By Ken Dixon, published in The Connecticut Post on June 6, 2006

Utility claims nonviolent program means suit should be dismissed

In addition to the 103 nests targeted last fall, UI spokesman Albert Carbone said UI took down another 16 nests at the request of customers. Surviving birds have started rebuilding 39 nests in West Haven, Stratford, and Bridgeport, but not Milford.

NEW HAVEN-The United Illuminating Co. is now tearing down monk parakeet nests without capturing or killing the birds, lawyers for the utility told a Superior Court Judge on Monday.

But an animal rights group still intends to pursue its lawsuit to prevent the type of catch-and-slaughter program that destroyed 179 parrots in 103 nests last November and December.

Judge David Skolnick seemed skeptical of UI’s position that because it is not eradicating bird colonies right now, a lawsuit filed by the Darien-based Friends of Animals Inc. should be dismissed.

“United Illuminating is not capturing or killing monk parakeets,” said Jonathan Freiman, a Hartford attorney representing the utility, whose surprise program, with assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, stunned bird lovers in the state and across the nation last year.

“United Illuminating has no plans to capture or kill monk parakeets,” Freiman said, adding that the utility took out newspaper advertisements to provide public notice last year in the weeks before the extermination program began in mid-November.

But Freiman, stressing that the case should be dismissed because it is not “ripe,” admitted that snaring and killing the birds could resume someday.

“It is not a promise to never again capture or kill a monk parakeet,” he said. “This is purely a hypothetical dispute on something that might happen in the future.”

“All this is saying is that at the moment, there are no plans to capture monk parakeets?” Skolnick asked. “Right?”

Freiman said that UI has been looking at new methods to shoo the birds from utility poles, but can’t guess whether a solution might be found over upcoming months or years.

UI says the parakeets’ large stick nests built high on utility poles pose a hazard, and blames them for several fires in recent years.

“We’re talking about birds that won’t listen to UI or anybody else,” said Derek V. Otis, attorney for the Friends of Animals.

“They reproduce, eat and nest. This is a controversy even if they’re not killing now.”

Freiman announced that UI has sought nonviolent solutions to the nests and that the utility is monitoring the rebuilding going on among surviving birds that imprinted the utility poles as their homes.

“Depending on the size, nests are currently being removed on an ongoing basis, Freiman said. “The company has every hope that routine maintenance will solve the problem.”

At the time of the $125,000 program’s inception last fall, neighbors complained that UI had deferred maintenance on poles for eight years or more, letting the nests grow to immense proportions, sometimes covering electric transformers.

The utility suspended its program after the Friends of Animals filed a request for an injunction last year. After a Dec. 6 hearing, during which UI announced it would no longer capture birds, the FoA withdrew its initial lawsuit.

Reports of nests causing fires and power outages have varied.

Earlier this year state law-makers were told the birds had caused five or fewer fires, but dozens were detailed in the hundreds of pages of documents UI filed in defending its case against the Friends of Animals.

William J. Cook, director of project management and design for UI, was prepared to testify Monday, but Otis claimed that there was little way to confirm the utility’s records and that if the judge allows the case to proceed, he will depose UI witnesses and experts on the state’s parrot population.

Priscilla Feral, president of the nonprofit Friends of Animals, said she’s encouraged by the judge’s interest.

“I feel like we’ve got a shot at this,” Feral said outside the courtroom. “But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t change the state statute to protect the parrots, because I’m worried they’ll be back at it next fall.”

UI crews captured generations of the green parrots, which have lived in the region since the early 1970s, during night visits to nests in West Haven, Milford, Stratford and Bridgeport last fall.

Captured birds were turned over to U.S. Department of Agriculture personnel, which immediately asphyxiated them in carbon-dioxide chambers and kept the carcasses for research.

Albert Carbone, spokesman for UI, said after the hearing that “a half dozen” stick nests, reconstructed on southwestern Connecticut utility poles after last fall’s eradication program, have recently been torn down without capturing or killing the tenacious birds.

In addition to the 103 nests targeted last fall, Carbone said UI took down another 16 nests at the request of customers. Surviving birds have started rebuilding 39 nests in West Haven, Stratford and Bridgeport, but not Milford, Carbone said.

Otis, in an interview, said UI’s nonviolent tactic to clear its poles from parrot nests “sort of admits our case.”

The judge did not set a date for a decision on UI’s motion to dismiss the Friends of Animals’ case.

Legislation aimed at protecting the birds was approved in major committees of the General Assembly this year, then died on the House calendar last month before a floor debate could be held on the issue.