|By Douglas Hanks, The Miami
HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Sep. 24, 2008 - There's no doubt some guests at the Hampton Inn Miami Airport West behaved like animals during their stay four years ago. They had an excuse, though -- being lemurs, a spider monkey, an alligator and a parrot.
The menagerie -- stars of a traveling zoo exhibition -- lies at the heart of a lawsuit by a maid who cleaned rooms rented by the animals' handlers for eight days in February 2004. Arlin Valdez-Castillo blames chronic medical problems on exposure to bird feces, monkey dander and other alleged hazards from the exotic guests.
The case, being heard in federal court in Miami, will force a judge to weigh the legal protections for employees, employers and beasts when all three land in close quarters.
Defense lawyers want Judge Shelby Highsmith to throw out the case partly based on court precedents that animal owners face liability only if their charges attack (such as a dog bite) rather than simply perform natural functions (such as spider monkey droppings).
"Plantiff's alleged allergic reaction was not due to the dangerous propensities of the wild animals," attorneys for Busch Gardens, which hired the animals for a local publicity tour, wrote in a motion. "Rather, the allergic reaction was due to Plaintiff's own immune system."
The case also reveals some of the complications involved when business travel includes the furry and the feathered.
Lawyers submitted as evidence a Busch Gardens manual for traveling with animals. Among the tips: Book a room near an ice machine when on the road with penguins and always put the "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door when leaving an animal alone in a hotel room.
According to court documents, the messy dispute began in February 2004, when Busch Gardens booked a South Florida publicity blitz for its safari theme park in Tampa. It hired the traveling Wildlife on Wheels animal troupe run by Conservation Ambassadors, a nonprofit in California's wine country.
On Feb. 9, Maya the spider monkey, Bob the alligator, Tango the Macaw and lemurs Zuri and Rufio were loaded into containers and flown from California to Miami on an American Airlines flight.
They joined Busch Gardens workers for performances at Miami Heat and Miami Hurricanes basketball games, a Florida Panthers hockey game, and school and television appearances.
At night the animals and their Wildlife on Wheels handlers slept at the Hampton Inn, at 3620 NW 79th Ave. in West Miami-Dade.
Valdez claims her superiors forced her to clean the rooms once the handlers and animals left for the day.
Lawyers and executives for the hotel declined to comment.
Alan Landsberg, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer representing Conservation Ambassadors, said: "We believe the plaintiff has no case."
HAIR AND FEATHERS
In her deposition, Valdez said she made contact with hair, feathers, urine and feces while cleaning the rooms.
"When you walked into the room, it was like being in a zoo," Valdez said Tuesday afternoon through a translator in the Coral Gables office of her lawyer, John Hess.
But Migdalia Gonzalez, another Hampton Inn maid, said in a deposition that she encountered an "unpleasant" smell and plenty of feathers and bird food while cleaning up the rooms, but no feces, fur or visible urine.
Five hours into her 2006 deposition, Valdez also recounted being kidnapped two weeks earlier from outside her suburban Miami home by two men she claims took her to a cemetery and warned her to drop the lawsuit. Hess said a police report was filed, but no arrests have been made.
Valdez's suit claims the animal exposure left her with physical and emotional problems, including skin lesions throughout her body, headaches and depression.
A University of Miami doctor, Nancy Klimas, wrote in a 2005 report that Valdez developed severe animal allergies "through a prolonged and dramatic exposure of animal dander and excrements during those 2 1/2 weeks" at the Hampton Inn.
Becca Bides, a spokeswoman for Busch Gardens and its sister park, Sea World, declined to comment directly on the suit but said: "We have been conducting animal interaction programs in our parks, and all over the world, for 45 years. And we have never had a history of such an occurrence."
The suit says Boykin Management, the Ohio company that owns and manages the Hampton Inn franchise, forced Valdez, 42, out after she complained of health problems from the animal exposure.
But in court filings, Boykin denied making Valdez clean the rooms and rejected allegations she came into contact with feces, dander or other animal substances.
The Busch Gardens travel guide states animals may "roam" in hotel rooms, but all "feces, urine and marking excretions should be properly cleaned if this occurs during playtime."
Busch Gardens, in a court filing, suggests Valdez brought on the problems herself.
"Plaintiff so carelessly and negligently conducted herself as to cause or contribute to the occurrence of the incident," the theme park's lawyers wrote.
But Valdez said she only cleaned the rooms as best she could, scooping up feathers by hand from the sink and scraping droppings off the carpet.
"I did what I had to do," she said Tuesday.
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