Children take last pony rides as city closes Griffith Park favorite – Daily News

“Have a great ride!” shouted an enthusiastic Jeremy Hollis to his son, 4-year-old Bennett, who clung to a slightly bigger pony than usual at the Griffith Park Pony Rides Wednesday morning, Dec. 21.

Hollis wanted his son’s last ride to be on a bigger mount, perhaps because he would never get another chance. The popular ride in which kids get on a pony as it walks along a circular track with a human guide is gone forever. After 74 years, the attraction permanently closed at 5 p.m. on Dec. 21 because the city of Los Angeles did not renew the concessioner’s contract.

“The kids of the next generation will miss out on the pony rides,” said Hollis, who got his first ride there when he was a year old —  reminded his mom standing next to him. “I won’t be able to bring my grandkids.”

After numerous protests from animal rights activists during the last year and a half who claimed that pony rides are damaging to the ponies and send the wrong message to children, the city of Los Angeles decided to pull the plug. The city cited a paperwork deficiency by the pony ride owner, and what the Recreation and Parks Department called a lack of transparency on the owner’s part — despite assurances from the city’s hired veterinarian that no violations or animal abuses took place.

The city is looking for a new use for the 3-plus acres on the southeast side of the city park, a decision reached last month that set up the final closure this week.

On Wednesday more than 50 parents, grandparents and children waited in line before 10 a.m. for the rides to open. The day before people queued up for 2 1/2 hours to buy the last remaining pony ride tickets.

“It is a tough day for all of us,” said concessioner Steve Weeks on Wednesday morning, a day that saw hundreds of riders at seven times the usual volume for a weekday. “It will be an emotional day for all of us.”

The 16 employees who will be without a job on Thursday kept to their tasks, hoisting kids into saddles and running alongside the slow-poke small equines topped by juvenile riders.

But for some, the angry protests, the shouts of “animal abusers” that rained down on them day after day, even up until Wednesday, left a mark.

Employee Justin Valiente, 21, was resigned to the fact that all things come to an end. But he said he didn’t like the way this ended. “They (L.A. City Council) believed all of the people who screamed at us for a year and a half. That is being rewarded,” he said. Valiente is studying to be a phlebotomist, he said.

Allegations by animal rights activists that the ponies were neglected are not supported by official documents that outlined the cause of the city’s closure. The city said Weeks did not report deaths of four ponies in a timely matter, even though the contract did not require him to tell the city about any pony deaths.

The city’s Recreation and Parks Department lost faith in Weeks over the late paperwork, and decided not to renew the contract — after the city had just renewed it in June.

The veterinarian said the deaths were not due to neglect. Weeks said he offered to renegotiate the contract or to leave the business for another operator — but city officials turned him down on both accounts.

The Los Angeles Alliance For Animals applauded the decision, as did other animal rights groups. “The time is now to eliminate pony rides in Los Angeles because it teaches children ponies are carnival equipment. They are not,” said group founder Zohra Fahim in a previous interview with this newspaper.

Fahim also was concerned about the fate of the ponies. But Weeks said he has already found places for all 36 ponies in an outpouring of help. Some will go to horse sanctuaries and some to rescue ranches. Others are being taken in by private horse owners in California who want a pony as a companion animal for a horse.

“I interviewed each one who took the ponies. I would ask: ‘Who is your vet? Who is your farrier?’” he said, adding that he rejected many requests from those not qualified to care for a pony.

Weeks doesn’t own horses anymore, he said, while brushing the dirt off an auburn pony’s fur in the back corral area, where only a few horses remained.

“I am going to take it easy, get out of the horse business entirely,” said Weeks, who lives in Studio City.

Elvira Elicea, manager of the place for the past six years, said she’ll miss the ponies. “They are like my children. I love them. They are my babies. It is going to hurt.”

Despite enjoying the rides when he was a kid growing up in Santa Monica and allowing his son, Teddy, to get on a pony on Wednesday, Brook Fisher sided with the city and said he understood their rationale for closing the attraction.

“The city has to change. Sometimes good things go away,” he said while waiting in line. “I am understanding as to why they would do this. L.A. has to change with it.”

The majority of those interviewed while waiting to place their child or grandchild on a pony did not agree with the city’s decision. Most were longtime supporters.

Theresa Nicolaou of Santa Clarita said four generations of her family has ridden at the Griffith Park Pony Rides, starting with her mother, who is 83 and who rode during the first year it operated — in 1948. “She came here to ride when she was 8 years old,” said Nicolaou. “This place is a big deal for us.”

She was there with her 3 1/2-year-old grandson and was reminiscing about Walt Disney gaining inspiration from some of the early attractions at Griffith Park for his big endeavor, Disneyland.

Why did the city close the pony rides?

“I think it is political, frankly,” she said, hurrying to watch her grandson.

Joana Alfaro of North Hollywood was waiting in line to give her 2-year-old son his last pony ride. “It is sad. I don’t know of any other pony rides in the area I can take him to,” she said. “It’s all about the joy for the kids.”

S. Kim, who only gave her first initial of her first name, was standing at the fence peering into the ride area where her 10-year-old daughter was sitting in perfect form atop a pony she had never ridden. She’s been at the pony ride every year since age 3, her mother said.

Her daughter remembers the first horse she rode. It’s name was Casper, Kim said.

“It is about the memories,” Kim said, taking photos of her daughter with her smartphone. “There is something about tradition. It was here for a long time. It’s sad it won’t be here anymore.”

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