A group of local bureaucrats and the Hilton Hotel have been engaged in a multi-year campaign to complete a luxury development — the only thing standing in their way is an animal trainer from which they hope to expropriate the property next door.
Kevin Keith has been a pillar of the small California community of American Canyon for decades. An animal trainer, he has made himself and his famous baboons’ services available for major motion pictures like Evan Almighty and Rock of Ages. The community had always welcomed the Keith family, going so far as to alter local ordinances in 2002 to ensure that he and his business could remain on the property indefinitely.
Our goal is that by giving the public an up close and personal look at our animals, they will develop a greater appreciation for them and will seek to conserve them in the wild. pic.twitter.com/gm1ypGWVqj
— Wild About Monkeys (@wildaboutmonks) November 18, 2022
The agreement reached in 2002 was honored without incident up until 2017, when surveyors from Napa Valley Hospitality descended on the city with lucrative development plans. One such plan, a 102-room Hilton-branded hotel, was approved by the city’s planning commission in the winter of 2020.
At the time, city officials boasted that they were giving the Hilton brand the “American Canyon stamp,” a testament to their commitment to the community they were welcoming the developers in. The Keith family would quickly learn that the city would have little space to offer them — in fact, they would require them to forfeit rights to what they already had.
Initially, the city claimed they had right-of-way access to their property, citing maps dating back to 1903. The claim to the easement quickly evolved into demands that Keith’s monkey facility be relocated. Finally, the city told the property owner that in order to sell part of their land to the developers, they would have to allow the city to expand an alleyway bisecting their land into a new road. The initial claim that only 25 feet of property would be lost ballooned into 50 feet as demolition charges were brought in.
Keith has been training animals for over 35 years. His 28-year-old baboon Dagney was in a Super Bowl commercial frequently featured in lists of the top ten of all time.
Keith’s baboons are the ones featured in the infamous office gifs where they are using a computer, cellphone, and playing with cash — the immense popularity of which earned them the title of “the most famous baboons on the internet.”
Dagney was one of two baboons that came into Keith’s care after being used in a research facility for primate testing. She has been part of the family ever since. Keith’s daughter Illianna told Timcast that she was raised with them — to the point where there would be three high chairs at the kitchen table, one for her and two for her primate “sisters.”
These days, Keith mainly does school functions and other educational events — which has left them financially crippled due to COVID-19 shutdowns.
Despite being fully legal and on private property, Keith says that city officials have never wanted them there. It is near the city hall and sits in the way of their plans for a booming new downtown area.
In 2002, the Napa Valley Register reported that officials hesitated to allow the primates to move into a newly built facility on the site. The family maintained that there had always been a wide variety of animals on the property and that they had never caused any problems.
“We’ve had exotic animals on the property since 1928,” Paulette Griffin, Illianna’s great aunt, told the paper at the time. “We had the first seal ever born in captivity.”
After the Register article was published, the city council passed an ordinance to allow Keith’s plans to continue at the location. However, they soon received an anonymous complaint that the animals “stink” and “make noise,” which he maintains was entirely bogus — primarily because he hadn’t even moved the animals in yet.
“The initial complaint 20 years ago came before the animals had moved into the current location,” Keith explained. “I had mortgaged a house for funds to build my facility. I spent every spare moment for a year working to build my compound. The facility was already approved by the city, but just before the animals were moved in, I received the complaint. It was obviously bogus as the animals had not set foot on the property yet.”
Keith says that he “did not receive another complaint for 20 years,” always easily passing his USDA and Fish and Wildlife inspections.
Though he has been targeted by PETA, which disapproves of animals being used in television, entertainment, or being in human care — nobody has ever made any credible allegations that the animals are not being properly cared for at the American Canyon property.
Now, there are two major developments underway, including the construction of a new Main Street and a Hilton Hotel. The Keith family says that the city and hotel view them as being in the way, and they want him out.
