Essex bird's lawsuit flies to higher court

Parrot: The case of the contested wing clip, $1,000 in feathers.

April 15, 2004|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

Mojo seems an unlikely character in a lawsuit.

"C'mere and give me a kiss," she squawks, flapping in her cage.

But the African gray parrot is at the heart of a case moving through the Baltimore County court system, pitting an avian-loving Essex couple against a longtime Dundalk vet.

And so far, the law has been siding with the bird.

Mojo's owners, Mary and Leo Wade Adams of Essex, say a doctor at the Dundalk Animal Hospital over-clipped the young parrot's wing feathers, causing the bird to over-prune herself - a condition known as "feather picking."

Dr. Dennis Foster, who runs the vet practice, has countered that something else must have triggered the bird's predicament.

"Feather picking is caused by boredom, sexual isolation and frustration," he wrote in the lawsuit. "It can also be caused by faulty nutrition, feather and skin disease, skin parasites, viruses and intestinal parasites."

It is still rare, but increasingly common, for pet owners to sue veterinarians, say animal law experts and vet groups. The Adamses say they were all but forced to join the trend.

A Baltimore County Circuit Court judge could review the case as early as this month.

The Adamses say the problem started in October 2002, when they took Mojo to have her wings clipped, a routine procedure to keep her from flying. Not long after her doctor's visit, the Adamses noticed that Mojo couldn't balance; she seemed to hurt herself every time she fell off her perch. She pulled her red tail-feathers out. She picked at herself mercilessly.

"She looked like a little stump," Mary Adams said.

And weeks later, she was not getting any better.

The Adamses took Mojo to an avian veterinarian specialist, who told them the bird's problems stemmed from over-clipping. The Dundalk Animal Hospital vet should have snipped only the five flight feathers, Mary Adams said, not the feathers along the entire wing.

The Adamses are bird people: In their rowhouse, ornamental plates decorated with birds are mounted along the stairs; a bird sculpture perches nearby. Chirps, squawks and peeps come from cages throughout the home.

"These are expensive birds," said Wade Adams, a 76-year-old bail bondsman. "They bring $1,000 on up. We were hoping to breed her, but so far this parrot has been under stress. It'd be no good for breeding in the state that it's in."

So, with the specialist's report in hand, they sued.

"Plaintiff is the owner of an African Gray Parrot named Mojo (hereinafter `Parrot,')" the first line of the lawsuit reads.

At first, Foster said, he thought it was a joke; in 30 years of business, his hospital had never been taken to court.

"People don't usually sue their vet," Foster said.

Veterinarians carry malpractice insurance, but a far less expensive version than that held by doctors who treat people, said Dr. Robert Goodman, a Baltimore vet.

Lawsuits are rare and, for the most part, damages against vets are relatively low - most of the time, pet owners are compensated for only medical bills and the street value of their animal, said David S. Favre, a law professor at the University of Michigan who runs the Animal Legal and Historical Web Center.

But that is changing, Favre said: Various states, including New York and Colorado, have moved to allow compensation for the pain and suffering of owners of injured or killed pets.

"I'd say this movement has been really pushing for five years," he said. "Most people are pretty shocked when they find out that they can't recover [damages]. We're used to being able to recover a lot of money when something happens."

The Adamses asked for $2,500 in their suit, saying they had "suffered out-of-pocket expenses to have the bird treated" and had "been denied enjoyment of the parrot."

Foster, on the standard District Court form, hand-wrote the defense for his hospital and for the veterinarian - unnamed in the lawsuit - who clipped Mojo.

"Wing trimming does not cause feather picking," he wrote, before listing other causes for the behavior.

He went by himself to District Court on Feb. 13 to face the Adamses and their lawyer, David Love, in trial. He thought he would simply tell the judge that African grays had a tendency to be feather pickers and that his office had been clipping feathers for decades without complaint.

"I'll never be that dumb again," Foster said.

After listening to Love present the avian specialist's report, Baltimore County District Judge G. Darrell Russell Jr. told Foster and the Dundalk Animal Hospital to pay the Adamses $1,000, according to court records.

The Adamses said they were satisfied. Foster said he was shocked.

He promptly hired a lawyer and appealed the District Court's decision to Circuit Court. Both parties said that this time they will be armed with expert testimony.

The Adamses say the suit is as much about principle as it is about the $1,000.

Mojo, about 2 years old, still cannot balance well. She started talking late. ("Hello, bail bonds," she now says when the phone rings.) Her back feathers are raggedy. The Adamses doubt her wings will ever grow out.

And with a life expectancy of 60 years, Mojo could have to live with her afflictions for decades to come, they said.

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