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An end to horse-drawn carriages?

Caroline, an electric carriage that made its Philadelphia debut in the July 4 parade, is named in memory of Caroline Earle White, founder of Women’s Animal Center. Source: Carriage Horse Freedom

Ever since she was a child, Janet White felt sorry for the horses pulling carriages around the city.

“I remember seeing those horses working on the streets, and it always bothered me because they looked like they were so tired and dragging along,” she said.

At the time, White didn’t know what she could do to help, so she’d just look away. But now, as director of the activist group Carriage Horse Freedom, which she founded in 2017, she’s working to bring about a change that, if implemented in Philadelphia, could have a domino effect across the country.

During the city’s recent Welcome America Independence Day Parade, Carriage Horse Freedom debuted an electric horse carriage, or e-carriage, making Philadelphia the first major city in the United States to introduce such a vehicle.

It’s battery-powered and resembles a traditional horse-drawn carriage, but doesn’t require animal labor.

“This carriage is the first step in transitioning away from horse-drawn carriages,” White said. “It provides all of the charm, with none of the harm.”

The e-carriage, which Carriage Horse Freedom purchased with financial assistance from the UnTours Foundation, is named “Caroline” in memory of Caroline Earle White, founder of Women’s Animal Center. Earle White, along with 29 other trailblazing women determined to advocate for Philadelphia’s stray and abandoned animals, joined forces on April 14, 1869 to establish the Women’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, now known as Women’s Animal Center, based at 3839 Richlieu Road, Bensalem.

In addition to launching the first animal shelter and adoptions program as well as the first anti-vivisection society, the women created horse watering stations and built fountains throughout Philadelphia to provide fresh water for horses and small animals.

“Women’s Animal Center is pleased that Carriage Horse Freedom has chosen to honor our founder with the naming of Philadelphia’s first e-carriage,” said executive director Cathy Malkemes. “Our founder, Caroline Earle White, dedicated her life to animal welfare and this is a wonderful tribute to her legacy.”

The very first passenger in the e-carriage was City Councilman Mark Squilla, whose district includes Old City and has long been a hot spot for horse-drawn carriages. Since around 2018, Squilla has been sympathetic to the cause of Carriage Horse Freedom, and agreed that a ban should be implemented. However, before this could happen, he tasked White with finding an alternative to this major tourist attraction.

Thus, White embarked on a mission to “ban and replace.” But what could fill the void? It was when she saw e-carriages in Guadalajara, Mumbai, Germany and other countries that she had her answer. After a few failed attempts to bring an e-carriage over internationally — and after a global pandemic that temporarily paused her efforts — White discovered Olde Mount Dora Carriage Company, a Florida-based company that was implementing them in town. She traveled south for a tour, and saw the e-carriage in action.

“It was just amazing,” she said. “I talked with local business owners and saw the reactions of people on the street. They loved it.”

As luck would have it, the company’s third carriage was a little damaged (nothing that Carriage Horse Freedom couldn’t fix), so it was offered at a discounted rate. Thanks to funding from the UnTours Foundation, which promotes “responsible” tourism, the e-carriage was brought north and fixed up in time for its grand debut on July 4.

“It was wonderful. It was such a success,” White said. “People loved it, they were clapping and cheering.”

For now, Caroline will continue to receive some improvements, and make appearances in Philadelphia’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and other events. The hope is that, by the end of the year, she’s operating on the streets of Old City for tours, though she first has to get approvals from PennDOT. Since Caroline is a rather novel thing, and doesn’t exactly fit into any existing category for electric vehicles, it’s been a somewhat slow-moving process.

“The most important thing, the whole reason I’m doing this, is to present this as an alternative,” White said. “If we can prove this can be street-legal, Councilman Squilla will introduce legislation to ban horse carriages. Again, it’s the ban and replace model. There doesn’t have to be a void.”

If e-carriages do become the norm, what happens to the working horses? Oftentimes, when a carriage company is done with a horse, many are sold at auctions to keep working for another company or, unfortunately, slaughtered. Though the companies technically own the horses and the final decision is theirs, Carriage Horse Freedom would link companies with horse sanctuaries that are ready and willing to take them in.

For example, one former Philly carriage horse named Mark was adopted by the Chatham, New York-based Equine Advocates. He was broken down after a life of hard labor, but now receives love and care at the sanctuary.

“It’s always wonderful to see them go to a good place after lives of misery,” White said.

Carriage companies will also have the option to run the e-carriages, which White explained make more sense from a business standpoint. E-carriages can be operated in all weather, at all hours, and are less expensive to upkeep than a horse.

Looking ahead, White is hopeful for a positive outcome regarding the ban and replace.

“Philadelphia is so close to a ban. It’s just getting over one more hurdle, getting it street-legal and getting through that process. Then, I think sky’s the limit,” she said. “I think once that happens, it’s gonna be a domino effect.”

Horse-drawn carriages have been going strong in Philadelphia since 1976, when they were reintroduced during the U.S. Bicentennial. For the country’s 250th birthday in 2026, the celebrations of which are slated to largely take place in the city, White envisions the e-carriage as Philly’s iconic tourism vehicle.

Those looking to assist Carriage Horse Freedom can make a donation at untoursfoundation.org under “One-Time Gifts,” with 100 percent of proceeds going toward the renovation, purchase and transportation of e-carriages. ••

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