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Working the System/Foie Fight

Both parties in an animal-rights-related lawsuit live in California, but it's being decided here, in foie-gras central.



As the public face of the Animal Protection & Rescue League and a 12-year vegan, attorney Bryan Pease has campaigned in California in favor of nonlethal pest control, protection of seal habitat, a ban on veal, and a ban on foie gras. In January in Chicago he joined the anti-foie gras protests at Bin 36 and Cyrano's Bistrot, trailed by a French TV crew doing a piece on Chicago's duck-liver ordinance.

But Pease didn't come all the way to Chicago just to chant slogans and wave signs in the cold. He'd filed a libel suit against Guillermo Gonzalez, owner of Sonoma Foie Gras, a producer near Stockton, California, and he was here to make an appearance before a Cook County Circuit Court judge.

In late 2003 Pease and two APRL comrades made their way into a Sonoma Foie Gras facility and filmed ducks being force-fed and a rat nosing around the rear ends of a pair of ducks, allegedly nibbling on them (it's a little hard to tell). The three absconded with the birds and took them to a vet, who determined two had "large flesh wounds . . . evident on the tails" and were in poor health. He recommended one be euthanized.

APRL released the video footage and announced it would be filing an unfair-business-practices lawsuit against Sonoma Foie Gras, which it accused of animal cruelty. But Gonzalez beat them to the punch, suing Pease and his buddies for trespassing and theft and asking that the court stop APRL and another animal-rights group, In Defense of Animals, from publicizing the footage. In Defense of Animals filed an anti-SLAPP--Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation--motion. These motions, which are allowed in at least 24 states, are intended to stop plaintiffs from intimidating their critics by filing suits that are of dubious merit.

In February 2005, not long after the California legislature banned the production of foie gras in California by 2012, both suits were settled. As part of the settlement Gonzalez had to pay $21,000 to cover the legal fees of In Defense of Animals.

That October Tribune reporter Mark Caro caught up with the controversy and quoted Gonzalez saying, "I personally have never seen a duck bleeding from the rear. . . . I very seriously believe--I'm almost convinced--that this was staged." He also said, "It's very easy for someone in the middle of the night to put some chicken wire around the pen, to put some substance in the rear of the duck that may be attractive for a rat to come and nibble."

Pease waited almost a year, until September 2006, to fire back, suing Gonzalez, though not the Tribune, for libel. But he didn't file his suit in California. He filed in the Cook County Circuit Court, arguing in his complaint that Gonzalez's "statements that he has never seen this condition is a deceptive and defamatory attempt to make it appear as though plaintiff was lying about what he witnessed" and asking for $30,000 in damages.

Why file here? I asked Gonzalez's attorney, Catherine Crisham of Winston & Strawn. Why not in California? She refused to comment--didn't even give me a chance to ask if she likes duck liver--and referred me to the motion she'd filed in December to dismiss the suit. In it she notes that neither Pease nor Gonzalez has any connection to Illinois (and that Pease failed to deliver the summons directly to Gonzalez).

Pease told me he chose Cook County because "the article was published in Chicago and that's where the harm occurred and that's where he intended it to occur. And it's all part of the Chicago debate over foie gras. So that seemed to be the more appropriate venue than California."

I asked him whether Gonzalez could simply file his own anti-SLAPP motion.

"He could," said Pease. "But Illinois doesn't have an anti-SLAPP statute, so he won't be able to file that motion in Illinois. You may have just stumbled on another reason why I chose to file in Illinois as opposed to California."

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