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Orangutan Trainer Is Awarded $4.2 Million : Verdict: Las Vegas entertainer wins battle with animal rights activists who accused him of abusing animals.

August 12, 1990|From Times Staff and Wire Services

LAS VEGAS — Entertainer Bobby Berosini was awarded $4.2 million by a jury Saturday in his bitter yearlong battle with animal rights activists who accused him of beating orangutans used in his act on the Las Vegas Strip.

"Thank you, America," Berosini, a native of Czechoslovakia, said as he left the courtroom.

"He'll never see a penny of that money," responded Philip Hirschkop, an attorney for the Washington-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Hirschkop said he would appeal the award that a state District Court jury handed down after three days of deliberations.

The animal rights organization was assessed $2 million in damages on counts of invasion of privacy and defamation. Jeanne Roush, an investigator for the group, and Ottavio Gesmundo, a former employee at the Stardust Hotel, where Berosini performed, were each assessed $1 million in damages on the same charges.

A California nonprofit organization, Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), and its executive director, Pat Derby, were each assessed $100,000.

But the jury found no malice in the actions of the defendants and issued verdicts precluding Berosini from collecting punitive damages. Hirschkop said that because the jury found defamation and invasion of privacy but no malice, the verdict was inconsistent.

Gesmundo videotaped scenes of Berosini striking his orangutans before they went on stage for performances at the Stardust Hotel in July, 1989.

The videotapes were then circulated to animal rights groups, including PETA and PAWS. Representatives of those two groups took the tapes to local and national media, including "Entertainment Tonight."

Berosini claimed the adverse publicity damaged his career and cost him millions of dollars in bookings. On the witness stand, he portrayed the orangutans, which he calls "his kids," as powerful animals that must be disciplined if they are to be kept under control. Berosini also said the primates were spooked by dancers in the show who made animal noises in an effort to get them to misbehave.

Animal rights activists descended on Las Vegas, picketing in front of the Stardust and encouraging the public to pass up the show.

He continues to headline at the Stardust and hurried from the courthouse Saturday, saying, "I've got to go take care of the kids. We've got to perform tonight."

"I was used as a pawn to make money," Berosini said of attacks by the animal rights groups. "They were using this as a means of fund-raising."

In closing arguments Wednesday, an attorney for Berosini urged jurors to send a message to the animal rights movement. Attorney Tom Pitaro called on jurors to stop animal activists who oppose everything "from circuses to medical research to save babies."

But after the verdicts came in, the national director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said her group will continue its fight. "It is the duty, and the First Amendment right, of every animal protection organization to speak out against cruelty," Ingrid Newkirk said.

"Lawsuits designed to stop people from protecting animals--and for that matter, children, senior citizens or anyone subject to abuse--cannot be allowed to ultimately prevail."

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