Santa Monica Farmers’ Market pony rides operator is suing the activist who campaigned to shut the rides down

By Gary Walker

City officials will likely discontinue pony rides at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market later this year Photo by Brittany Soo Hoo

City officials will likely discontinue pony rides at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market later this year
Photo by Brittany Soo Hoo

A yearlong battle between an animal rights activist and the pony rides operator at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market has spilled into the courtroom — the ride operator suing the activist for libel, the activist countering that the lawsuit attempts to stifle free speech.

City leaders, meanwhile, appear likely to end pony rides at the farmers market this summer.

Nearly every Sunday for the past 11 years, Tawni Angel’s brown, black and tan ponies carry small children in circles around a metal carousel as their parents look on or shop. She also has a petting zoo with alpacas, miniature donkeys and goats.

“We get over 300 people at the market each Sunday and they love our rides,” said Angel, owner of Sylmar-based Tawni’s Ponies and Petting Farm.

A city-sponsored Feb. 15 survey of market visitors seems to bear that assertion out, with 92% of respondents coming out in support of the pony rides and petting zoo.

Since last March, however, Santa Monica resident and former Westside congressional candidate Marcy Winograd has led a band of protestors down Main Street during the farmers market each Sunday to draw attention to the rides as a form of animal cruelty.

“The whole thing is so depressing. [The ponies] look so sad and worn,” said Winograd, a Venice High School teacher, who complains the ponies lack shade and are rarely if ever given water as they walk circles under the sun.

Winograd’s efforts have had an impact. The Santa Monica City Council voted in September to seek an alternative, non-animal entertainment vendor for the farmers market after the city’s annual contract with Tawni’s Ponies and Petting Farm, which Angel values at $70,000, expires in May.

“Council directed staff to establish a pilot program to provide children’s entertainment and educational programs with a preference to vendors who participate in the city’s Buy Local initiative and those with non-animal activities,” said Santa Monica Economic Development Manager Jason Harris.

Asked if animal-related vendors are specifically barred from applying, Harris said they are not.

“Animal activity has not specifically been prohibited,” he said.

That makes Winograd nervous that some other form of animal entertainment could move in.

“[The ordinance] is ambiguous. There hasn’t been open bidding for this spot for 11 years. I would like an ordinance to make it illegal so that we never see ponies tied to a bar and circling a pony carousel,” she said.

But Angel sees the writing on the wall — pack up and leave — and for her the author might as well have been Winograd.

“It’s probably 80% of my income,” Angel lamented of losing her Santa Monica Farmers’ Market contract. “There is zero reason to believe that I would have been kicked out of the farmers market without Marcy’s protests. She’s turned my world upside down.”

Angel said she was surprised that neither Winograd nor anyone from the protest group confronted her directly about their concerns before waging a public campaign against her.

“They just showed up and started taking pictures and protesting,” Angel said.

Angel and husband Jason Netter have filed a libel and emotional distress lawsuit against Winograd that seeks unstated punitive damages and attorney fees.

In court documents they accuse Winograd of conducting a “well-orchestrated effort both online and in the media falsely claiming that these animals were being abused to sway public opinion in favor of ending pony rides and the petting zoo at the farmers market.”

The lawsuit claims that Winograd continued to protest and accuse Angel and Nester of mistreating their animals despite being told several times by city officials that there was no evidence of abuse. That “continues to have and will in the future have a direct, negative impact on Angel’s and Nester’s reputations as professionals who work with animals and their ability to make a living operating a pony ride and petting zoo business,” the lawsuit states.

Until recently, Tawni’s Ponies and Petting Farm did not have a business license or permit but operated under the general oversight of the city’s Animal Control Division, which deemed it in compliance with animal welfare provisions, according to Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Supervisor Laura Avery.

The city issued Angel an animal permit on May 8, 2014, which “codified the operations of the activity,” Avery said. “All farmers market vendors were required to obtain a city of Santa Monica business license beginning in fiscal year 2012/13.The pony ride activity became licensed in 2014 as all vendors were brought current.”

In an interview, Angel took exception to the accusation of animal cruelty: “My absolute main focus has always been the safety and comfort of my animals,” she said.

On Jan. 22, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lisa Hart-Cole ruled that the lawsuit against Winograd can proceed but dismissed the suit against co-defendant Danielle Charney, another pony rides protester.

Hart-Cole ruled Angel and Nester can pursue a lawsuit against Winograd for libel and intentional interference but not their claims of emotional distress.

According to the document, Angel and Nester allege that Winograd falsely and maliciously published statements online that the ponies had cracked hooves and were illegally overworked despite findings to the contrary by Santa Monica animal control officers.

“Reasonable minds could determine that plaintiffs’ allegation of Winograd’s campaign of harassment and defamation qualifies as [an allegation of] outrageous conduct. However, there is no evidence of severe emotional distress,” Hart-Cole wrote.

Winograd is appealing Hart-Cole’s ruling with an anti-SLAPP suit. SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, which the Oakland-based First Amendment Project describes as civil lawsuits brought to target people who speak out on public issues or petition government officials to address grievances.

Mark Goldowitz, director of the California Anti-SLAPP Project, is representing Winograd in the appellate case. He could not be reached for comment.

Winograd’s anti-SLAPP suit contends that Angel and Nester have sought to limit her rights to speak out against them about what she believes is animal abuse.

“If I don’t have the right to express my opinion and use the word ‘abuse’ then we might as well rip up the First Amendment,” Winograd said.

Angel and Nester counter that Winograd and her group went beyond protesting and “defamed plaintiffs Angel and Nester by falsely accusing them of ‘animal abuse,’ a crime under California law,” according to court documents. “These false representations went so far on certain occasions as to actually quote California Penal Code sections relevant to the crime of animal abuse.”

Attorney Donald Chomiak, who represents Angel and Nester, said the lawsuit wasn’t about the protests and was only filed after Winograd took her accusations to local media.

“Ms. Winograd has made provably false statements of fact that injured my client in her occupation and accused my client of a committing crime,” Chomiak said.

Winograd says her case is now much more than removing the pony rides from the market.

“I’m hopeful that the California Court of Appeal will rule this lawsuit is a SLAPP suit intended to silence dissent while the operators lobby to reverse the council vote. People who oppose the animal exploitation at the farmers market are afraid that if they hold a sign or ask someone to sign a petition, they too will be sued. The chilling effect of this sort of intimidation is a threat to democracy everywhere.”