Dead possum at center of pizza dispute

A former chef at a Santa Cruz pizza restaurant says that he quit his job Saturday after finding out that his coworkers were trying to kill a baby possum trapped in a garbage can.

But an attorney for the business says that management never ordered the possum killed, and that the chef had been fighting with management for weeks over unrelated issues.

Dany Pena, 35, worked at the South Beach Pizza Company until Saturday, when he arrived at the restaurant at 303 Beach St. and was told that management had ordered the animal killed by pouring bleach on it, Pena said.

He tried to clean off the possum and took it to Native Animal Rescue, a local volunteer-run wild animal care center, where it died. Pena said that he quit his job over the incident.

But Brad Brereton, an attorney for the pizza restaurant, said that Pena had been fighting with management for weeks over unrelated issues and the argument boiled over that day.

Brereton said Pena left the restaurant with a possum that had gotten stuck in a garbage can, but that management did not know the possum was there and did not order it killed.

Brereton provided a text message he said was sent from Pena to the restaurant management in which Pena asks for money for the use of his chowder and chili recipes, asking for back pay and a bonus he never received.

In the text message, Pena indicated he threatened to sue the restaurant if it continued using the recipes without compensating him.

Brereton said:

“The false claim of animal abuse was perpetrated by a disgruntled employee who was using the threat of the story to demand payment of money.”

Pena said Monday that he was only seeking back pay for his time at the restaurant and that he did not intend to make the story public, but did so under encouragement from officials at Wildlife Emergency Services, a volunteer wildlife assistance organization:

“The only reason I wanted money was to get paid what they owe me so I don’t have to deal with them and the disgusting nature of what they did.”

Frank Schmit of Native Animal Rescue said a distraught Pena arrived at his organization’s facilities Saturday with the baby possum, which he initially thought was already dead.

There, too, they tried cleaning the animal and tried to resuscitate it, but were unable to save it.

County animal services officials came to recover the possum’s body, Schmit said. Brereton said his client does not know how the possum got into the empty trash can, but said that the weather was extremely hot that day and that the trash cans had been cleaned with bleach and its death was not intentional.

But Pena said if the possum had fallen into the trashcan rather than being captured, he doesn’t understand why they wouldn’t just safely release it at a riverbed a few blocks away.

Rebecca Dmytryk of Wildlife Emergency Services said Sunday that her organization hopes that the pizza restaurant will be cited for animal cruelty. The Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter did not immediately return calls for comment.