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Nazi Mah and Colin Walkden, Mah’s London-born boyfriend, are the kind of couple you might expect to see at the Sunday Farmers’ Market in south Santa Monica. They live on raw food, quote Jello Biafra and drive a car plastered with lefty slogans. The Sunday market has been their shopping ritual for years.
Tawni Angel, 24, is also a regular at the Sunday market. Since 2001, she’s brought in six to eight miniature Shetland horses from her ranch in Moorpark and gives pony rides to the many kids who inevitably get restless tagging along while their parents look at fruits and vegetables.
For a long time, Mah and Walkden took no notice of Angel and her Tawni’s Ponies concession; like the cooked-food vendors, musicians and usual petition gatherers, the ponies were just part of the market’s festival atmosphere.
But last fall, the two started watching the ponies, animals they consider to be “our brothers and sisters,” not servants to man. In an era of spectator malaise, when so many shrug and accept stolen elections and illegal wars while consuming organic tangelos, Mah and Walkden like to think of themselves as the kind of people who fight for their convictions. By November, they decided to fight for the ponies.
They made signs, wrote up petitions and began distributing leaflets every week to the customers of Tawni’s Ponies. Over the last five months, they’ve collected close to 1,000 signatures, which they plan to thrust upon the Santa Monica City Council. But one of their key tactics has been to taunt Tawni Angel.
“Slave owner!” shouted Mah one drizzly February morning as her eyes narrowed on Angel. Even in her baseball cap topped with a stuffed toy horse, Mah, 32, looked fierce.
Other protesters, who along with Mah descended on the market holding signs decrying the evils of pony servitude, chanted and gesticulated toward the parents around the corral, incensed that a miniature horse breed should be shackled for the entertainment of their giddy preschoolers.
“That one’s pregnant!” screamed Walkden.
Angel, used to all kinds of accusations from the protesters, rolled her eyes. “He’s a male,” she said. The parents laughed.
Walkden admits their cause seems frivolous, but says, “Early life lessons lay the foundation for how we live. If there’s any chance for us to live in harmony with our fellow beings, it has to begin with the children, and if one of their first experiences is riding a pony, then they will always remember that animals are here for our use.”
The irony is that Angel considers herself an animal lover too. She originally rented her ranch so she could live and work among horses. What’s more, she says that her ponies work just six hours a week. The rest of the time they roam free on 10 acres. Recently, hurt by the protesters’ accusations, Angel created an informational poster to educate customers about her facility and how she treats her animals.
But Mah and Walkden are unmoved, and some weeks the protests get particularly tense. One Sunday, dozens of protesters shouted, “Shame on you, JJ!” at a mounted, bewildered preschooler, and there have been accusations of assault on both sides. Walkden was even jailed overnight in early January for protesting the market. He insists he won’t stop until the ponies are free.
Last Sunday was calm, with gorgeous weather and a packed market. Mah and Walkden marched alone, gathering signatures and distributing leaflets. One warned of the E. coli risk inherent in pony poop.
Angel said that the claim smacks of desperation: “They’re just plagiarizing the news.”
Although the two sides have grown grudgingly accustomed to one another, Angel is weary, and the protests have affected her business. “Look. There’s no line,” she said, pointing toward the corral. “For the last four years, it was 45 minutes long.” Angel estimates that she loses $600 a week because of the protests but does not plan on quitting. “There are kids who come to see and ride their favorite ponies, and I won’t disappoint them.” With a deep breath she nodded toward her adversaries and said defiantly, “They’ll give up or cross the line and eventually get arrested or banned. I’m not going anywhere.”