Keith says that when the plans for the hotel first came into play, City Attorney William Ross visited him and promised they would not hurt his business or animals. He claims that the official even told him, “the city owns lots of land” and offered to relocate him to another property in American Canyon.
When contacted by Timcast, Ross denied that the offer was ever made. After a lengthy pause, he said, “there’s no truth to that allegation, no.” He did not elaborate further.
Pierre Freskan, Keith’s uncle who owns several adjoining parcels, including the strip of land with the baboon facility, says he witnessed the conversation.
“I was there. He wanted to meet with Kevin, so I went over. When he said he could relocate him, I asked, ‘how are you going to do that?’ He said that that city owns ‘several properties’ and that the city has ‘ways of doing it,’” Freskan said. “I was there — and that is what I heard.”
For the next two months, Keith heard nothing from the city. Then, he received a letter that claimed he and his animals were “trespassing” and that they needed to leave immediately so that the city could install new utilities — and the offer for a new spot vanished.
City Attorney Ross told Timcast that the city owns the land where the road is being built and that Keith was “encroaching” upon it.
Freskan maintains that the road is privately owned by him and said that the city is attempting to use an outdated map from 1903 to claim the area. He explained that he had, however, previously allowed them to put in water lines that the city needed.
“We did sign that, but I never signed it over to them. They never compensated us or tried to buy it,” Freskan said. “We let them because we knew they needed to do it.”
“I’ve been paying taxes on the property in question for 44 years,” Freskan explained.
Eventually, the city offered to help move the cages and fences that were in their way.
“After fighting for months, the only option they gave him was to reconfigure the cages and compound so they could get their utilities in, which would have been under two cages. So he agreed. They never rebuilt the fences they promised to,” his daughter Illianna told Timcast.
The family claims that the city strong-armed them into agreeing to allow the street to be built on their property in the first place. Freskan told Timcast that to sell land to the Hilton, the city determined that he also needed to agree to give them access to Central Road, which cuts through their property. He agreed to allow them to make the road 30 feet wide so that his home and Keith’s compound would still have front yards and easy access.
Instead, the city issued Hilton a permit to demolish 50 feet — right up to Freskan’s house. This would become the city’s new “Main Street.”
“They were going to demolish the whole thing within a couple of inches of the house. I wouldn’t be able to get my cars out of the garage or anything,” Freskan said. “I went and hired an attorney.”
The city told him that he needed to work with the hotel to figure it out, so he wrote up a plan that would benefit both parties — and allow them 36 feet for the road. Freskan said the Hilton refused to sign it.
Once the compound was reconfigured and the city began building the road, a drainage issue appeared, causing a puddle to form in the road when Keith would hose down the cages. He maintains that the city did this on purpose to create a problem for him.
“They let that puddle sit there for three weeks,” his daughter told Timcast. “After that three weeks, my dad received a violation stating that they received an ‘anonymous complaint’ about smelly water. I was there constantly. There was never any smell.”
Keith told Timcast, “basically, the city created the water flow, then Hilton saw that and complained, then the city gave me a violation for something they caused.”
City Attorney Ross denied these allegations when questioned by Timcast.
“The city did not cause this. There’s ample evidence to show that there’s no causation by the city, and Mr. Keith is aware of it,” Ross said.
“So your position is that the puddle in the road was not created when you built the road?” Timcast asked.
“There’s no drainage system associated with his use,” Ross said. “So, he’s been basically hosing off the concrete floor from the cages, which the city relocated because he was encroaching on the existing right of way.”
Ross had initially claimed that Keith was trespassing, later changing it to say he was “encroaching.”
The city is not at fault, Ross said, because “that movement was done with his full consent, knowledge, and approval. That’s the city position.”
Keith maintains that he had been left with no other options besides moving the cages, so the puddle is their fault — as he was going along with their plan.
Now, the city is threatening to issue fines any time the puddle appears. Keith cleans the cages daily to keep the animals healthy and prevent bad smells, but doing so now causes water build up.
