Health Inspector Tells Natachee's Beloved Horse to "Giddy Up"

Jerry Don Luco, co-owner of Natachee's Supper & Punch, is a cowboy. He's got the hat, the boots, an endless supply of quirky Southern idioms, and like any good cowboy, Jerry has a horse. Her name is Lacy, and she's quickly become the media darling of Main St. -- charming diners, rail riders and passersby from the empty lot next to the restaurant. Or at least she was. That is, until the City of Houston stepped in.

The first sign of trouble came a few weeks back with a visit from animal control. Two officers arrived unannounced, responding to an anonymous complaint about the horse. Luco accompanied them to her stall and outlined the meticulous measures taken to keep the grounds clean and safe for horses and humans, even giving her a supplement so that her feces wouldn't attract flies. They concluded that Lacy was indeed well cared for, finding no cause to issue any citations. Unfortunately, a visit from the health department three days later would not be so pleasant.

When the official arrived at Natachee's on November 2 at 2 p.m. it was raining and Lacy was in her stall. To hear Luco tell it, the health inspector had very little interest in examining the animal or the restaurant. He just wanted Lacy moved off of the premises, threatening to take Natachee's license and close the restaurant if she was not.

Realizing that this was neither the time nor the place to argue his case, Luco began making arrangements for someone to watch the restaurant while he drove Lacy back to his home in Garden Oaks. The inspector watched as Luco's truck and trailer became stuck, mired in the mud from consecutive days of rain, and agreed to give him 24 hours to relocate the horse. Still, Jerry worried the extension wouldn't do him any good, as the next day's forecast called for much of the same. He told the officer, "Until the ground firms up and we can get the trailer out I don't see any way to move her, short of saddling her up and riding her out to 43rd and TC Jester." The health inspector was unmoved and, according to Luco, made a gesture like the whipping of reins with his hands and said, "Giddy up."

We contacted the City of Houston Department of Health and Human Services and were told, "That's a BARC issue. It's animal control, not health department. BARC isn't affiliated with us anymore." However, shortly thereafter we received a call from Patrick Key, Bureau Chief of Consumer Health Services, confirming that there was an officer from his department at the restaurant that day, responding to a complaint. Key explained that Natachee's was in violation of a city livestock ordinance mandating that "Cows, calves, steers, bulls, horses, mules or donkeys may not be kept closer than 100 feet from any residence, restaurant, church, school or other human habitation. If the distance requirements are met, 5,000 square feet are required to keep one of the above animals on uncovered land and an additional 2,500 square feet for each additional animal." When we brought up the assessment by animal control and the special measures taken by the restaurant, city spokesperson Kathy Barton responded, "Laws are created to protect everyone equally, regardless of circumstance."

As feared, Luco returned to the restaurant the following morning to find the situation in the parking lot unchanged. As long as the wet weather continued, Lacy's trailer would remain hopelessly stuck. He referenced a chestnut of wisdom passed down from his grandfather: "If you have to eat a turd, don't nibble on it." He mapped out a route, saddled her up, and at 10 a.m. on November 3, man and horse set out down Travis in the pouring rain. Both had become accustomed to city riding, having worked with Texas Equusearch for a number of years. Yet neither could have envisioned the obstacles they would encounter over the next 12 miles, or that it would take more than nine hours to reach their destination.

A map of their journey:

View No Country for Cowboys: Jerry & Lacy's Ride through the Asphalt Plains in a larger map

Not even a mile into the journey, Lacy stepped in an old water meter hole on Travis and McGowan, twisting her rear hind ankle. It began to swell, and Luco contacted her vet, who told him as long as she wasn't limping the best thing he could do was keep her walking. And walk they did. Jerry's descriptions of being "butt deep" in the mud along forgotten bayou trails evoked visions of Artax and Atreyu (from The Neverending Story). And then there was the bridge incident (according to Luco, "horses and bridges don't like each other"). A horn-happy motorist on the Waugh bridge would cause the already agitated Lacy to rear up and fall into oncoming traffic, her horseshoes offering little resistance to the wet asphalt. If nothing else, their harrowing tale sheds a harsh light on the fact that, despite common misconceptions held by our friends up North, modern day Houston is no country for cowboys.

The now-horseless lot on Main is a sad sight for Lacy's many fans and admirers. Three attorneys have since contacted Luco, all offering to take the case pro bono (one even vowing to go all the way to the Supreme Court). It wouldn't be easy (the current law has been on the books for more than 75 years), but who knows -- perhaps this story isn't over yet.

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