Closing Down the Ponies: Santa Monica Wrestles With a First World Problem
Tawni Angel owns a menagerie of ponies, goats, alpacas, ducks, donkeys and rabbits on a spread in rural Fillmore.
Photo by Nanette Gonzales Castro
To some critics, Santa Monica's beloved Main Street Farmers Market includes among its vendors an abusive, lawless operation every Sunday.
It's not drug deals, drive-bys or prostitution. The problem is the ponies.
Long-haired, mane-braided, furry, short-legged, big-eyed ponies.
For 11 years, Tawni Angel has operated pony rides and a petting zoo at the farmers market — that is, until the Santa Monica City Council, reacting to protests led by special education teacher and failed congressional candidate Marcy Winograd, gave the biz the boot. The ponies are out when Angel's city permit expires in the spring.
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Angel now has taken the spat from the corral to the courthouse, suing Winograd and another outspoken pony-ride opponent, Danielle Charney, for allegedly defaming her and, as a result, wiping out her livelihood. Angel estimates she will take a hit of $75,000 annually, about 80 percent of her family's income, when Santa Monica closes down her business next year.
"I don't think what she's done here is morally right," Angel tiredly says of Winograd. "She's destroyed someone's business because she doesn't like it."
On Dec. 11, Winograd counter-punched in a motion to dismiss the case, claiming Angel was trying to muzzle her. "This lawsuit is designed to shut everyone up," Winograd says. "From the very beginning, she's been extremely defensive about what's she doing."
It all started last spring, when Winograd organized activists to protest Angel's attraction, where a handful of ponies — some with flowers in their thick blond manes, or bearing bright purple saddles — walk a circular track set in the parking lot of the Victorian, a restaurant.
For more than a decade the arrangement seemed to work, although some in the area expressed dismay and held a modest protest in 2005. Their effort never gained steam — in fact, pony rides are popular at farmers markets in trendy Brentwood, Beverly Hills and Pacific Palisades.
Winograd launched a MoveOn.org petition against Angel's business, claiming that her "out-of-town guests visiting the market have turned to me and said, 'How can Santa Monica tolerate this kind of abuse?' I didn't have an answer until now — we can't tolerate it any longer."
Winograd's Facebook page highlights her views on a one-state solution for Israel and Palestine, labor-rights advocacy and Huffington Post blogging. But from around March until September, "Ponygate," as Winograd calls it, took up most of her weekends.
"I can't stand watching this torturous animal abuse," she alleged in a March 18 Facebook post.
Several sign-carrying activists protested at the pony ride and collected about 1,400 signatures via MoveOn. Then Winograd got specific, alleging that the ponies suffered from cracked hooves and lack of access to water. In a May 11 Facebook post, she claimed they were "suffering" from hoof problems "as they are forced to go round and round for hours, their faces or necks tethered to a metal turnstile."
She tweeted to celebrities Ellen DeGeneres and Roseanne Barr, telling the former, "We need your voice to stop animal cruelty."
This all got the attention of the city, which investigated the pony ride several times but found no evidence of any type of abuse. And Angel fought back, noting that the photos Winograd claimed showed "cracked" hooves showed normal wear and tear.
UC Davis equine expert Carolyn Stull says that, while she's never seen research on pony rides, if the animals are trained to perform the rides and be with children, then that's what they'll enjoy doing.
It's good if the work is somewhat equivalent to the ponies' everyday life of standing, walking and grazing, she says.
Pony rides "hardly go faster than a walk and then stop and stand around when the kids get on and off — so it's probably similar mileage they would get on a ranch," Stull says. "I think it's pretty healthy."
In fact, when Angel and husband Jason Nester aren't providing rides to children, their ponies are roaming a 5-acre ranch in the historic, horse-country town of Fillmore, roughly 60 miles from Santa Monica.
Even so, on Sept. 9, Santa Monica City Council members Ted Winterer and Gleam Davis led a move to adopt a "non-animal" use for Angel's longtime market space. Before the hearing, Winograd blasted the rides on the news, telling Fox 11, "It's archaic ... to tether ponies and force them to plod in circles endlessly on concrete with exhaust in their face. It's inhumane."
Winterer, who voted to close Angel down on Main Street, tells L.A. Weekly he doesn't think she did anything wrong; he simply wanted to end the controversy.
"For years, it's sort of been an issue that's festering," Winterer says. "Marcy sort of threw an accelerant on those embers with her protests. ... I just thought a farmers market should be a place where everyone feels welcome," including those uncomfortable with pony rides.
Santa Monica officials asked city staff to find another place for Angel's business, but staff tell the Weekly that it would be illegal anywhere else in Santa Monica.
Angel's lawsuit says Winograd played a political dirty trick, painting the horse-country couple to the City Council as politically ill-suited to upscale, liberal Main Street. Among other things, Winograd alerted the City Council to a Facebook photo of Angel holding a bottle of vodka on a snowboarding trip, and another of her at a shooting range, firing a gun. Records show Winograd informed city officials that Angel's husband posted criticism of the president's immigration plan, stating, "Obama: Gone!," "Borders: Closed!," "Language: English."
Facebook screenshots taken by Angel, and described in her lawsuit, show activist Danielle Charney saying, "Please help us stop this abuse to animals in our great 'liberal city' — owned by gun-toting racist alcoholic anti-women people."
In another, Charney asks, "Wonder what they use for target practice — the animals that are now too big for the petting zoo?" The two posts are no longer online.
Winograd says the attacks against Angel and Nester are justified because market vendors are local ambassadors. "The City of Santa Monica promotes these vendors on their website," she tells the Weekly. "It's important for our city to know that they were promoting vendors who were proudly posting anti-immigrant screeds."
Winograd has filed a so-called "anti-SLAPP" motion seeking to have Angel's Nov. 10 defamation suit thrown out. Winograd must show that Angel and Nester filed their lawsuit frivolously in order to quell the activists' speech.
"That's not what's happening here," says Angel's attorney, Donald Chomiak. "There's no question that Mrs. Winograd was insisting that my clients were committing a crime under California law. ... Making these allegations publicly, she crossed the line into libel."
Local views are mixed. Pony-ride opponent and ex–planning commissioner Jay Johnson says he's offended to see ponies on leashes or walking on concrete for hours.
Del Rey resident Emily Goldstone says her 2-year-old talks about the ponies during the week — asking her mom if she remembers them and what their hair was like. "I think it's beautiful to have exposure to animals," Goldstone says, but, as with other animal amusements, she worries about their welfare.
But Cari Gray of Santa Monica thinks the city made a big mistake. "We think it's ridiculous," Gray says, as she watched her 2-year-old, Isla, bobbing along and smiling as she rode a pony. "These are the best-kept animals in California."
Says Winterer, "For every email that I've gotten protesting the direction we've chosen, I've gotten one supporting it."
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