pony rides

By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. April 20, 2015

The relationship between humans and other animals is fundamental — we live deeply intertwined lives and have for millennia — but it’s often unquestioned and arguably inconsistent. Discussing this can be disconcerting at times, because most people are comfortable where they’ve drawn the line, where ever it is they’ve drawn it.

But those lines can change. One such Exhibit A is our own State Assembly member Richard Bloom’s AB 2140 — the Orca Safety & Protection Act, inspired by CNN’s film “Blackfish,” about how whales are treated at SeaWorld in San Diego.

There was a time when people felt that such whale ‘shows’ were entertaining and brought humans and giant mammals closer. Now conditions of their captivity are increasingly seen as less than humane.

“After seeing the film at the request of my staff, then consulting with marine biology experts and traveling to SeaWorld to hear their point of view,” Bloom told me about AB 2140, “it is quite clear to me that the confined environment offered by marine parks like SeaWorld is damaging the health and well-being of these mammals, who have extraordinary intelligence and whose natural habitat is the wide open spaces of the ocean, where they freely feed and dive in marine habitats and travel up to 100 miles per day I am confident that Orca captivity will soon become a thing of the past, either through legislation or by internal corporate policy changes.”

Which brings us to changes in attitudes about the pony rides at the Main Street Farmers Market.

Last September after a five month long campaign/petition drive led by Ocean Park resident Marcy Winograd, highlighting what she argued were abusive conditions for the ponies (following a similarly-themed campaign in 2005), the City Council instructed City Staff to give preference to non-animal vendors when the current pony ride contract expires in May.

However, in Angels and Nester vs. Winograd, Charney, et. al., the pony ride vendors sued Winograd and fellow Santa Monica resident Danielle Charney in Santa Monica Superior Court over the campaign. Judge Lisa Hart Cole dismissed the lawsuit against Charney in January, labeling it a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) and ruling Charney was entitled to collect attorney fees from the vendors, which Charney informed me the parties agreed to at $20,000.

In addition, Cole dismissed half of the suit against Winograd, while denying the pony ride vendors’ request for prior restraint. However, the judge did not dismiss the other half, which included defamation/libel per se and intentional interference with prospective economic advantage charges. Cole said the plaintiffs had a probability of prevailing, because Winograd did not heed the view of Santa Monica Animal Control, which maintained there was nothing abusive about the pony rides.

Winograd is appealing this decision to the California Court of Appeal (Mark Goldowitz, an attorney who helped write California’s anti-SLAPP law, is representing her.) Winograd argues its her first amendment right to assert that conditions were abusive regardless of others’ evaluations, and that the U.S. Constitution protects her right to protest and petition her government in this manner.

Mammals are sentient and intelligent beings. What one thinks is abusive or not in these situations is partly a measurable function of how ‘humanely’ the ponies are treated — from the condition of their hooves, to the amount of fecal material in the transport trailer. But it’s partly a measure of how one responds to the suggestion that we humans may be making a choice for another species that we don’t have the right to make.

Winograd’s free speech actions compel us to at least consider the basic question of what we get to decide for another species — and that question leads to others.

We love “our” pet mammal dogs and cats. (How would people feel if their pet dog was tethered to a metal turnstile and compelled to circle barefoot on concrete in the same direction in the sun for 3.5 hours like the ponies?)

But our dietary choices and purchasing power — exacerbated by monopolistic corporate food industry practices – fund a cruel daily holocaust of other fellow mammals known as the factory farm “industry.”

Of course the pony ride is a fundamentally different issue in kind and scale, and I don’t doubt there have been many touching moments between children and ponies. But that’s from a human perspective. How do we know the ponies like the deal? What is the context that we are teaching our children about humans deciding for animals?

Does this “subject over object” acceptance ultimately justify disregarding animal welfare in factory farming? Does the mindset that the Earth and its species are there for our unrestrained use, ultimately lead to a reckless and wasteful relationship with natural resources, that brings us climate change and ecological systems collapse? By vastly overshooting our ecological footprint, we’ve already brought about the greatest mass extinction of plants and animals in 65 million years — and now we threaten our very own existence as a widespread species, as we undermine the ecology and climate that sustains us.

Here in Santa Monica, where we value sustainability, how can we interact more closely and sanely with other animals? When we eventually build our 160-plus-acre Great Park (on our public land where Santa Monica airport currently sits), an animal farm sanctuary/adoption center there could provide a transformative setting in which to relate to our fellow living beings.

We also need to think globally and question whether we are leaving enough space and habitat for other species in general across the planet. If our concepts of sustainability are based upon taking most everything for ourselves, is that really sustainable on a planet like our own, where all life forms are part of an ecologically-interdependent greater whole?

When Winograd and others raise questions about our relationship to other animals, it is a fair issue for society to re-examine. Our values, mores and practices change over time, in part exactly because people ask uncomfortable questions. That’s one of the blessings of our free speech laws — and a pillar of our democracy.

Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004). He can be reached via Twitter @mikefeinstein

Inside/Outside‘ is a periodic column about civic affairs Feinstein writes for the Daily Press, that takes advantage of his experience inside and outside of government.

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