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Palmetto Carriage Works entertains more than 100,000 tourists each year on an hour-long tour of the historic port city of Charleston, SC. Though it operates in the heart of the city, Palmetto's owners share some of the same concerns as cattle producers when it comes to animal welfare and public perception.
June 6, 2013
Cattle producers, would your animal-handling practices pass muster if you operated fully in an urban downtown environment with an open-door policy to the public? That hypothetical scenario is a reality for the extended Doyle family, which owns and operates Palmetto Carriage Works in Charleston, SC.
Tommy Doyle heads up the number-one carriage horse company in Charleston, a town boasting the world’s largest ridership of commercial carriages. He recently provided his insights on animal handling and public relations to an audience of cattle producers attending the third annual 4C Summit in Charleston.
The 4C Summit stands for: meeting Challenges, making Connections, establishing Collaboration, and empowering Commitment. It’s a collaborative educational program between Elanco Animal Health and MicroBeef Technologies designed to acquaint their customers with leadership challenges, techniques and lessons used in other industries.
A throwback to yesteryear
Horse-drawn carriages were the dominant mode of transportation 100 years ago, back when virtually everyone understood first-hand, and appreciated, the concept of animals and humans working together. Today, of course, carriage rides are a nostalgic throwback available in the tourist areas of many U.S. cities – a leisurely way to see and learn about the local history. Such locales, however, can also serve as flashpoints for animal activists who see any use of animals as exploitative.
“One thing my business and yours has in common is animal activists. I confront them face to face every day. The way I do my business is out in the public. Our barn is open to the public; they can come in with a camera. I'll even take the picture for them under some circumstances,” Doyle jokes.
Palmetto Carriage Works stables 50 horses and mules in a facility called the Big Red Barn, which is located in the heart of Charleston’s historic Market area. All of Palmetto Carriage Works’ tours start and end there, and the facility is a tourist attraction in its own right, serving as a showcase for the operation’s animal treatment. It even features a 24-hour live cam accessible on the Internet.
The animals pull a fleet of carriages that carry more than 100,000 tourists each year on an hour-long tour of this historic southern port city. “Our business model is built around people and animals working together to benefit both. And the customers recognize and appreciate that,” Doyle says. “We work to be proactive rather than reactive.”
By proactive, Doyle means having a well-trained staff, a high level of attention to public relations, and an open and transparent operation. It also means being an active booster of the community, and advocating for your business on the local and national levels, Doyle says.
“We employ over 100 people in the peak of our season. The fees we paid the city last year added $175,752 to the city coffers. Our hay bill last year was $44,000, $37,000 for feed, $45,000 in wood shavings for stall bedding, and $50,000 to keep shoes on our animals' feet. That $50,000 is the cost of putting them on, not the shoes themselves. All of this is bought within the Charleston and South Carolina economy. That's our economic impact,” Doyle says.
Doyle serves on the boards for the Carriage Operators of North America and the South Carolina Horse Council (SCHC). “I'm not a rider, but I am part of the horse community. Participation gives me the opportunity to spread our message among the horse people in the state,” Doyle says.
He also serves on the board for the local horse rescue organization. In addition, Palmetto Carriage Works donates the time of one employee for five hours each week to the horse rescue effort. Doyle says the gesture is a worthwhile effort, plus it builds amity within the local horse community.
Doyle also accepts any opportunity to speak to groups about his business. He’s appeared before the New York City Council to address carriage animal welfare, as well as the general membership of the American Horse Council, and a number of municipalities.
“Getting out there and spreading the word is so important. I'm an expert in urban carriage animal welfare, I sell myself as such, and that's important. We donate time, money and resources,” he says.
Doyle says his family’s business isn’t unlike multi-generation cattle operations. Palmetto Carriage Works is an extended family operation that involves three generations. He’s the second generation in the business, and he got his start as a toddler accompanying his dad Tom on his daily rounds.
“I always wanted to be in the carriage business from the very first day. I was by my dad’s side on weekends, holidays, all during the summer, all through high school. I knew exactly what I was going to do with my life. I was on the carriage the day I graduated from high school. This has really been my only job along the way and it's afforded us some great opportunities,” Doyle says.
Doyle sees every day as a day to reach out to the public, and his operation is structured to do just that.
“We have a high employee/customer ratio. I've found that having friendly faces there to tell people about the animals, to tell them where to go and what to do, make a huge difference. When I do my work schedules, there is a Doyle or someone related to a Doyle on site every single day, with the exception of our one week of family vacation each year. Having a family member there, someone who has a vested interest in it, makes a big difference.”
Taking the issue head-on
Doyle says the perception of carriage horses among some consumers is that the animals are worked until they drop. “I tell people it is no more representative of my industry than a plane crash is of the airline industry. I'm on the front lines of these wars. Why these activists’ ad campaigns work is that the general public tends to have a lack of experience with animals and they equate use with abuse.”
Posted prominently for the public in the Big Red Barn are two signs outlining the firm’s animal care principles. “Charleston has one of the most comprehensive animal welfare programs in the country; we not only follow them, but exceed them.”
Doyle says his animals work only 31 weeks each year, and typically five-hour days, with 15-minute breaks after every hour. Three veterinary visits annually are mandatory for each animal, as well as an annual dental visit, and new shoes every 6-8 weeks. Work stoppages are mandatory at 98°F, or if body temperature rises above 103°. One employee’s sole responsibility is maintaining records on each animal's work schedule.
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“Our animals are older, well past their prime, but they make for a good carriage animal here in Charleston. Most of our mules and horses come from the Amish country of Pennsylvania; we offer a great second career for animals that would end up as an unwanted horse statistic. When their careers with us are over, they are either given to good homes or sold in no-kill auctions.”
Doyle is adamant that the key to his family’s operation is a well-trained staff. “We put our people not only through one-on-one training, but we have developed a handbook for staff on proper procedures. We'll have over 100,000 people that we will carry this year and I can't talk to every single person obviously, so I have to be very careful who I hire to make sure that our customers are told and shown how we operate. Our employee training program educates employees regarding best practices for handling animals in front of the general public.”
Doyle says he takes his message to everyone who walks in the front door. “My goal with these opportunities is to show that a commonsense approach to animal welfare can be a beneficial relationship for humans and animals.” But he allows that some folks can’t be convinced. “Don't waste your time with the nuts. I believe they represent a very small percentage of the public; even when presented with the facts, you'll never change their mind.”
Doyle says it comes down to a difference between animal rights and animal welfare. “Animal rights is the philosophical view that animals have the same rights as humans. I do not believe that, nor do I pretend to when confronted by activists. I am an animal welfare person – I believe in providing for animals’ well being. That includes proper housing, management, nutrition, disease prevention and treatment, responsible care and humane handling, as well as euthanasia when necessary. That's what I believe, that's what I preach, and that's what I practice in my business.”
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