Tonka the chimpanzee has been “dead” for the last year, at least that is what his caretaker wanted the courts and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to believe.
In reality, Tonka was not dead. His owner, Tonia Haddix, was hiding him after losing a lengthy court battle over custody of him and six other chimpanzees.
Originally, the chimps were owned by a woman named Connie Casey, who began raising them in the 1970s in Festus, Missouri. Over her 50 years breeding, raising, and training chimps for movies and television, she built a massive enclosure for them on her property, connected to her home. Her house was dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of the adjacent home for the animals.
PETA alleged that the enclosure was inadequate and that they were violating the federal Endangered Species Act. They filed what is called a “citizens suit” in 2016.
Several years ago, Casey could no longer continue to care for the chimpanzees, especially as attacks from PETA began to ramp up. Two chimps managed to get out of their enclosures, right as PETA was attempting to seize them. They were put back in without incident, but people close to the situation believe that this was not a coincidence. A chimp had not escaped the facility in over twenty years, but this gave the activists the ammo that they needed.
Realizing that it was all too much, Casey signed custody over the animals to their trusted caretaker, Tonia Haddix, in 2018.
Haddix is an animal broker with a long history of working with primates. She links people, and zoos, with the animals they are looking for, though she does not breed them herself. For example, if a zoo loses one of their monkeys and they need another to keep a remaining one from being lonely, they will go to her to connect them with a breeder or another zoo looking to get rid of theirs.
While PETA initially had no complaints about Haddix, they still wanted the chimps. They alleged that Casey had exploited them throughout their lives and that it was time for them to go live out their days at a sanctuary of the organization’s choosing.
The court knew adding Haddix to the lawsuit would be a long and messy endeavor, so the judge urged them to negotiate.
Haddix agreed to give up four of the chimps and she would keep the other three — the ones she believed would have the hardest time integrating with new chimps. There are many horror stories of apes that have been raised by humans being beaten to death when introduced to new troops. She specifically negotiated keeping two girls, which one of the world’s preeminent primate experts, Emily Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, said in a lengthy affidavit to the court, were at risk of being raped and killed at a sanctuary. She also wanted to keep Tonka because of his declining health and docile nature — something that would make him a target for stronger chimps or a troop.
Tonka had congestive heart failure and had suffered a stroke. His veterinarian that was treating him for years had recommended euthanization. Haddix refused and began a strict medical regime.
Further evidencing PETA’s lack of concern about the level of care that could be provided by Haddix, they agreed to this proposal — under the stipulation that she completed a new enclosure, including a night house and Primadome, for them in eight months.
Her demand was that they not go to a sanctuary called Save the Chimps, as they had recently isolated a female chimp that was raised by humans until she went on a hunger strike in despair and died. A dozen whistleblowers came forward about abuse and lack of proper medical care at the facility and their entire veterinary team had quit over it.
In September, 2020, PETA agreed.
Haddix began construction of a new dome-shaped enclosure.
COVID had begun to cause building material shortages and increased costs for construction labor made it impossible for Haddix to complete the enclosure by the deadline. The harsh winter weather in Missouri also complicated her effort.
“Ms. Haddix spent over $87,000 constructing a night house, which was completed on March 14, 2021. Ms. Haddix also owned a Primadome that satisfied the requirements of the consent decree. However, PETA convinced her that the existing Primadome was insufficient, but agreed that she could build a substitute structure,” an emergency motion filed by Haddix’s previous attorney explained.
Haddix was representing herself at the time. During a hearing in which PETA attempted to have her placed in contempt on March 25, 2021, Haddix expressed a desire to modify or vacate the consent decree. Judge Catherine D. Perry replied by repeatedly saying, “You better get a lawyer. You need a lawyer … I strongly advise you to get a lawyer … You need a lawyer to find out your legal rights.”
Unable to find an affordable lawyer willing to take on PETA, Haddix asked for a continuance so that she could keep searching. During this hearing, the judge again repeatedly urged her to get a lawyer.
“You have some rights under the agreement. That’s why if you get a lawyer… we can come up with a way to get it moving back on track,” the judge stressed. Still, she denied the continuance.
In total, approximately eighty-five attorneys refused to take on PETA and represent Haddix.
The court ultimately ordered all of the chimps to be taken by PETA.
Haddix, in a desperate move to protect him from being ripped away from the life he knows, decided to fake his death. She would tell the veterinarian that he had passed away. For the next several months, she would post her despair in Facebook posts as evidence of his passing.
On July 27, 2021, the night before PETA’s lawyer Jared Goodman and their associates arrived to take all of the chimps, Haddix brought Tonka to a hotel a couple of miles away. She snuck him in the room and hung out with him there, as she had been ordered to be at least two miles from the property while the seizure was under way.
She was ordered not to tell anyone when the seizure was happening or have any cameras on the property, not even security cameras. A camera crew, that was sent by this reporter, was threatened with arrest if they took video of what happened.
It seemed that PETA did not want the public to see how traumatic the seizures are for the animals that they are supposed to be “rescuing.” Perhaps it would show the true bond between non-human primates and the humans that they grow up with. People who raise primates have compared it to human children being ripped from their parents.
