Animal rights activists have won in their attempt to protect shoreline monk parakeets colonies from slaughter at the hands of the United Illuminating Co. and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
A state trial referee in New Haven Superior Court last week ruled against UI's motion to dismiss a request to prevent the type of capture-and-slaughter program that resulted in the deaths of 179 of the bright green parrots last year.
The decision may already be paying dividends. UI officials said Wednesday that while they plan to remove new nests from dozens of utility poles in October, they will not use lethal methods, instead allowing the birds to fly away. In a 19-page decision, Judge Trial Referee David W. Skolnick ruled that UI never developed a way to discourage the birds from nesting in its wooden utility poles. "Therefore, it is likely that the birds will continue to do so," Skolnick wrote, noting that alternatives exist.
"The defendant's failure to implement these measures is likely to cause the unnecessary destruction of monk parakeets, unnecessary harm to other species of wildlife, and impairment of the public trust in the ability of the state to protect its natural resources" in violation of state law, Skolnick wrote.
Priscilla Feral, president of the Friends of Animals group, said Wednesday that she hopes the decision paves the way for a court-ordered discovery phase, including an in-depth investigation into UI's long-term maintenance plan for utility poles and potential alternatives to capturing and killing.
Derek V. Oatis, Friends of Animals' attorney, said the ruling is important.
"For me, the biggest thing is that UI has claimed that its hands are tied by state or federal law and they had no choice but to gas these birds," Oatis said Wednesday. "The judge said that's not true as a matter of law." Feral, who began the legal challenge last year after the eradication program was first reported in the Connecticut Post, said killing animals is never the right response.
"The judge agreed there might be alternatives that UI didn't try," Feral said. "Certainly, companies that can light up every home in the region can find methods to spare parrots' lives.
"As the case proceeds, we're confident that the law will be changed to reflect the most enlightened attributes of the residents of our state."
Last November, UI crews raided the large nests and turned captured birds over to USDA crews, which asphyxiated them with carbon dioxide.
Dwight G. Smith, chairman of Southern Connecticut State University's Biology Department and an expert on the state's monk parakeets, agreed there are better ways to deal with the birds than killing them.
"United Illuminating has the right to protect its customers, but I hope that they will not again resort to slaughtering these interesting and entertaining birds," said Smith, who in court documents is prepared to testify on behalf of the Friends of Animals.
While most of southwestern Connecticut's monk parakeets nest in trees, Smith said UI has continually ignored his attempts to research whether the birds on poles can be enticed to nest elsewhere. Meanwhile, UI said on Wednesday that as early as next week, it will begin a non-lethal nest-removal program that does not include capture of the gregarious parrots.
While last year's $125,000 program resulted in public controversy and the eventual removal of 119 nests in West Haven, Milford, Stratford and Bridgeport, surviving birds returned to nest at nearly half the utility poles, according to Albert Carbone, the UI spokesman.
Carbone downplayed the ruling. "It's just a technical decision," he said. "The case proceeds to the next stage of litigation because the decision is not on the merits of the case."
Carbone said the next step is the company's response to the FOA complaint, including the denial of breaking any laws that might protect the birds, which have lived in the state since the early 1970s.
"We're confident that if and when this is heard on its merits, the court will reject the Friends of Animals' claims of wrongdoing," Carbone said.
He said that in June, around the time Skolnick heard arguments in New Haven, birds had restarted nests on 39 poles, which have now more than doubled, to 76.
Forty-nine colonies have reformed on poles in West Haven; 19 in Stratford, one in Bridgeport; none in Fairfield and Milford; five in New Haven and two in East Haven. The birds live in colonies of up to 40 members.
This week, six UI customers in West Haven were without power for more than an hour, an outage that Carbone said was caused by a parrot nest, which was then knocked down.
"In the next couple of weeks we'll go and knock down those nests," Carbone said. "It's important to say we have no plans to capture birds. This is something that has been advocated by all parties."
Carbone said the breeding season finished in August, so this season's fledglings will be able to fly away when the crews arrive to reclaim the poles.