NEW YORK — Time may be running out for the iconic horse carriages that carry tourists around Central Park. Mayor Bill de Blasio already has declared his intention to shut down the industry, saying it is inhumane to keep horses in modern-day Manhattan.
While that debate could be over, at least one question remains: What will become of the horses?
Both sides in the carriage horse fight insist they will find a sanctuary for the approximately 200 horses licensed to pull carriages in New York City. But drivers warn that shutting down the city stables might have the unintended effect of eliminating a rare outlet for surplus horses pouring out of the farming and racing industries — sending them faster to the slaughterhouse.
‘‘If they did not come to New York City, most of these horses would be dead,’’ said Ian McKeever, who owns nine Central Park horses and has been driving a carriage in the city since 1987.
That is an argument that infuriates the loudest critics of the industry, who say the nation’s unwanted horse dilemma is no excuse to preserve an inhumane business.
‘‘Anyone who cares about a horse wouldn’t think that taking it and sticking it in midtown traffic is the right answer to that problem,’’ said Allie Feldman, executive director of a leading anticarriage lobbying group, New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets.
Last year, roughly 140,000 US horses were shipped off to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico when they became unaffordable, or unprofitable, for their owners.
The root of the problem is unregulated breeding, said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States. Every year, far more horses are produced than can possibly get lifetime, or even middle-age, care. The number of sanctuaries for retired horses is small: about 500 nationwide.
In Pennsylvania’s Amish country, a source of many of horses that wind up working in Central Park, this oversupply plays out weekly at the New Holland Livestock Auction.
Every Monday, buyers for foreign meat factories snap up horses — many still young and healthy — that once pulled plows, buggies, and carts, or even served as family pets. All have been discarded because of lackluster performance or rising costs of care.
McKeever cited the case of his oldest horse, Roger, who was neglected and malnourished when he bought him from a Pennsylvania farmer in 1999. Roger is set to finally retire this month to a preserve on Long Island, McKeever said, after 15 years on the job in Central Park.
Another of his horses, Danny Boy, won trotting races in Australia and the United States before suffering a tendon problem. He, too, was headed for slaughter before getting a second chance as a carriage horse.
Carriage opponents note that, for a lot of horses, New York City is far from a permanent home.
City records on 720 carriage horses registered in the city from 2005 to 2013 show that about 30 percent spent two years or less on the job, according to an analysis prepared by the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages.