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Old January 13th, 2004, 10:16 AM
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Millionaire sues province for pets

Millionaire sues province for pets
Menagerie seized during 2001 raid

Robert Remington
Calgary Herald

This is a story of hydroponic cucumbers, a poker-playing monkey, a pet moose, a dead raccoon, the downfall of a Newfoundland government and relief efforts at the World Trade Center.

All are linked to multimillionaire Calgary businessman Phil Sprung Sr., who is suing the Alberta government for almost $600,000 and the return of his aforementioned exotic pets, at least the ones that are still alive.

The pets -- two macaque monkeys named Tarzan and Jane, a moose named Murray and a raccoon named Rascal -- were seized in late 2001 during an early-morning raid on Sprung's ranch near Okotoks by Alberta Fish and Wildlife officers.

The raccoon has since died, apparently traumatized by its move to an Alberta game farm. Tarzan and Jane were sent to an Ontario wildlife park and the moose now resides at the Calgary Zoo, where it has been renamed Anne Murray, a name more appropriate to its sex.

In a recent action in provincial court in Okotoks, four charges against Sprung for unlawfully possessing wildlife were stayed after a judge ruled the warrants used were invalid.

Now, Sprung wants his pets back, and has filed a civil action against the province seeking $574,178.99 for malicious prosecution, wrongful detention, trespass, legal expenses and aggravated and punitive damages, according to court documents.

Virginia May, Sprung's lawyer, said Friday that her publicity-shy client instructed her to seek recompense against the province because of the nature of the raid.

It took place at 7 a.m. Oct. 5, 2001, by armed wildlife officers who entered the property through a locked gate acting on unsubstantiated information from anonymous informants, according to evidence at Sprung's October court proceeding in Okotoks.

"This is not a frivolous action," May said of the civil action. "This is a serious claim launched as a result of overzealousness. Mr. Sprung values his privacy, but asked us to file this action. It is a very serious issue that is at stake."

John Lear, a spokesman for Alberta Sustainable Resources, said Friday Sprung's statement of claim against the province is being reviewed by government lawyers.

Throughout his colourful business career, Sprung has done few interviews despite several high-profile deals, including a controversial hydroponic greenhouse operation funded in part by a $20-million investment from the Tory government of former Newfoundland premier Brian Peckford in the late 1980s.

The hydroponic vegetable operation, dubbed "Peckford's Pickle Farm," contributed to the downfall of Peckford's administration in the late 1980s after it was held up as an example of government waste.

Sprung moved the giant greenhouse to Newfoundland from Calgary in 1987 after gas leaks from a former oil refinery contaminated his hydroponic cucumbers at his Calgary operation.

Sprung was unavailable for comment Friday. However, in a rare interview in October with the weekly Okotoks Western Wheel, Sprung said the seizure of his exotic pets was painful for his family.

"There is no question about it. I thought my rights were violated," he said.

"They were family pets. The monkeys were trained to ride horses. You could see them riding around the ranch by themselves. The raccoon used to ride around in (the caretaker's) car and sit on his shoulder. We had the moose since it was a baby. The children found it in a field being attacked by coyotes. They saved its life. I thought it was a terrible thing to do when they took it away."

Sprung was feted by U.S. President George W. Bush at a dinner in New York after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Centre. Sprung's Calgary company, Sprung Instant Structures Ltd., donated the temporary stressed-membrane structures that were used by relief workers at the site.

Paul Brunnen, a Calgary lawyer who argued Sprung's case in October against Alberta Fish and Wildlife, said Sprung obtained his exotic animals legally, but through an oversight failed to acquire appropriate permits after the provincial government brought in new regulations for keeping animals several years ago.
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