A years-long battle between an animal rights group and a Missouri chimpanzee facility has come down to a fight over a single zero.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) alleges that the Missouri Primate Foundation (MSP) faked the death of a famous chimpanzee, and is hiding the ape in violation of a court order. PETA’s evidence is a document stating that the chimp, Tonka, was cremated at “165 to 170” degrees Fahrenheit—not hot enough to roast a turkey. The MSP, in turn, says that its cremation numbers were a petting zoo-induced error, and that Tonka (dead after a stroke) was cremated at a more realistic 1,650 to 1,700 degrees.
It’s the latest wrinkle in a court case that has contended with escaped chimps, rent-a-monkey parties, and now a last, bitter dispute over a missing ape.
For years, Chimparty was Missouri’s biggest name in monkey business. The company hired out its capuchin monkeys and chimpanzees for parties, films, and Hallmark greeting card photoshoots. Some of its chimpanzees even made the big screen. One, a male chimp named Tonka, appeared in the 1997 film Buddy, and formed a friendship with actor Alan Cumming on the film set.
But outside of the spotlight, Chimparty ran a less glamorous operation, animal rights watchdogs alleged.
In 2001, three chimps escaped the Festus, Missouri, facility and attacked a trio of nearby teens and their dog. One of the teenagers fatally shot one of the chimpanzees, landing the 17-year-old with a felony conviction that was only expunged last month. “It was absolutely self-defense,” the man, now 37, told Fox2News last month. “Three chimpanzees were trying to attack us. They threw my dog across the backyard and I tried to scare them off. They ran up, chased us back to the car, did $1200 damage to the car trying to get into it after us.”
His self-defense claims appeared more believable over the following years, during which the facility repeatedly landed in the headlines for renewed chimp escapes or worse. In 2009, a pet chimpanzee in Connecticut—the son of two of the apes that escaped in 2001—ripped off a woman’s hands and face.
Meanwhile, the USDA cited Chimparty for multiple violations, including repeated instances of unsanitary or cramped enclosures. In 2016, PETA filed a lawsuit against the facility (which changed its name to the Missouri Primate Foundation), accusing it of mistreating apes by keeping them “confined in cramped, virtually barren enclosures.”
Alan Cumming loaned his starpower to the lawsuit, launching a campaign to remove Tonka from the MSP and send him to an animal sanctuary.
Not only did the MSP deny allegations of mistreating apes, but it struck back in court, filing a lawsuit against a PETA whistleblower. The informant, who worked as an MSP volunteer, “acted as an informer, snitch, agent, and/or representative of PETA,” the ape facility alleged in a December 2016 filing.
The MSP’s suit is still ongoing. Meanwhile, PETA has declared victory in its own case, on all points except one: the still-disputed fate of Tonka the chimpanzee.
Amid the lawsuits, the MSP ramped down its operations. The facility is described as tending for 16 chimps at the time of PETA’s filing, down from its previous peaks. In 2018, the MSP’s long-embattled owner transferred the facility to Tonia Haddix, who took over the brunt of the PETA legal fight. And in 2020, PETA and the MSP brokered a tentative accord: If Haddix surrendered four chimpanzees to an animal sanctuary, she would be allowed to keep three, provided she built them a new facility.
But by spring 2021, a judge was unimpressed with Haddix’s progress, claiming that Haddix violated the previous year’s agreement by failing to hire a caretaker or build adequate chimpanzee housing. Haddix vowed to take her case to “to the Supreme Court,” rather than surrender her remaining chimps.
“They’re going to have to bring sheriffs, and they’re going to have to bring everything they can,” Haddix told Fox59 in June. “They’re not getting the chimps. They’re not getting them. Now I’ve decided I’m keeping all of them, just for the principle of the matter, because they don’t deserve the chimps.”
Sheriff’s deputies did come to the MSP in late July. So did the U.S. Marshals who, due to concerns that Haddix would block the operation, helped oversee the transfer of six chimpanzees from the MSP.
Those chimps—Crystal, Mikayla, Tammy, Connor, Candy, and Kerry—now live in a Florida animal sanctuary. Tonka, however, was nowhere to be found on the day of the transfer.
In a recent court filing, a veterinarian from the animal sanctuary described walking around the MSP with its former owner when the chimps were scheduled for their move. “As the chimpanzee Tonka was not identified, I inquired with Ms. Casey regarding his whereabouts,” the filing reads, referring to Connie Casey, who is described as the owner of the property. “Ms. Casey responded that she did not know where Tonka was. I then asked specifically whether Tonka had died, and Ms. Casey again said she did not know.”
Haddix soon claimed that Tonka had died in May, and been cremated on the property.
