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Al Martinez

Running Ragtime Ragged : Three dogs lay on the floor and a Peruvian parakett sat on my head

November 09, 1987|Al Martinez

I have avoided for some time now writing about Ragtime, a dog-sized horse whose existence in a suburban neighborhood has been big news from Altoona to Altadena for about the past six months.

National magazines and network television have fallen all over themselves to carry the story of Patty Fairchild and her fight with the City of Thousand Oaks to keep Ragtime in her backyard.

Until recently, she thought it was a fight she had finally won.

The story had all the basic ingredients of social drama: an attractive woman with a miniature horse smarter than most city councilmen in a battle with a cold-hearted bureaucracy trying to take the little dear away from her.

Not since the death and subsequent stuffing of Trigger has the plight of a horse gotten such attention.

There were threats and shouts and committee meetings and, at last, the dominating presence of feminist attorney Gloria Allred, obligingly pursued by an entourage of reporters, photographers and salivating television producers.

The city had filed a criminal action against 33-year-old Fairchild on the basis of a zoning law that said, generally, you can't keep a horse in your backyard.

Allred came out swinging and last September, a judge ruled the law was too vague and threw the case out of court.

Patty wept, Ragtime performed, Gloria held a press conference and that, it appeared, was that.

Not quite, animal-lovers.

A municipality does not easily abandon the skewering of a citizen it finds troublesome.

Two weeks ago, the Thousand Oaks City Council amended an ordinance to cover the Ragtime case and then filed a civil action to once more force his removal from Shadybrook Drive.

"I'm at my wit's end," Fairchild said the other day. "I had to be hospitalized for the emotional strain, I'm a nervous wreck and I'm scared to death I'm going to lose my pet."

We were in the living room of her home. Three dogs lay on the floor and a Peruvian parakeet sat on my head.

"She thinks you're her grandfather," Fairchild explained, reaching over to take the bird, whose name is Squirt.

I didn't mind the dogs so much, but I am not accustomed to conducting an interview with a bird on my head, even one that has been trained to play dead by lying on its back and rolling its eyes upward.

"This whole thing has already cost us about $10,000," Fairchild said. "I don't know how we're going to keep fighting it financially, but we are."

Her husband earns about $30,000 a year driving a Sparkletts truck and they live in a house they rent from her brother. Patty has lived on the same street for 15 years.

Both the city and a local homeowners association are out to force the Fairchilds to get rid of Ragtime.

Even the horse's adversaries admit that he's cuter than a baby with a beard, but a horse is a horse nevertheless, they say, and it doesn't belong in a suburban residential neighborhood.

The problem, they explain, is precedent. You let in a miniature horse and suddenly someone is bringing in a reticulated African giraffe or a family of migrating wildebeests.

Where does it all stop?

"It's crazy," Fairchild said. "The law would allow me to keep four Great Danes in my yard. A Great Dane is 36 inches tall. Ragtime is 28 inches tall, but they won't let me keep him. Does that make sense?" We went out and looked at Ragtime in a heated tool shed that serves as a stall. The stall and the area were spotless. There was no odor. I have stayed in hotels that smelled worse.

Fairchild had Ragtime do tricks. He waved, shook his head yes and no, danced and bowed. I had the feeling he could probably write simple essays, but I'm not sure I could take a horse with a keen sense of narrative, so I didn't ask.

"Since the fight for Ragtime began," Fairchild said, "both the city and the homeowners' association have never stopped harassing me. I've been cited for having a fence painted the wrong color, for having a dead tree in the backyard and for having a visible CB antenna on the roof.

"There are those kinds of violations all up and down the block, but I was the only one cited. What does that tell you?"

Patty Fairchild obviously adores her pets and is one of those people who is able to establish special rapport with them. Ragtime is a clean and quiet little horse that has caused considerably less trouble than the petty bureaucrats who run homeowner associations.

For a city to create so much grief for one of its citizens over so inconsequential an issue ought to be of greater concern in Thousand Oaks than the existence of anything in anyone's backyard.

To hell with precedent. City laws ought to be flexible enough to know the difference between a miniature horse and a full-sized elephant, and if they aren't, maybe it's time to start thinking about voting in a City Council smart enough to write new laws.

For starters, run Ragtime and the Peruvian parakeet for office next time around. A little upgrading around City Hall couldn't hurt.

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