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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."