Wednesday, December 13, 2000

2 families sue over deaths of pet cats; they are challenging the owner of a pest control company and his use of body-crushing traps


By Curtis L. Esquibel
Times Staff Writer

Two Contra Costa families are suing their neighbors and the owner of a Lafayette pest control company for setting a body-crushing trap that killed their pets last year in separate incidents.

The Gendron family of Danville and Mildred Grothman of Lafayette claim the deaths of their cats have caused them emotional distress and a loss of companionship.

The lawsuit does not ask for specific damages. But David Blatte, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, said the families are looking for a financial settlement "significantly more than the monetary value of the pets, which is somewhere in the hundreds."

"When you lose a pet, it's not the monetary value of the pet you're losing," said Blatte. "It's the emotional loss."

The lawsuit, filed Friday, claims negligence by James Schmerker, co-owner of Animal Damage Control, and by McRae and Mary Gardner of Danville and Stacey Dunne of Lafayette, who hired the firm to snare raccoons that were damaging their properties.

Schmerker used a Conibear trap which has spring-loaded bars intended to crush an animal when it steps on a trigger. Instead of capturing raccoons or other wild animals, the trap fatally gripped felines Soccer and Toby.

Their deaths helped inspire a countywide effort from pet owners and animal activists to ban body-crushing traps in residential areas. Next Tuesday, Pinole is expected to become the first Bay Area city to approve an ordinance outlawing use of the traps.

The Conibear and neck snare traps have been banned in California since voters approved the state Wildlife Protection Act in 1998. But a loophole in the initiative allows animal control businesses to legally use the traps for nuisance control or property protection.

In the lawsuit, Blatte said he's focusing on two issues--banning the traps and Schmerker's licensing and business practices.

When Soccer and Toby were killed less than 10 days apart last December, Schmerker wasn’t registered in Contra Costa to perform pest control for hire, said Larry Yost, deputy agricultural commissioner for the county. Schmerker still isn't registered, Yost said Tuesday.

Schmerker was found guilty in October of doing pest control without a license and was sentenced to 90 days in jail and three years probation. He served 10 days in County Jail in Martinez.

Schmerker did not return phone calls Tuesday. His wife and business co-owner, Dianne Schmerker, has spoken remorsefully on her husband's behalf. She has said they had no intention of catching family pets.

"(The clients) were told we were using traps and to keep their animals inside," she said in August.

Pet owners and animal activists insist all trappers should use cage-like traps that capture animals alive without injury. But Dianne Schmerker said animals learn to recognize cage-like traps, and the Conibear is only used as a final resort.

McRae Gardner, who first heard of the suit Tuesday, said he doesn't see why he should have to defend himself over an accident--especially against neighbors from two doors down who he's gotten along with since moving in 13 years ago.

"Before this happened, we were joking about how we needed to get rid of raccoons bothering both of us," said Gardner. "We knew their cat well. We took care of (the cat) when they weren't in town."

Gardner said his relationship with the Gendrons has soured since Soccer died. "They just refuse to talk to us or even see us," Gardner said. "We've apologized, called them and written them letters. We wave to them but never get anything back. It's been a year and, like I said, I'm really at a loss with what they're trying to do."

The Gendrons did not return calls Tuesday.