered neurological issues attributed to the treatment.
But neither EPM, no matter how severe Ryder’s case, nor the treatment he had not yet received, was the whole of what was wrong with him.
Carriage horse for “about four months”
And neither was the weather, which at 85 degrees Fahrenheit was five degrees below the 90-degree cutoff point for New York City carriage horses to be worked, nor was overwork.
“Ryder has been a carriage horse for about four months, having lived and worked in Pennsylvania previously,” where he was apparently an Amish buggy horse, the Top Hat NY Horse & Carriage media release said, adding that “He gave two carriage rides during his shift.”
However, said WNBC reporter Samantha Kubota, “A vet estimated Ryder is about 26 years old — despite a previous report that said the horse was an estimated 13 to 14 years old. At his advanced age, Ryder is too old to be licensed as a carriage horse in New York.”
Electric car idea a likely non-starter
The Ryder collapse reinvigorated decades of campaigning against the New York City carriage horse industry by Voters For Animal Rights, Friends of Animals, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Carriage Horse Action Committee, and New Yorkers for Clean, Livable, and Safe Streets, among others.
Robert Holden, a Queens member of the New York City Council, earlier in 2022 introduced a bill that would mandate replacing horse-drawn carriages with electric-powered replicas of antique touring cars by June 2024.
That idea, however, has much less cachet than it did when electric vehicles replaced carriage horses in Rome, Italy, in 2009. Electric vehicles, then a novelty, are now relatively common, and rapidly becoming more so.
Why did McKeever put a 26-year-old horse out to work?
There are currently about 130 carriage horses licensed to work in New York City, down from about 200 around a decade ago.
McKeever, who emigrated to New York from Meath, Ireland in 1985 and became a carriage horse driver in 1987, has owned as many as eleven carriage horses at a time, in partnership with his younger brother Colm McKeever, and reportedly owns Chateau Stables on West 48th Street.
News reports published at various times since 2014 trace the decline of the McKeever holdings to as few as six horses now.
Why McKeever, one of the most experienced of all New York City carriage drivers, acquired and put Ryder on the streets, when he was already older than many and perhaps all of the horses McKeever has retired, remains unexplained.
Won six-figure fine against League of Humane Voters
McKeever, meanwhile, has long been among the most outspoken defenders of the New York City carriage industry against animal advocacy critics.
Formerly a co-lessor of Shamrock Stables, a West 45th Street facility leased from New York City that housed as many as 78 horses from 1968 to 2010, McKeever won a long political battle to find alternate quarters for the horses after the city sold the land and cancelled the lease.
Along the way, McKeever in January 2010 won a fine of $104,290 against the League of Humane Voters of New York City for failing to file lobbying accountability reports.
League never registered to lobby
“The League of Humane Voters of New York City never registered or filed spending reports while it pushed the City Council to protect the horses, administrative law judge Ingrid Addison concluded,” explained Adam Lisberg of the New York Daily News city hall bureau.
“With 12 reports outstanding for as long as two years, late-filing fees of $10 to $25 a day added up to the six-figure total––more than 10 times as large as any other fine ever imposed by the clerk’s lobbying bureau,” Lisberg recounted.
“The league claimed it spent $9,387 on lobbying in 2007 and 2008, but didn’t know it was supposed to file––and is in the process of dissolving,” Lisberg said.
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