Las Vegas Courtroom Goes Ape

Los Angeles Times
Column One August 8, 1990


With performing orangutans, chorus line dancers and a few laughs, this show has the makings of a hit on the Las Vegas Strip. Or maybe a TV soap opera, given the accusations of abuse, tearful denials and tales of intrigue. But the stage for this show is the Clark County courthouse, a few miles off the famed Strip. A proceeding known here as "The Monkey Trial" has tantalized Las Vegas for four weeks with an inside look at the backstage politics of floor shows on the Strip and what some say is a raw display of the special treatment available for stars here.

When its run ends, the trial's most sweeping result could be to force animal protection activists around the country to scale back their aggressive tactics in pursuit of suspected animal abusers. "If they make this stick, no Humane Society or ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) can ever investigate a report of animal abuse," said Philip Hirschkop, a Virginia attorney for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, (PETA) a Washington-based group.

Last summer, a video camera hidden backstage at the Stardust hotel-casino recorded headliner Bobby Berosini hitting his orangutans across the back with a rod while handlers held the apes' hands. The treatment is repeated on tape several nights, moments before Berosini and his apes take the stage for their act of gags and tricks during the Lido de Paris floor show. An animal rights organization got hold of the tape and sent copies to primate experts around the world.

Most, including famed researcher Jane Goodall, complained that it depicted gross abuse. The tape and the charges found their way onto national television, first on "Entertainment Tonight," then on the networks. Berosini, who contends that he was only "correcting" his reddish-brown, waist-high apes, is suing for slander and invasion of privacy, and seeking $80 million in damages.

This is no ordinary lawsuit, however, even by Las Vegas standards. The jury has been sequestered each night in the Golden Nugget hotel-casino across the street -- a highly unusual step for a non-criminal proceeding. But then, most civil lawsuits take years to come to trial here. This one got to court in 11 months. The trial also convenes evenings and Saturdays.

Thomas Pitaro, Berosini's lead attorney, only smiles and shrugs when asked how the trial came to be expedited. But in Las Vegas, Berosini is a star. His name in lights towers over the Strip outside the Stardust. Since 1984, the performing orangutans have been a twice-a-night mainstay of the Lido de Paris, a spectacle of chorus numbers and topless dancers that the Stardust advertises as "The Show That Made Las Vegas Famous."

The defendants -- PETA, local activists and ex-Stardust dancers -- have a more conspiratorial view. They say that Las Vegas has closed ranks around Berosini to protect abusive animal acts in the Strip's hotel-casinos. "Nevada's a very political state, more than any I've ever litigated in," Hirschkop said.

Defense attorneys have sought a mistrial more than 20 times, claiming numerous mistakes and favoritism toward Berosini by the judge -- beginning with the trial's opening act. When the jury was first seated, Berosini was allowed to bring in the orangutans and give a short performance. Jurors were enraptured by the mugging apes with the big eyes, outraged defense lawyers said, making it hard for them to objectively view testimony that Berosini mistreats the orangutans.

The judge, Myron Leavitt, was Nevada's lieutenant governor from 1979-82. The defense sought to have Leavitt disqualified because he is a former roommate and law partner of William Boyd, one of the Stardust owners, and received a $25,000 campaign contribution from the Stardust for an unsuccessful try for election to the Nevada Supreme Court. Leavitt ruled there was no conflict. "I think it was totally improper for the judge to not disqualify himself," Hirschkop said in an interview. "I feel he has shown bias."

Last week, after Leavitt ruled that more than 15 defense witnesses -- including key experts on animal abuse -- would not be allowed to testify for procedural reasons, activists who are observing the trial reacted bitterly. "Russia is a pretty open society now. Why can't Las Vegas be?" said Cleveland Amory, animal rights activist and president of the New York-based Fund for Animals.

The trial has been played out before local TV news cameras and, on especially good days, a courtroom full of spectators. They have heard Berosini labeled "worse than a child abuser," and Hirschkop called a communist by the entertainer. One defendant, a local animal rights activist, also complained that one of Berosini's attorneys was having a relationship with her sister. More than once the judge has threatened fines for courtroom behavior.

