While state government leaders deal with a labor lawsuit over North Charleston's new Boeing plant, Charleston City Council is considering how to protect some of the city's hardest-working residents. These workers earn their living by the sweat of their brow, carry the weight of the tourism industry on their shoulders, and occasionally pee right on the street. They are carriage horses.
If a trio of proposed ordinances passes, carriage tour companies will be required to check the horses' internal temperatures more often, water the horses more regularly, and swap steel horseshoes for rubber ones within two weeks of putting the horses out on the road. Tom Doyle, president of Palmetto Carriage Works, has no problem with most of the provisions; he says he abides by them voluntarily anyway.
What irks Doyle is a proposal to replace the city's official thermometer, which is three stories up at 113 Calhoun St., with a new one 10 to 12 feet up in the middle of the City Market. The city checks its thermometer every 15 minutes to determine whether the ambient temperature has reached 98 degrees. If it has, city law says all of the carriage horses have to come inside.
"I would bet my bottom dollar this is a way to measure the temperature much higher than it is measured right now," Doyle says. "Today's 90 degrees will be tomorrow's 100 degrees." Once the horses are called in for a 98-degree reading, it takes two consecutive sub-98 readings to let them back out. So far this year, the horses have had to come inside six times; carriage company owners estimate that the city calls the horses in about 15 times a year.
The important thing to understand about the current thermometer is that it serves two purposes. It was installed as a part of the Weatherbug network to track climate patterns, and its high altitude ensures that it gets an unobstructed wind reading. Its second purpose is to monitor the horses' work environment. But the thermometer is blocks away from the routes that tour guides usually take when they cart tourists around in their old-timey carriages, and its height isolates it from the punishing heat that can radiate off of the pavement onto the horses' bellies.
One scorching summer day in 2009, Deanne Pace was visiting downtown from her home on Johns Island when she noticed how hot it was on the street where some carriage drivers were waiting to pick up passengers. She returned later with an outdoor thermometer and recorded temperatures well over 100 degrees. Pace knew about the 98-degree threshold, so she wrote a letter to the Post and Courier's watchdog reporter, Doug Pardue. I was a Post and Courier intern at the time, and Pardue got me to follow some horse carriages around with a wall-mount thermometer and perform the same experiment, yielding readings that ranged from 98 to 105 degrees, while the official city temperature never got above 92.
Vanessa Turner-Maybank, clerk of City Council, says she gets similar letters from time to time. In her role as head of the Tourism Commission, Turner-Maybank also periodically asks a group of three veterinarians to inspect the city's standards and the carriage companies' practices. The most recent review yielded the ordinances that City Council gave a first reading to last Tuesday night.
Dr. Sabrina Jacobs, the only veterinarian who could make it to this year's inspections, says the current thermometer is not giving an accurate picture of the horses' conditions.
"If you're going to make the recommendation that they be working under a certain temperature, it needs to be a temperature in their environment," she says.
When Turner-Maybank presented the proposed ordinances last Tuesday, Councilman William Dudley Gregorie asked Turner-Maybank why the new rules were necessary. "Have you had issues with regard to the health of the animals lately to prompt a change?" he asked. Turner-Maybank said there had not been issues.
During the public input session, carriage company employees showed up in force, with dozens standing to support Doyle when he made his case against the ordinances. "If you pass this, don't expect me to do better, because I can't," Doyle said. "Please don't fix what isn't broken."
Council debated the ordinances for over an hour before agreeing to purchase the new thermometer, install it, and wait three months to see how its readings compare with the ones from Calhoun Street. No one specified what amount of variance between the two thermometers would be acceptable.
Wes Ratterree, the city's information technology director, says the new monitor will be installed by Aug. 15, which means it will only catch the tail end of this summer's hottest months. The new thermometer will cost about $3,800, including installation costs, and will connect wirelessly to the network the city uses for surveillance cameras. Ratterree set up a public meeting last Thursday with a sales representative from Rees Scientific Corp., the company that makes the thermometer. Rees does not advertise itself for outdoor temperature monitoring; most of its digital thermometers are used in laboratory or hospital settings.
Representatives from four of the five carriage companies attended the meeting, and the tone of the conversation between them and Turner-Maybank swung from hostile to friendly and back again. Broderick Christoff, of Classic Carriage Works, pointed out that a horse's internal temperature — which many carriage operators check after every tour with a rectal thermometer — is more important than the ambient temperature when it comes to monitoring a horse's health. "If at 98.1 degrees horses exploded, I could understand," he said.
Pace, who wrote a letter expressing her concern back in 2009, was also at the meeting. She mostly sat back and listened, and as people began filing out of the room, she smiled a little bit.
"I pretty much had given up that they were going to do anything," she said.