June 8, 2014

Falling carriage-tour horse prompt questions from Beaufort officials

Reports of unexpected falls by a horse that works for one of the city’s two licensed carriage-tour operators have Beaufort officials worried about the safety of the animal — and the people nearby. Those concerns and the carriage tours will be discussed at a meeting at 5 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall. The horse, named Merlin, works for Sea Island Carriages, owned by Walter Gay.

“Let’s turn over these rocks and find out what’s going on,” City Councilman George O’Kelley Jr. said.

According to incident reports and police Beaufort Police Cpl. Hope Able, who helps the city coordinate the tours, Merlin fell March 10 and again May 30 while standing in the tours’ staging area next to the Beaufort Downtown Marina.

The animal was checked by Dr. Dessie Carter, an equine veterinarian, who cleared Merlin for work after both incidents, Able said.

Attempts Friday to reach Carter for comment were unsuccessful.

Gay said the horse was simply not getting enough sleep, and the company was taking steps to get Merlin more rest at night.

“He was sleep-deprived, just like anyone else can be, and falling asleep at work,” Gay said.

Peter White, owner of rival Southurn Rose Buggy Co., reported his concerns about Merlin’s health to City Council on Tuesday. He said he doesn’t feel the problem has been resolved, and he wants the city to bring in an independent veterinarian to examine Merlin.

“We would like to have Merlin taken off the streets until we figure out what his problem is and he is safe to be working,” White said.

On Thursday, Gay reported to Able concerns of his own about Southurn Rose. According to Able, Gay said a Southurn Rose carriage was involved in an accident with a vehicle May 22 and the company has “an unsafe horse who spooks easily and darts with the carriage attached.”

Able said the reports were being investigated. BICKERING COMPANIES The companies have long bickered, and the city has increased the cost of the carriage licenses in an attempt to defray the costs of refereeing the disputes.

City laws allow two carriage tour companies to operate, and they must bid for the licenses.

In 2011, the minimum bid for a five-year license was increased from $10,000 to $25,000. Mayor Billy Keyserling said then that the increased costs are directly related to additional work created by complaints between the companies.

Ordinances also allow city officials to inspect the horses at any time there are concerns, and say the city would incur that cost, Able said.

She added that if White wants to request a check by an independent veterinarian, he should contact the Tourism Management Advisory Committee, which regulates the carriage operations. The committee’s next regularly scheduled meeting is Wednesday.

City Councilman Mike Sutton has spoken with owners of both businesses and first notified city staff of possible problems four weeks ago. While he said he doesn’t want to micromanage the tours, he is frustrated that council has not been given an update.

“We investigate numerous cases at a time and typically do not give random updates,” Able said Friday in an email. “If we are asked for an update, and it does not compromise an investigation or restricted information, we provide it.”

She added that the first incident was resolved according to city policy, and the horse had been pulled from work when White spoke Tuesday before council.

Keyserling said he is concerned about the reports of a falling horse and the safety hazards that creates. He said he wants to learn more and consider changes to the way the city regulates and supervises the tour operations.

“And perhaps the city should be having a veterinarian down there doing spot-checking,” he said.

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