By Daniel Larios
November 12, 2014 – The owners of the pony rides that will be terminated next year at the Santa Monica Farmers Market on Main Street filed a lawsuit Monday against protesters who accused the company of animal abuse.
In a complaint filed in LA Superior Court, Tawni Angel and her husband Jason Nester, who own Tawnis Ponies and Petting Farm, Inc., accuse animal rights activists Marcy Winograd and Danielle Charney -- along with 20 other unnamed defendants -- of libel, “intentional interference with prospective economic advantage” and “intentional infliction of emotional distress.”
The lawsuit alleges that Winograd and the other defendants falsely claimed that Tawni's Ponies, which has operated in Santa Monica since 2003, was committing animal abuse by failing to provide clean drinking water to the animals, forcing them to work with cracked hooves and leaving them out in the sun in a loud environment.
The lawsuit also alleges that the defendants continued to make the claim after being informed by the Santa Monica Police Department’s (SMPD) Animal Control Unit that there was no evidence found during three different inspections to support the charges.
“Animal abuse is a crime – a crime my clients did not commit,” said attorney Don Chomiak, who is representing the pony ride owners in the lawsuit. “Marcy Winograd was told repeatedly by the authorities that there was no evidence of animal abuse.
But “she and her fellow protestors kept publicly accusing my clients of committing this crime to sway public opinion… and obtain signatures on their petition to shut down the pony ride and petting zoo,” Chomiak said. “They must now be held accountable.”
Sgt. Mike Graham, former supervisor of the SMPD Animal Control Unit, inspected the attraction and said he found no evidence of animal abuse, according to a July 13, 2014 police report.
“The horses appeared to be in good condition – their body weight was normal, their fur was clean and brushed, their manes and tails were brushed and healthy, the ground around them was clean and evenly flat, they walked on sawdust shavings, and there was no visible urine or feces,” Graham wrote in his report.
“The equipment – saddles, bridles, and (thick) pads were in good condition. The horses were ‘quiet’ and well behaved.
“I saw nothing to make me believe the horses were ill-treated, unhealthy, malnourished, injured, or in discomfort,” he concluded. “The horses did not appear hot, were not sweating, and were on a timed (30 minute alarm) water-break schedule.”
Graham – an experienced horse owner who has owned and operated a ranch in Colorado Springs – also said that he shared his findings with Winograd and a male protester.
Winograd, a public school teacher who once ran for Congress, told the Lookout that the lawsuit is an attempt to “bully me and silence dissent in the City of Santa Monica, where the pony ride and petting zoo have been the subject of criticism and protests for years, long before my personal involvement.”
“As I have noted before, it is inhumane to tether ponies to a metal bar and force them to plod on hard pavement in a tiny circle for hours, music sometimes blaring in their ears, car exhaust in their face, their bodies so restricted they cannot turn around or seek water on their own during a hot summer day,” said Winograd.
Winograd said she has talked with a lawyer and intends to file an Anti-SLAPP motion, which would dismiss the case on First Amendment grounds.
She also said she has tried to contact to the plaintiffs to move the rides elsewhere and give the animals more space and freedom to walk, but claims that the plaintiffs were not interested in a compromise.
“I think Tawni is one crafty little actress,” Danielle Charney, who was also named in the complaint, told the Lookout. “I support them getting out of that cramped spot in the Main Street Farmer’s Market and into a bigger venue, like the Virginia Park Farmer’s Market.
“They haven’t been willing to talk with us, which I find insincere,” Charney said. “It’s ridiculous.”
Charney claims she has been verbally harassed by both plaintiffs, whom she says have been cited at two other markets where they work.
“If they’re suing anyone, they should sue the City, who didn’t pick up their contract,” Charney said. “They (City officials) have backed her up every step of the way and the Breitbart people are facilitating this.”
Charney was referring to a news story published by the conservative news and opinion website Breitbart.com, which some felt was too sympathetic to Angel. The news story was also picked up by the conservative news site Newsmax.com.
“It’s ultimately to get the City Council to restore the contract,” Charney said. “The attorney is definitely promoting himself and he’s just leading them in this.”
The lawsuit also mentions May 29 and 30 emails to City Council members and City officials that contained personal photographs of the plaintiffs drinking vodka during a vacation in Mammoth as well as “racially tainted and sexist references” from Nester’s Facebook page.
The defendants said the pictures they sent were relevant.
“For me not to have shared the existence of these disturbing posts with city management and council members would have been irresponsible, given the operators close hands-on relationship with children of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds,” Winograd told the Lookout.
The claims were also repeated by fellow defendant Charney on her own Facebook page.
“I stand by what I said and I exercised my free speech rights based on their posted photos and videos,” Charney told the Lookout.
The complaint alleges that the emails convinced the City Council in September to issue a request for proposals to replace the attraction with other non-animal-related “children's-oriented activities.” (“Pony Rides to be Replaced at Santa Monica Farmer’s Market,” September 11, 2014)
“For 11 years, my clients have been giving the children of Santa Monica the chance to ride a pony or be inches away from animals they might otherwise only see on television or on the Internet.” Chomiak said.
“By falsely accusing my clients of animal abuse and creating a controversy based on unfounded claims, the protestors may have put these animals at real risk if my clients can no longer afford to take care of the animals and are forced to sell them.”
The damages sought by Angel and her husband were not specified in the complaint, but according to Chomiak, the amount could potentially exceed several hundreds of thousands of dollars, given the annual value of the original contract.
However, Winograd is confident her Anti-SLAPP motion will prevail.
“Ultimately what is at stake here is the right of ordinary citizens to protest and petition their government for redress of grievances, as well as the right of animal lovers everywhere to advocate for humane treatment of non-human companions,” Winograd told the Lookout.
“My husband Buddy Gottlieb and I are the proud guardians of three rescue cats and want our beautiful city to uphold the dignity of animals, as well.”