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[whitespace] 'Peacockicide' civil case may go to trial later this summer

Los Gatos--In what may be the first ever "peacockicide" civil case, a Los Gatos woman is suing her neighbors for the wrongful death of her pet peacock.

Seeking an unspecified amount for emotional distress, mental suffering, punitive damages and attorney fees, Marchmont Drive resident Aileen Prince has charged her 16-year-old neighbor and his parents with the 1998 killing of her prized peacock.

The accused family maintains that their 16-year-old son acted in self-defense, and that the bird had attacked their cat a day before. At a hearing later this month, a Santa Clara County court judge will set a hearing date for later this summer.

The case is representative of a growing trend in animal-related law. While custody battles over pets are several decades old, the idea that courts can award emotional distress damages to bereaved pet owners is a recent development. In Contra Costa, a woman was recently awarded $20,000 for a botched dog operation, although her pet lived to tell the tale.

"It appears to be a burgeoning area of the law--how we treat our animals and, if someone injures your animal, what you are entitled to as recovery," Prince's attorney John Shepardson said.

Chris Nielsen, attorney for the neighbor, said the case represented the ultimate in nuisance lawsuits. He said Prince's attorneys have twice rejected settlement offers of over $3,000, as well as a nonbinding arbitrator's ruling ordering the family pay Prince $100.

"It such a stupid lawsuit, no one wanted to incur the expenses of litigation," Nielsen said, adding, "it's total b.s."

The events in this case began Dec. 7, 1998, as the defendant was on his way home from school with a friend. According to Prince's legal brief, the 15-year-old beat the peacock to death without any justification. He allegedly threw the peacock in a bag and had his brother drive him to Vasona Lake Park, to dispose of the body.

A police report was taken the following day, though no criminal charges were ever filed. The youngster told the sheriff he was walking home from school when the bird attacked him. He said he then ran to the front of his house, found a "stick" and returned to the bird. He gave the peacock two "warning swings" but it continued to attack him. He then hit the bird in the head two times, killing it.

The suspect said he put it in a bag and his brother gave him a ride, at some point during which he threw the bag out the window. He also said he had been attacked once before, a year earlier.

His teenage friend who walked home from school with him that day told the sheriff a slightly different story. The friend said the suspect ran to the garage and returned with a rake, tried to shoo the bird away and then gave a few warning swings before hitting the bird in the neck. The suspect then took the dead bird into the back yard. The friend said he was "freaked out" by the situation and left. The friend, however, also said the bird touched neither of them.

The other witness was Susan Beritzhoff, a neighbor who said she saw the suspect through her rear-view mirror while driving. She said he ran from his yard with a club or bat, and "violently clubbed" the bird several times. In the sheriff's report, Beritzhoff said she turned around and confronted the suspect who told her several times that he did not kill the bird. She stated that he said he had "permission" if the bird came onto his property, but he didn't say what for.

Nielsen said Beritzhoff saw the episode from blocks away, and that the suspect's friend's testimony shows it was an act of self defense. "They're trying to make this kid look like a mass murderer," he said.

The suspect's parents told the investigating sheriff that their cat was attacked by the peacock the day before, and had required several stitches. They later filed a cross complaint seeking reimbursement for medical costs. They also showed the sheriff documents from a prior county mediation case involving the peacock making too much noise at night. The case did not involve attacks by the bird.

According to Shepardson, Prince owned the peacock, known as "Pretty Bird" for 10 years and maintained a large cage in her backyard. The bird was free to roam the yard during the day and was locked up at night. In the legal brief on Prince's behalf, it states that Prince was, "fond of the peacock ascribing great affection and value upon it's life and well-being."

While the bird is valued at only $100, Shepardson is hoping for a judgment that includes his own fees, punitive damages, special damages and general damages for "severe emotional distress and mental suffering."

Nielsen cites the arbitrator's ruling that none of the evidence warrants an award of any damages for emotional distress. "The whole thing is ridiculous," Nielsen said.
Nathan R. Huff

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