The chimpanzees housed in a Festus-area facility will be moving to a Florida sanctuary if their caretaker cannot stop a court order.
On Wednesday (July 14), U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry ordered Tonia Haddix, who cares for the chimps at the Missouri Primate Foundation, 12338 Hwy. CC, south of Festus to allow the animals to be relocated to the Center of Great Apes in Wauchula, Fla.
She was ordered to give up the chimps because of an agreement she reached with People of the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to settle a lawsuit filed in 2016.
The court order says the parties involved cannot reveal the time and date of the chimps’ transfer.
“I hope these chimpanzees will ultimately be transferred on the date that has been set by the court,” said Jared Goodman, a lawyer for PETA. “I look forward to getting them to this accredited sanctuary where they can be cared for by a professional and experienced staff.”
Haddix, who is from Clever, took over custody of the animals to end a lawsuit PETA filed against Connie Casey in 2016.
Casey, who previously owned and operated the Missouri Primate Foundation formerly known as Chimparty, which provided chimps for parties, television ads and movies, closed the facility.
Initially, the agreement would have allowed Haddix to keep three chimps, but one of them reportedly has died. Also Perry ruled that Haddix was in contempt for not complying with the consent decree she reached with PETA, so the agreement was changed, forcing her to give up all the animals.
Haddix said she is working with her attorney, John Pierce of Pierce Bainbridge P.C. in Los Angeles, to get an emergency injunction to keep the chimps at the Festus-area facility. She also said Pierce will appeal Wednesday’s ruling in the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals and is willing to take her case to the Supreme Court.
“This is not over,” Haddix said. “We are trying to get an emergency stay, so they don’t move the chimps at the end of the month.”
Goodman said he does not believe there is a legal basis for an appeal.
“We reached this point in the case based on our negotiated consent decree that was entered into between the parties,” Goodman said. “It specifically provided for this remedy.”
On Wednesday, when Perry granted PETA’s request to have the chimps relocated from the Festus-area facility to the Florida sanctuary, she also ordered that U.S. Marshals be present to ensure the transfer goes smoothly, that Haddix must stay at least 2 miles from the facility when the transfer takes place and Haddix must pay to have U.S. Marshals oversee the transportation.
“They are charging me to have U.S. Marshals there because they (PETA) think somebody will try to sabotage their move,” Haddix said. “We care enough about the chimps there is no way we would put the chimps in harm’s way. PETA does these grand spectacle things. This is not the first time they have wanted U.S. Marshals. PETA knows they are doing something wrong, period, and they have a guilty conscience.”
Haddix said she doesn’t understand why PETA is forcing her to stay away from the facility during the transfer.
“I am 5-foot-2 and weigh maybe 120 pounds,” Haddix said. “I have never picked up a gun or used a gun. It is ironic that they want this.”
Goodman said the request to have U.S. Marshals at the transfer is because of statements Haddix had made about blocking the exchange.
“She specifically said that if we intend to proceed with this, that we better bring the sheriffs with us,” Goodman said. “We don’t want to encounter her. It would not end nicely.”
The court papers list the chimps to be transferred as Crystal, Mikayla, Tonka, Tammy, Connor, Candy and Kerry. However, Haddix said Tonka died May 24 after suffering from a stroke or heart attack.
Casey Talbot, a veterinarian who has provided care for Tonka, Crystal and Mikayla since January 2020, said in court papers the 38-year-old chimp was showing signs of congestive heart failure and the veterinarian had recommended euthanizing Tonka before Haddix said the chimp died.
“They (PETA) are trying to make people think I hid Tonka and he is alive,” Haddix said. “The judge ruled I have seven days to provide proof, and she said, ‘I don’t know what proof you can provide.’ I don’t either. I don’t know why on God’s green earth they think I have this big plan of keeping this chimp alive and hidden somewhere.”
Goodman said Haddix has not shown proof that Tonka died.
“We repeatedly requested from Ms. Haddix proof that Tonka has died to ensure this is something that actually happened as opposed to her attempts to keep Tonka when the other chimps are transferred,” Goodman said. “We have not yet received such proof. The court has ordered her to provide us with that within a week after the hearing.
“Ms. Haddix has indicated she has Tonka’s remains, implying that he was in fact cremated. We asked for documentation of that for the company that handled the cremation, so we can contact them to confirm this actually happened, or some sort of receipt or proof that this occurred. She has declined to provide this information to us after being repeatedly asked.”
PETA claimed Haddix was not following the decree and requested the judge force Haddix to give up ownership of all the chimps.
Since June 2, after Perry ruled that Haddix was in contempt of the order, she has been fined $50 a day, and Haddix said the fines have been covered by donations from exotic animal owners and lovers via a GoFundMe account.
In court documents, Haddix wrote she obtained Pierce’s legal services on July 12, after about 85 attorneys declined to represent her in the case.
Haddix said she believes this case can go to the Supreme Court.
“We want to set precedent for all the exotic animal people,” Haddix said. “They have never allowed an animal case to go to the Supreme Court. With the attorney I have, I am going to say we have a really good chance of going to the Supreme Court. I have some heavy hitters behind me that I never had before. I really feel like we can beat (PETA).”