LOS ANGELES (CNS) - The owner of Griffith Park's longtime pony rides attraction Wednesday defended his handling of the horses after Los Angeles parks officials cited a "lack of transparency" into the deaths of four ponies as the reason the city is not renewing his contract.
The Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks announced last week that the Griffith Park Pony Rides and Petting Zoo will close Dec. 21. The attraction has been criticized for alleged animal cruelty by animal rights activists, who have staged regular protests at the park throughout the year.
In 2021, City Council members Paul Koretz and Nithya Raman introduced a motion to have the parks department report on the findings of a third-party assessment of the facility, after complaints from Los Angeles Alliance for Animals.
According to the report, Dr. Rachael Sachar inspected the facility's 38 ponies, seven goats, two rabbits and one sheep on Jan. 3 and found "the working conditions to be satisfactory and did not witness any gross violations related to the care or the treatment of the animals on exhibit."
However, Sachar also found what she called "several legal violations that need to be rectified, medical issues that need to be addressed, and new policies and practices that need to be established for the safety and welfare of the animals."
A follow-up report found no gross violations in animal care, but also noted that "the concession's collection of ponies had changed and that four ponies are deceased and six were placed in other facilities. While the report states that there is no indication that neglect led to the deceased animals, the City was not notified of the animals passing until the time of the inspection. The report also states that limited veterinary documentation was provided regarding the deceased animals."
The ponies died in March, April and August, but the city allegedly was not notified until the independent veterinarian's third inspection was received in late September.
City officials noted that the operator is not required to notify the city of deceased animals.
"But given the lack of transparency and communication with the City, as well as the limited veterinary documentation related to the deceased animals, the Department was not comfortable exercising a second contract extension with the operator," Parks General Manager Jimmy Kim said.
That explanation left owner Stephen Weeks perplexed.
"The city has said that I'm not required to report the passing of ponies, yet they cancel me when I don't. It's like I did nothing wrong, but the city is not comfortable with how I did nothing wrong," Weeks told City News Service on Wednesday.
"In 74 years, no operator has ever been required to report the deaths of ponies, but you know there have been deaths of ponies," he added.
Weeks said the four deaths in question were "elderly, retired ponies." He said two died of severe colic and were euthanized to spare them prolonged pain, one died suddenly overnight, and the fourth suffered a "bizarre accident" when the animal was kicked by another horse.
"One of ponies got food-aggressive and kicked out and struck the rear flank of the pony that was trying to get the food," Weeks told CNS, adding that his vet called the fatal injury "a one-in-a million chance."
Weeks was also confused that the parks department accused him of inadequate documentation.
"That surprised me, because we did document it," he said.
Kim added in a letter to parks department staff on Tuesday that the vociferous protests did not inform his decision not to renew the contract.
"We are grateful that the city has taken the appropriate steps to close Griffith Park Pony Rides and Petting Zoo down," said LAAA's Zohra Fahim. "Animal abuse and animal cruelty don't align with the values of Angelenos."
Weeks had previously made his feelings clear when the decision was announced last week.
"You have all followed our fight against these few radical animal rights activists," he wrote on Facebook. "Despite our year-long fight to answer the untrue statements of these individuals, our efforts were not heard. This was the city decision and not the pony rides choice."
Weeks said his focus now is on the future of the ponies, and that he's trying to find permanent homes for them. He has no plans to open a similar pony ride attraction anywhere else.
"This was something that I was doing in my retirement because I'm a horse person," he said. He added that in the days since the decision was announced, he's heard from many local horse lovers who have expressed interest in taking on the animals.
"It does my heart well to know that our horse community cares about this, and cares about the ponies."
Meanwhile, Fahim is calling for California Attorney General Rob Bonta to investigate Weeks for animal cruelty, claiming that her organization was in the process of consulting with an independent, third-party investigator and respected animal cruelty expert who identified "deficiencies needing immediate attention."
"It is very telling that the city of Los Angeles did not renew Stephen Weeks contract. The fact that he did not report the deaths of the ponies at Griffith Park ... I am alleging that he was trying to avoid necropsy so that the community of Los Angeles would not be aware of the actual cause of the death of the ponies that died under Stephen Weeks watch," Fahim said.
Parks officials say they'll now seek input from the public on a suitable replacement for the attraction, with a special task force meeting scheduled for Dec. 15.