PALOS VERDES ESTATES — In this affluent hillside city, where some people love peacocks as strongly as others loathe them, it may never be determined if 11 of the birds found dead of arsenic poisoning two weeks ago were intentionally killed.
But investigators say that is a "very strong possibility," and in the Via Coronel area where the birds died, some residents--peacock friends and foes alike--believe a poisoner lives among them.
"It's horrible," said one pro-peacock resident on whose property five dead birds were found, adding that if someone poisoned them deliberately, it "almost has to be someone very close to us . . . someone who detests them."
The peacock issue has so divided the city that many residents would discuss it only if they could remain anonymous.
Even some peacock critics say poisoning the birds is going too far. "I don't know of anyone who would go to those lengths," said Marjorie Kaplan, a peacock foe. "I think this is just a symptom of the problem. . . . Some who don't like the peacocks don't have much compassion for them."
Another resident, however, speculated that poisoning was someone's way of saying he had reached the limit of his tolerance: "After 25 years of frustration, after bird lovers have forced peacocks on residents, the peacock foes have been pushed to poison them."
"I just wish it would go away," another resident said, referring to the peacock controversy that has held sway over the city for years. In the Via Coronel area, and in another neighborhood near the Malaga Cove Library where peacocks flock, residents have complained that the peacocks cause property damage, make too much noise and deprive them of sleep.
After more than a year of study, a compromise was reached in September that would have allowed some troublesome birds to be trapped and removed. Pro-peacock forces filed suit, however, and on Oct. 23 the city put the plan on hold while an environmental study was conducted.
Dead Bird Found
Six days later, the first dead bird was discovered.
Sgt. Chuck Reed of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said there is a "very strong possibility" that the birds were intentionally poisoned. The SPCA is conducting an investigation, with help from the city's police.
Reed said that a toxic amount of arsenic found in all the birds, coupled with the fact that they birds died within a short time span and in the same area, suggests that the killings were indeed intentional.
But finding a suspect will be extremely difficult, Reed said. "Something like this was not done in broad daylight, in front of the whole neighborhood."
Investigators have canvassed the area where the dead birds were found and the SPCA distributed posters and flyers requesting information a few days after the first dead bird was discovered.
"We received just one phone call . . . no information of any help," Reed said. He said the willful poisoning of an animal is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail or a $500 fine.
He said that if poison was being placed randomly in the area, it would pose a hazard to children and to other animals.
"I don't rule out that it may have been accidental," said Mary Swafford, who said she and her husband are anti-peacock after living in the neighborhood five months. "I think it may have been something they got into."
Plant Killed Some
She and other Via Coronel neighbors recalled that some birds were killed in the 1970s by the sky plant, which is poisonous to peacocks. Since then, residents have had a self-imposed ban on the plant, one resident said.
Friends of the Peacocks, a group that advocates letting the city's 50 or so peacocks roam freely, took the first three birds found dead to the California Department of Food and Agriculture Laboratory in San Bernardino, where an examiner's findings were almost the same as the SPCA's, Reed said.
The SPCA examined nine poisoned birds, one of which was still alive and is recovering.
Aside from the poisonings, the main problem--living with loud, messy peacocks--remains, some residents say.
"I feel like people are the animals in the zoo, and the birds are the ones staring in on us," said Robin Marino. She said that for their own safety, the peacocks should be removed from the city.