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Horse Senseless 

City closes Golden Gate Park stables for long-needed rehab; only-in-S.F. protest has privileged horse-owners refusing to move mounts

Wednesday, Jan 23 2002
A horse in a reclining frame of mind will drop down onto its front knees, tuck one hind leg inward, and roll over on its side. "It's a sort of collapsing motion," explains Peter Rich, a rancher who boards horses in the Berkeley hills. "It's fair to say that horses don't squat."

Unless that horse is in San Francisco, where nearly nothing is as it is elsewhere. In Golden Gate Park, just to the north of the old bicycle velodrome people now call the Polo Fields, you'll find Jo Jo, Silk n' Scarlet, Windfarer, and Ranger. Horses all, they're San Franciscans, and they're squatting.

Their owners are among the dozen or so horse fanciers who used to rent stalls at the Golden Gate Park stables, recently closed for long-needed repairs. Most of the boarders peacefully moved their mounts after the private operators who ran the stables for the city announced in March that they were vacating their contract. But six boarders refused to leave. Two of those owners' horses have since died of natural causes. The remaining four owners have made their horses pawns in a protest movement they hope will convince the stables' operator, the courts, our city fathers -- someone -- to let the horses stay.

"I was born in the city. My mom was born in the city. Their parents were born and raised in the city. We pay taxes," says Kathy Mroz, who recently threatened to kill her 18-year-old Jo Jo on the steps of City Hall unless supervisors decreed the horse could remain at the stables. "We should have some kind of rights."

The horse owners were scheduled to attend an eviction hearing Tuesday. If the judge finds that they and their horses have been illegally squatting, the horses will be forced to leave. If they are evicted, a civil suit the owners have filed against the stables' concessionaire, claiming the horse boarding agreements are a form of private property that, under the Constitution, would be unfairly taken if the stables were to be closed, will likely be mooted, and the horses will have to relocate.

Then, for a time, the corral at the Golden Gate Park stables will stand empty and quiet. But if you listen closely, you'll probably be able to hear the protesters' motto floating in the dusty breeze: In San Francisco, it's possible to spin a struggle for private privilege into a fight for social justice, and the public won't have the horse sense to know the difference.

Elsewhere in America, privileged citizens wishing to preserve entitlements that they have squeezed out of the political system understand they're being selfish, and don't often go braying about their self-interest in public. Here, the privileged wax Progressive, and seem to believe their own words.

San Francisco neighborhood groups resist construction of new apartments by using terms borrowed from the civil rights movement to keep people of different ethnicities out of the 'hood. Commuters here seek plentiful, subsidized, free parking as if they were pursuing the cause of liberty, fraternity, and equality. Hill-dwelling San Franciscans strive to preserve their picturesque views at the expense of new housing for the downtrodden, and pretend they're comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

New, self-righteous skirmishes over privilege arise every month, it seems; recently the old duffers who frequent the city's Harding and Fleming golf courses lost a fierce struggle to keep the city from improving the links for wider civic use. They wanted to maintain their city-subsidized $8 greens fees -- in the name of Peace and Justice, I'm sure.

The horse-owning squatters at the Golden Gate Park stables tell me they haven't bothered to investigate where they'll relocate their horses if they're evicted (a form of negligence the city's Department of Animal Care and Control tells me is considered abusive). Instead, the owners have made their animals proxies in a political fight to preserve exclusive access to city property -- all in the name of animal rights, and under the dubious pretext that moving the horses would be cruel.

"I've had horses for 40 years in my life, and you can talk to a dozen other horse people: There's nothing cruel to the horses about relocating them; there's no reason those horses can't be moved. It's insane these people would squat illegally when they've been given eight months' notice and expect me, the taxpayer, to foot the bill for this," says D'Anne Quinton, one of the boarders who left peacefully after the closure announcement last March. "I think it's a case of "only in San Francisco.'"

One of the benefits of working for the city's Department of Animal Care and Control is that it brings you into contact with a lot of interesting people. For example: Department Capt. Vicky Guldbech received a call a few weeks ago from Supervisor Tony Hall's office that indicated a woman was threatening to execute her horse on the steps of City Hall. It turned out the threatener was a woman well known to Animal Care and Control, one Kathy Mroz.

"I called her because I felt I could talk to her, because I've known her a long time," Guldbech recalls, and then goes on to describe the Animal Control equivalent of talking a jumper off a ledge: "She asked me if there were laws against it, and if it was humane. I told her it was cold pavement, and the horse would be standing. I said it would go inhumanely. "When the injections go, the horse could fall,' I said. She said she had the right to euthanize her horse wherever she wanted. She said it was all politics, and that City Hall didn't support the boarders, and that if she publicly euthanized Jo Jo, she felt it would be a statement that she couldn't find a place to board the horse."

