ST. LOUIS — Tonka, whose caretakers swore under oath that the chimpanzee had died of heart problems last year, is now at a Florida primate sanctuary — alive.
Last weekend, authorities removed the former movie chimp from a cage in the base of his caretaker’s home in Sunrise Beach, Missouri, near Lake of the Ozarks.
The revelation that Tonia Haddix, 52, had been secretly hiding Tonka in her basement cam from a recorded telephone call on May 22 with a documentary filmmaker, during which she said her veterinarian planned to evaluate the chimp’s declining health and possibly euthanize him.
The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, obtained a recording of the call and then got an emergency court order to halt any euthanasia of Tonka and to remove the chimp from Haddix’s home.
“It’s a very happy day for both us and for Tonka,” said Jared Goodman, a PETA lawyer. “We really never gave up on finding him because we never bought the lies about his death. Nothing ever added up. And so we knew he was very likely out there somewhere.”
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Tonka gained celebrity by appearing with actor Alan Cumming in the 1997 movie “Buddy.”
The legal tussle between PETA and Haddix over Tonka and other chimps has played out in federal court for years. Haddix acknowledged in an interview with the Post-Dispatch this week that she and her husband had faked Tonka’s death and lied in court to avoid surrendering him to PETA last summer.
“It’s been nearly a year that he should have been rescued the first time and we are just so lucky that we were still able to rescue him and were able to find out this information before Haddix apparently planned to have him killed,” Goodman said.
Goodman said PETA was not behind the phone call, but he would not divulge how the group obtained the audio recording.
The animal welfare group has long claimed Tonka and other chimps formerly at the now defunct Missouri Primate Foundation facility near Festus were improperly cared for and housed — allegations Haddix denies.
Haddix signed a 2020 consent decree agreeing to send four chimps to the Center for Great Apes sanctuary in Wauchula, Florida. She was to keep three including Tonka, but failed to comply with the order’s requirements to house her three chimps, PETA said.
The case began in 2016 when PETA claimed that chimps were being held in inadequate conditions at the Missouri Primate Foundation facility and that their treatment violated the federal Endangered Species Act. Haddix has said she became involved in the care of the chimps, and the lawsuit, when the facility’s founder, Connie Braun Casey, became ill and unable to care for them.
The foundation cared for rescued chimps and retired zoo animals. Casey and her then-husband also ran Chimparty, which provided chimps for parties, commercials and other activities.
Last summer, when Jefferson County sheriff’s deputies and the US Marshals Service oversaw the removal of six chimps from the facility, Haddix claimed Tonka had died of congestive heart failure. Her husband filed an affidavit in court saying he cremated the body.
But PETA activists never believed Tonka had died. In February, they offered up to $10,000 for information leading to either the location of Tonka or confirmation of his death. A federal judge declined to hold Haddix in contempt of court for failing to properly document the chimp’s death but gave PETA the opportunity to offer additional evidence.
“I lied to them,” Haddix said Tuesday. “I did it to protect (Tonka) from the evil clutches of PETA. He is like a son to me. I love him as much as I do my own children, maybe more.”
Haddix told the Post-Dispatch that Tonka had been staying with a friend of hers in Missouri until November, when the chimp came to live with her.
Since November, she said, Tonka has stayed in a cage in her finished basement — equipped with a 60-inch television and iPad so he could watch YouTube — until she and her husband could build an outdoor enclosure in the woods on their property.
Several times, Haddix referred to Tonka as her “kid,” “son” or “humanzee,” saying “he’s half human, half chimpanzee because of his upbringing.”
“I elected to keep Tonka where I know he would die peacefully and with people that loved him,” she said. “I did it for that chimp. I made that chimp a promise that he would never ever be abandoned, he would never have to work again, that he could retire and be around the people that he loved.”
She said her vet was planning a checkup Thursday and that she only would have considered euthanasia if he recommended it.
Goodman said that based on PETA’s initial evaluation of Tonka, Haddix’s claim that he was near death is “greatly exaggerated.” Goodman also disputes Haddix’s claim that Tonka is older than 38, saying the chimp is closer to 30.
“There is no indication that he is nearing the end of his life at all,” Goodman said.
Next week, US District Judge Catherine Perry will hear evidence about Tonka’s welfare and decide whether to hold Haddix in contempt for defying court orders.
It was not clear whether Haddix could also face perjury charges. But she says she’s not terribly worried about legal trouble, because she says she has terminal cancer.
“I don’t have long for this world,” she said. “I have acute myeloid leukemia. They gave me six months, three months ago, and I’m not doing treatment. So if I die in jail, I die in jail. If I die outside, I die outside. I do not care.”
Photos: Chimps moved away from Festus property