By Daniel Larios
September 11, 2014 – For the first time in 20 years, come spring pony rides will not be a staple at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market on Main Street.
At 1:30 a.m., the four remaining councilmembers –Ted Winterer, Gleam Davis, Kevin McKeown and Tony Vasquez – sided with opponents of the popular pony rides and petting zoo, issuing a request for proposals to replace the attraction with other non-animal-related “children's-oriented activities.”
The motion did leave an option to move Tawni's Ponies and Petting Farm to another space in the city, one that has the necessary space for the attraction.
“I have no indication that the animals are being mistreated,” said Winterer. “There’s probably room for this sort of animal entertainment at the Virginia Avenue Park Farmer’s Market, where there’s more room to lead animals around on a halter rather than keep them in close quarters,”
“But to me that space (on Main Street ) is too small for what’s going on there now, so what we’re really trying to do is see what’s out there,” added Winterer, who along with Davis placed the item on the agenda.
Thirty-three speakers weighed in on the item, including the owner and operator of the pony rides, Tawni Angel.
“Over the last eleven years, I feel that I have provided this town with a special and unique opportunity to interact with horses and farm animals by bringing a little country to your city,” Angel said.
“The reason I continue to work hard, hard as I do day in and day out, is for conversations I have at the Market like this: ‘What’s that?’ when a child points to my chickens, or ‘look at that cow,” when they point to my goats,” she added.
“This gives me the opportunity to teach these kids about something they don’t get to see everyday.”
Critics allege that the animals are abused, a charge that Angel and city staff have denied.
The movement to close down the attraction started when activist and former congressional candidate Marcy Winograd launched an e-petition in March calling for shutting down the rides.
“This isn’t a fight I wanted to have; it was a fight that was really dropped in my lap because so many people have told me how disturbing it was,” Winograd told the council. “This is the image of our neighborhood -- a tethered animal really enslaved to a metal turnstile.
“Some may say this is not cruel, I would say it is institutionally cruel and does not do justice to Santa Monica,” Winograd said. “We live in a beautiful city, so let’s reflect that.”
As of Monday morning, the e-petition had attracted 1,314 “signatures,” ranging from those who provide only a first name to local political figures, such as school board members Ben Allen and Oscar de la Torre, as well as some council candidates.
Winograd also launched a website called freethepony.org, which features a video calling for an end to the animal attractions.
Vocal supporters of the pony rides spoke out about the educational benefits of the attraction.
“I came down here because I promised my 7 year old granddaughter I would,” said Dr. Ann Maria Rousey DeMars, mother of MMA fighter and UFC women’s bantam-weight champion Ronda Rousey. “Those ponies are good for these kids. They’re not abused.
“I will remember you people as the people who made my grandkids cry if those ponies are gone,” said DeMars, the first American to win at the World Judo Championships in 1984. “They have rights. They’re little kids. They don’t have chances to see animals.
“We live in Santa Monica, where 80 percent of people rent, a lot of them don’t have live animals. It’s a great opportunity for kids. It’s a young woman running a business and this is making us look like idiots.”
A man who identified himself as “The People of California” also spoke in support of the pony rides.
“We all remember Bruno the police dog who got shot in the face, when his heroic, armored and armed partner sent him to deal with an armed suspect?” he said, referring to an Anaheim police dog who was shot in a confrontation with a gunman in May.
“Perhaps we should get rid of our canine program and our horse program in the SMPD before we go after horses or ponies that work four hours or six hours a week.”
“The kids have no other option to getting close to animals,” he added. “When I was a kid growing up here, there were six or seven stables within 10 minutes from here. Now, these kids would have to go all the way to Ventura. What makes a kid better connect with nature and animals than to interact with them.”
Vocal opponents countered the arguments.
“The city can do a lot better than having an animal attraction at the market,” said Robin Doyno. “We left the roadside zoo and bear-baiting behind. It’s time to leave the pony ride behind. An attraction without animals would be to the City’s benefit”
Some agreed that the pony rides should be moved to a more spacious area.
“I know how animals work, I know how great it is for children to be around animals in their own habitat and doing what they do,” said Janet McKeithen.
“But that’s a lot different than seeing them the way they are in the Farmer’s Market. I think moving them to a different location is a good idea and that the Farmer’s market should reflect our values.”
This potential RFP would disqualify Tawni's Ponies and Petting Farm from continuing its pony rides and petting zoo operation at the market, and instead seek vendors who specialize in “painting, arts and crafts, gardening, cooking, food preparation and decoration.”