Mroz's threat (which she later told me was pure bluff) highlights the latest chapter in the bizarre tale of the park's historic polo stables, and the fights to use them at discount. A century ago the stables were a meeting place for San Francisco's horsed gentry, and the entire city would turn out for horse shows, polo games, and other mounted entertainment. During the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration built several barns at the facility. At that time the stables housed private polo ponies and the St. Francis Riding Academy, which closed in the late 1950s.

Since then, a series of concessionaires have run the stables, with the most recent, Golden Gate Park Stables Inc., having managed the operation for 11 years. During their heyday, which horse fanciers describe as being about a year ago, the Golden Gate Park stables cared for 50 horses and gave riding classes to 700 students. Programs included infants' lessons as well as special sessions for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, the YMCA, and disadvantaged youth.

But the current concession lease, initiated in 1995, included a requirement calling for the stable managers to make $675,000 in capital improvements to the property. Concessionaires Shay and Jeff Morris and Polly Dignan spent $175,000 on remodeling, but toward the end of last year decided they would never earn enough money to fund all the necessary work.

"While we dramatically expanded the operations of the stables, we were not in a position to continue to make the remaining half-million dollars' worth of improvements," says Jeff Morris. "We had various discussions since 1999 to renegotiate the lease [in a way] that would benefit both parties. We were unsuccessful in doing that. In February 2001, we gave the Department of Recreation and Park notice that we would vacate the premises Sept. 30, 2001."

Supervisor Hall, whose children had taken riding lessons at the stables, formed a committee to consider what to do about the situation. The city's Rec and Park Commission held hearings. Officials decided to close the stables for repairs, then reopen them for wider public use. Hall says the former boarders may be given first dibs on private stalls when the stables reopen.

The 13 private boarders at the stables were first told they would have to leave in March, and given a formal notice to leave in June, which is about when the horse protest movement began. Carol Gallagher, an earnest, soft-spoken X-ray technician, Margaret Morrison, who teaches primary school, Mroz, who is a former city dispatcher living on disability payments, and three other boarders refused to move their horses.

Golden Gate Park Stables Inc. filed a complaint in Superior Court against the horse-owning squatters, and Christine Garcia, an attorney just out of law school who billed herself as an "animal rights" lawyer, heard about the boarders' plight. Garcia filed a suit charging the stable concessionaires and the city with a long list of civil offenses, including breach of contract, animal abuse, and, most astonishingly, a "takings" allegation based on the idea that the boarders' month-to-month contracts constituted personal property that the city had no right, under the Constitution, to expropriate without due compensation.

But there was only one true aim of this legal posture, Carol Gallagher acknowledged last week: "Basically, we just want to be able to stay."

There's no doubt the boarders at the stables in Golden Gate Park will be inconvenienced if their horses are evicted: They've spent decades with their own private horse stalls minutes away from their homes, and the next-nearest private stables are on Skyline Boulevard, nearly a half-hour's drive away.

Mroz, for one, spends half of every day, including weekends, hanging out with Jo Jo. Her fellow equestrians say they haven't seen her ride the horse in recent years, but Mroz clearly gains satisfaction from spending much of her waking life in his presence. Upon learning of Mroz's threat to kill Jo Jo at City Hall, Guldbech found several volunteers willing to care for him, but Mroz imposed certain ... conditions.

"She would have to be the person who would feed it, and she would have to go twice a week. It would have to be temporary, and it would have to be convenient to her. She told me that she had bonded with her horse, and that only she understood her horse's needs," Guldbech says. "I told her the restrictions probably wouldn't work."

Last Thursday afternoon, Mroz rounded the corner of one of the barns at the Golden Gate Park stables and came in sight of Jo Jo, who'd been moseying around the central corral. The horse offered Mroz a whinny of recognition. A chestnut Paso Fino with a flaxen and reddish mane, Jo Jo tossed his head slightly, then poked his nose over the corral railing, waiting for attention.

"How could I possibly send him away?" Mroz asked rhetorically. "Could you send him 10, 20, 50 miles away?"

I told her I didn't know, which was true. In fact, I just might not, if I lived in San Francisco, one of the few places where the right to have subsidized horse stables near your apartment might be turned into a white-horse, Progressive crusade.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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