For the four days that Berosini testified, the courtroom was treated to laughter and copious tears. A native of Czechoslovakia whose father and son also have performed in Las Vegas, Berosini said he has lost a TV show and other work in the entertainment field because no one wants to touch him -- though his show continues at the Stardust. When the tape became public, the Stardust received more than 1,000 out-of-state phone calls of protest. "I was in shock, sir. I was in bad shape," Berosini said.

The orangutans are not abused, he declared. "The animals are not beaten," Berosini testified. "I corrected those animals." He blames the trouble on disgruntled dancers who are unhappy that he has the power to have dancers fired at the Stardust, and on zealots who want the power to keep animals out of Las Vegas shows. "This isn't about animals," Joan Berosini, his wife and former stage partner, said outside court one afternoon. "It's about power. They don't even like animals."

PETA said its investigators found that the orangutans cower in terror in Berosini's presence and often urinate at the sight of him. A veterinarian found physical evidence of abuse. The apes are kept isolated in dark, metal boxes -- rather than outside in cages or wooded compounds, as in zoos -- to intensify their emotional reliance on Berosini, the group contends. Earlier this year, Berosini lost his federal permit to breed and obtain new orangutans, in part because of the living conditions on the bus where he keeps the orangutans. Laws require cages of 22 square feet per animal, and he provides about 7 1/2 feet.

Berosini, in turn, says the apes could not perform if they were abused, and in court he sparred with attorney Dan Foley over the need for more space. "They don't lay like people, Mr. Foley," Berosini said. "They have very short legs. They put their legs on their stomach and hold them with their hands. They are very comfortable." The apes watch television to relieve their boredom, Berosini said.

He conceded that none of his orangutans have been bred, but he denied charges by activists that his breeding program is a sham to let him keep the animals. In the early 1980s, Berosini said, he tried to match Tiga, his 24-year-old female, with Rusty, a 17-year-old male, but they weren't compatible. "In fact, she used to beat him up," Berosini testified. "Tiga is a lovable animal, but for some reason she didn't like Rusty."

When Foley pressed for details on the stage gags performed by the apes -- especially one in which they raise a single finger to the audience -- Berosini broke up the courtroom in laughter with his rejoinder: "Mr. Foley, I'll give you a demonstration of how to give the finger if you want."

Berosini has been unable to clear up a key point of contention: What was the object he was using to hit the apes? Activists and dancers contend that it was a steel reinforcing bar. Berosini said it was a wooden baton that was lost before he could produce it as evidence.

During the defense's case, which began last week and ended abruptly early this week, there was testimony about Berosini's jealousy when country singer Dottie West got his dressing room -- the one with the private bathroom -- and about dancers who lost their jobs for crossing Berosini. In one episode, Berosini's displeasure with new hats worn by the dancers ended in a fight and a battery charge against the entertainer, which has been dismissed.

The defendants put witnesses on the stand -- including actress Rue McClanahan, a PETA member, and music personality Casey Kasem -- to challenge the contention that Berosini has lost work. The main defense point is that activists cannot be held liable for making what they consider to be truthful charges.

The hidden videotape was made by a former Lido de Paris dancer, Ottavio Gesmundo, who said he and other dancers suspected abuse of the orangutans but could never prove it. A condition of their job was that they stay away from the curtained-off area where Berosini prepares the animals. In June, 1989, Gesmundo said, after he was informed that he was not to be rehired, he hid the camera where it could tape Berosini. Every night after the taping, while Berosini was on stage, the Lido dancers would gather in their dressing room to watch the tape. "We couldn't believe what we were seeing," dancer Russell Martin testified.

Gesmundo sent copies to PETA, which quietly conducted an investigation, the group's officials said. The tape was released to "Entertainment Tonight" via another defendant, the California-based Performing Animal Welfare Society, according to testimony.

PETA officials said that when they received the tape, they sent it to 20 experts on primate behavior. Several responded with notarized letters condemning the treatment seen on the tape, PETA officials said. Goodall wrote from England that she was "shocked, sickened -- and saddened" by what she described as entirely unprovoked assaults. "I sincerely believe that these orangs should be confiscated immediately and placed in the hands of caring and responsible people (and those responsible) should never be allowed to own, train or handle animals again," said Goodall, widely known for her pioneering work with chimpanzees in Tanzania.

During the trial, an inspector for the U.S. Department of Agriculture testified that he found no signs of abuse on the animals. But he noted under cross-examination that he had no experience in evaluating orangutans.

©Los Angeles Times 1990

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