“I put him to bed on Saturday night but when I went down on Sunday morning, he was dead. He was laying down on his blanket and he was dead,” Haddix told The Daily Beast.
She said the chimpanzee’s death had been distressing, but not unexpected. Tonka had a long-documented heart condition, she said, and she suspected he had experienced a stroke that month. In addition to a telltale droop on one side of his face, “his elbow and shoulder were dislocated and his elbow was shattered,” she said. “We knew Tonka was in bad shape. At that point, my vet wanted me to euthanize him. I could not, in my heart, do that.”
In court filings and press releases, PETA has adopted a more skeptical perspective. The organization claims it hasn’t received evidence of Tonka’s death, outside of a perplexing email from Haddix’s husband.
“I recieved [sic] a call from Tonia on May 30 am one of her chimps had passed away and she was devastated and asked if I knew anyone that could cremate him,” the July email from Haddix’s husband reads. He describes being unable to find a cremation expert on short notice. (Haddix said she could not store Tonka’s body for future cremation, because she did not have a cooler large enough). Instead, he took the advice of a friend in the funeral business who advised him to cremate Tonka on a fire. “The fire stayed at 165 to 170 for three hours and burned for four needless to say it did the job.”
A 170-degree flame, PETA noted, will not come close to cremating a large ape, or even a mid-sized bird.
“For comparison,” PETA wrote in a court filing, “a Food Network recipe recommends a turkey weighing 16 pounds be cooked covered in an enclosed oven for three hours at 325°F, and then uncovered for another hour at 425°F [...] According to Haddix, Tonka, who is estimated to weigh more than fifteen times as much, at 250 lbs., was cremated in the same amount of time on an outdoor fire at a lower (or substantially lower, if Fahrenheit) temperature.”
The MSP later added a new court filing, claiming its initial description of a 170-degree cremation fire was in error.
"When I drafted that email, I was running a petting zoo,” Haddix’s husband wrote in a Monday affidavit. “Therefore, I was distracted and made several clerical errors in drafting the email. Of relevance here, I erroneously omitted a zero from each of the temperatures stated in my email. Thus, I intended to convey—and for the email to state—that I had been instructed to ensure the pyre reached a temperature of 1600 to 1800 Fahrenheit, and that the fire in fact burned at 1650 to 1700 Fahrenheit for approximately three hours.”
PETA’s deputy general counsel for animal law, Jared Goodman, who is leading the case against Haddix, said his organization is still skeptical of the cremation.
“They said it was a clerical error, one that neither the writer of the email nor the counsel recognized as being one-tenth of the temperature they were apparently trying to convey,” Goodman told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “As we’ve noted in the motion, we have reason to believe Tonka is still alive.”
Part of that suspicion stems from lack of documentation of Tonka’s death, Goodman said. But Haddix said she did not know how to prove Tonka’s death other than provide the email about his cremation, or past veterinary records about his poor health. She said she had offered to let her lawyer act as a go-between to transport some of the cremated remains for DNA testing, but that the effort failed.
Goodman said he had no record of the offer, although he noted that, according to a recent filing, Haddix’s lawyer claims to have made the offer verbally. That filing by Haddix’s lawyer accuses PETA of omitting information in its claims about Tonka’s potential survival.
“At the Festus facility on July 28, I showed and forwarded to you an email from the man who cremated Tonka, wherein he expressly stated that he cremated Tonka,” Haddix’s lawyer wrote in a Monday filing. “(You may also recall that I expressly stated that Ms. Haddix had retained Tonka’s remains, and that PETA could take them for genetic or other testing to verify their source.)”
PETA, for its part, claims a whistleblower told them that Tonka is still alive.
“On August 9, 2021, I had a telephone call with a whistleblower who stated that they are in communication with an individual who has personal knowledge of the situation at the Festus facility and who states that Tonka is alive,” Goodman wrote in a filing that day. “According to the whistleblower, the person also stated that they have information suggesting that Ms. Haddix has or will soon have a baby chimpanzee.”
Haddix dismissed the allegation that had, or was about to receive, a baby chimp.
“There’s no truth to that,” she told The Daily Beast. “I can tell you there’s no opportunities to get a chimp right now. There’s only one breeder in the U.S. and she won’t give one to me because she doesn’t want heat from PETA.”
That said, “if I could get one, would I? Absolutely. 100 percent. I was told by my attorney the consent decree was based on me having those three apes,” which have since been removed, she said. She said she worries about the animals in her absence. “You mess with those chimps, I'm gonna be the biggest, craziest chimp lady. [MSP’s former owner] had 42 chimps? I'll have 52 chimps.”