“When the City reconfigured my compound, I didn’t see any engineering plans for stormwater. I don’t think they even got an environmental impact report for the road,” Keith said.
Ross said that the developers behind the Hilton Home2 Suites project had conducted an environmental impact survey. When asked if that also covered the road and where the puddle is, he said, “yes, it covers the whole project area.”
Keith’s daughter claimed that a whistleblower from the city told her family that the Hilton had issued a complaint about the water before the road was even dug out, and the puddle problem was created.
“What’s crazy is Hilton Hotels’ current PR campaign is all about ‘loving your fur babies’ and welcoming them into their hotels,” Illianna told Timcast. “In reality, Hilton and the city are doing absolutely anything they can think of to make sure animals, many of them rescues, won’t be living near their bright and shiny new hotel.”
— Home2 Suites by Hilton (@Home2Suites) April 11, 2016
Hi Andrew. Our Home2Suites properties are pet friendly. And we don’t just mean cats and dogs. Furry, fluffy, feathery, or scaly, we love welcoming the pets you bring on your travels. We would love to welcome you and your pet soon. -Cindi
— Home2 Suites by Hilton (@Home2Suites) July 18, 2020
On top of that, the construction of the hotel has impeded Keith from being able to access the animals whenever he needs to. They originally tried to tell him that he could not access the animals from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. — unless he walked through the construction site, which blocks the gate to enter his compound.
“What happened with the Hilton, I had a big battle with them throughout the last couple of months because of the way my facility is set up I have the back two sides bordered by private property, and the front two sides have a gate at both parts,” Keith explained. “One part is where the Hilton is working on their hotel, so that has got construction, and the city has a road they are building on the other part — so I am completely enclosed.”
For months, Keith tried to explain to the Hilton that he needs 24-hour access to his animals and to be able to have a car there in case of emergency, as some of them are getting older and have health issues. He needs to be able to get them out and to a vet at any given time.
The Hilton told him to park on the street, meaning that if there were an emergency, he would have to walk the baboons through an active construction site.
“He only got constant access after contacting Fish and Game,” his daughter explained. “One of our baboons is 28. Their lifespan in the wild is 20 years, and thirty when they are raised in captivity. It is like telling someone they can’t see their disabled child all day.”
For a while, he had access and could get to the monkeys, but that changed this week.
On November 14, Keith sent photos of the construction at the gate and said that he had not been able to access the animals.
“They drove through, and you can see the tracks are sunken in the mud,” Keith said. “If I drove through, I would immediately sink to my axles.”
His access was impeded for two days until the construction crew worked with him to fix the issue.
The City Attorney claimed that Keith’s never been unable to access the facility.
“First of all, from the city perspective, this is not anything that is supported by fact. He has access to the property that he is on. This idea of ‘lateral access’ is not an issue from our perspective. What the Hilton told them is what the Hilton told them. He has always had access on his property,” Ross said.
Ross also claimed that “he has an exotic animal permit, but the Department of Fish and Conservation, which used to be called Fish and Game, is reviewing that.”
When asked by Timcast why they are reviewing the permit after 20 years without incident, Ross said that “they periodically review it. I think the issue for review now is the assumption was it had been approved by the city. As far as that goes, that was something within their discretion.”
Later in the conversation, Ross repeatedly claimed that while the city had passed the ordinance in 2002, Keith had never picked up the proper permit.
Keith said that he was unaware of any additional permits being required, acknowledging that it could have been a rule that was implemented later.
“Why the hell would the city attorney of American Canyon know anything about his Fish and Game permits after 22 years of never having a problem with them?” Illianna asked when questioned by Timcast about Ross’ claim.
Recently, Keith spoke at a city council meeting and explained what is happening to him.
Keith’s speech begins at 20:20 —
“Our exotic animals, many of which are rescues, are under attack by the city we live in and Hilton Hotel,” the fundraiser states.
Timcast has attempted to contact representatives for the Hilton, but have yet to receive a response at the time of publishing. We will update this story if one is provided.