The Pine Cone's third story of the week

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Motorcyclist: Caltrans ignored pig danger

By PAUL MILLER and KELLY NIX

Published: March 13, 2009

IN A Monterey courtroom this week, a parade of witnesses testifying on behalf of a severely disabled motorcycle rider painted a picture of negligence, indifference and incompetence by engineers and administrators for Caltrans as wild pigs invaded the site of a habitat restoration project on the south bank of the Carmel River.

The motorcyclist, Adam Rogers, a former kickboxing instructor and employee at the Inn at Spanish Bay, collided with a wild pig in September 2003, suffering severe brain damage after being thrown from his motorcycle. He is suing the State of California for up to $8 million to compensate him for his injuries and pay for lifetime care.

From the witness stand, Caltrans employees and supervisors denied being aware of any particular danger to the motoring public from wild pigs, and maintained they did all they could in 2000 and 2001 to limit the pig population by having them trapped and shot.

But as the trial progressed, their testimony was overwhelmed by the detailed, and sometimes emotional, statements of other witnesses — including one former Caltrans worker who said she warned her bosses of the grave danger posed by the burgeoning population of wild pigs as they moved from the hills on the east side of Highway 1 to the habitat restoration project on the other side, where they feasted on its abundance of tasty, young plants. According to testimony, the former Caltrans worker and contractors working on the habitat project practically begged their bosses to put up a fence to keep the pigs off the road.

“There were so many pigs being hit, I just knew somebody was going to be maimed or killed,” said Tuppance Cabot, who was an administrator in the Caltrans Monterey office for three years. She described several visits to the habitat restoration site and seeing pig carcasses on sides of the highway, and the photos she took of dead pigs and bloodstained asphalt.

Testifying Tuesday morning, Cabot recalled repeatedly warning her bosses about the obvious danger, and asking that a fence be installed along the road, but said they seemed uninterested.

“I was the emotional one, because I was the only one concerned about pigs being killed on the highway,” she said.

A woman who toiled for years on the habitat project — planting a large section of riverbank with willows and other native plants as mitigation for the since-abandoned Hatton Canyon freeway — described how one morning in early 2000 she was chased by a family of pigs as she cleared brush.

“I ran into a mother and some piglets, and when they started to come after me, I threw a weedwacker at them and ran,” said Shirley Brake.

She and her husband, Bob, did most of the planting on what was called the “mitigation bank,” but which Cabot referred to as “hog heaven.”

“Even when we quit working on the project, there were lots of pigs,” Brake said. “They were multiplying.”

Bob Brake testified that, because the pigs were active at night, it became a fairly common occurrence for them to be found dead on the highway in the early hours of the morning.

“Most of the time, because they went to work at 6 a.m., it would be somebody from the sewage treatment plant who would tell us about another pig being dead on the road,” Bob Brake said. “Sometimes the pigs were in the middle of the road, and sometimes they were on the side.”

Attorneys Larry Biegel and Chuck Keller, representing the injured motorcyclist, then called several motorists who had frightening collisions with groups of pigs as they drove along the former Odello artichoke fields.

Terrence McCleerey told about trying to return home to Carmel from an evening hike in Soberanes Canyon in June 2000.

“It was dark, and as we were coming down the hill from Ribera Road, suddenly a whole mass took up what was in front of the car,” McCleerey said. “It was three large pigs and several little ones.”

He tried to swerve, but ended up colliding with the pigs, killing several and leaving the front of his car covered with blood and fur.

“The CHP officer who came to investigate said, ‘You’re lucky to be alive,’” McCleerey said.

Another driver, Sam Perryman, was also headed north on Highway 1 in 2000 when he crashed his vehicle into a five-foot-long, dark-colored pig he could not see until the last minute.

“After the collision, the pig was stunned, but it wasn’t dead,” Perryman said. “When it came to and stood up, three of us shoved it over to the west side of the highway.” A sheriff’s deputy then shot the animal, Perryman recalled.

As the population of hungry pigs boomed in 2001, Caltrans workers testified they became concerned that their habitat restoration project was in jeopardy. Not only were the pigs eating the new plants, they were destroying an irrigation system meant to get the plants established. But, with animal collisions a very common occurrence on California highways, they did not express any alarm over the danger posed by the pigs to the motoring public.

Bruce Pastorius, a former supervisor of the Caltrans Monterey office, said a discussion in the summer of 2000 focused on damage to the plants, and that he had not even been told pigs were being repeatedly hit on Highway 1. He agreed to hire a trapper to herd the into cages on the mitigation site, so they could be killed.

An engineer in the Caltrans Monterey office, Alan Vong, also denied being particularly aware that the pigs were a hazard to drivers, and he said he never considered building a fence to keep them off the road.

A senior engineer for Caltrans, Dan Miller, said highway safety was a “No. 1” priority for the highway agency. But he said the pigs were an environmental issue, not a safety issue.

“They were rooting around the wetland areas, and the pigs were eating the nestling eggs of the waterfowl and uprooting a lot of plants,” Miller said. “And the pigs were multiplying faster than we could get rid of them.”

But he said his employees never mentioned to him that the pigs posed a traffic hazard.

Later, jurors were shown videotaped deposition of Cody Stemler, a trapper for the United States Department of Agriculture who was hired to reduce the boar population.

Stemler said he told a state official a fence should be installed to stop the pigs traveling from one side of the road to the other, but he was hazy on some details.

Stemler, who said he’s trapped animals for 30 years, said he couldn’t recall what side of the road he suggested the fence be placed, nor the person to whom he made the recommendation.

In cross examination, an attorney for Caltrans asked Stemler what he was specifically hired to do, apparently to show his job was not to keep feral boar off the highway.

“The contract was to stop damage to the mitigation site, the area where the native plants and trees were being reforested,” Stemler said.

The trial, which is being held at the Monterey courthouse on Agaujito road, is expected to continue another three or four weeks.