Haddix brought Tonka to a friend’s sanctuary, telling the owner that it was a chimp named “Joe,” his name in the movie Buddy. Until the winter, he would remain in a large indoor/outdoor enclosure with a few female chimps.
Once the weather began to get cold, Haddix went and picked him up. She brought him to her home, part of which she had chimp-proofed, while they continued work on an outdoor enclosure.
Tonka enjoyed music and cartoons, so they provided a couch and 60” television where he could watch CMT and the shows he enjoyed. He was previously overweight, but was getting in better shape with the diet she was providing in hopes that it would help his heart problems.
In January, 2022, PETA filed a motion with the court demanding Haddix be held in contempt without proof of Tonka’s death or handing him over.
Haddix told the court that Tonka had died a month before the initial seizure. She had the veterinarian provide testimony of his failing health and lack of surprise when he had been informed that he passed.
A typo on a cremation claim would send the whole plan into disarray.
Haddix’ husband had written that he cremated Tonka’s remains at 180 degrees for several hours. He meant to say that the body was burned at 1,800 degrees, but he wrote 180 degrees throughout the email by mistake.
Goodman, PETA’s lawyer, seized on the seemingly-innocuous typo. He mocked the fact that a turkey could not even be cooked during this time and at that temperature.
The lawyer went to the media to claim that Tonka was alive, but he did not have any proof.
The organization offered a $10,000 reward for information on the chimp’s whereabouts in April, 2022. Alan Cumming, who had worked with Tonka roughly 25 years ago on the film Buddy added what little was left of his star power and an additional $10,000 to the reward. He did a media tour tugging on heartstrings and claiming that the chimp, which he did not check in on for a quarter of a century, was his “friend.”
Haddix had been filming the ordeal with a documentary crew claiming that they wanted to expose PETA and tell her story. The filmmaker, Dwayne Cunningham, was a former Ringling Brothers clown who has repeatedly been in legal trouble for animal trafficking. Surely, he would have a reason to dislike the animal rights organization — or so Haddix thought.
In late May, Haddix again spoke to the veterinarian about Tonka’s health. He, again, told her that euthanasia might be the best option. In a phone call that would unravel everything, Haddix discussed the issue with Cunningham.
That phone call was recorded and sent to PETA.
Cunningham has no history as a documentary filmmaker and has refused to respond to questions about a person financing the film that he once referred to as “Eric the money man.” There is speculation that it may be Eric Goode, of Tiger King fame.
When making Tiger King, Goode gained the trust of the personalities he filmed by using his credentials as a collector of rare tortoises. However, with the success of Tiger King, he would not be able to repeat his performance. He would need a forward facing person with the cred to get in the door.
As Cunningham has refused to answer calls and messages asking questions about the project, one has no way of knowing if the recording was made and turned over for the “good of the chimp,” if it was a set up all along, or if it was done to manufacture a dramatic conclusion for their documentary.
As soon as PETA received the recording, they went to the judge. They obtained a sealed order that, among other things, ordered that they could come take Tonka. It additionally ordered that all cameras on the property must be disabled and that Haddix could not tell anyone when they were coming.
On June 2, a Thursday morning, US Marshals busted down her gate, which they could have just unlatched with their hand. They raided her home, found Tonka, and asserted that they would be staying there — 24/7 — until PETA decided to come.
To be very clear, US District Judge Catherine D. Perry ordered that a private individual had to disable her surveillance cameras and could not film while law enforcement and a hostile private organization came into her home to take an animal that was awarded to them in court.
Additionally, the sheriffs and marshals on the property were ordered to turn their body cameras off. Timcast learned of this when one of our reporters attempted to file a Sunshine Act request for the footage. While attempting to gain information about who gave the order, the Camden County Sheriff’s Department hung up on our reporter. The US Marshal Service referred us to their general counsel. The general counsel told us that referrals to them mean that the Marshal Service does not want to provide an answer.
For the next 72 hours, marshals would stand guard over Haddix’s home so that she could not run off with Tonka. She was forced to leave her door unlocked so that marshals, and allegedly private security hired by PETA, could perform random checks to make sure that Tonka was still there.
Finally, the following Sunday morning, PETA arrived. The order said that they would have a veterinarian go to the property to evaluate if he was healthy enough to travel. After the exam, they would have seven days to arrange taking him.
PETA had no intention of not taking him that day. A motorcade of vehicles arrived, 20 minutes later than they had told Haddix, filled with representatives from the organization, veterinarians, and a trailer to haul the chimpanzee away with.
For nearly an hour the veterinarian and “primate expert” could not figure out how to tranquilize the increasingly frightened chimp. He cried out as Haddix was kicked out of the room, and thrashed around banging on walls and attempting to escape.
His heart, remember, is not in great shape.
Finally, Tonka was tranquilized. They moved him to a table in her yard to begin the exam, as bugs flew around his limp body.
Every time that a primate is sedated it is a risk, but veterinarians had warned that the risk was even more severe with a heart condition.
PETA did not care about this risk. They wanted their big game trophy.
Haddix watched out the window as they poked and prodded the chimpanzee that she considers a member of her family. She cried, knowing that he would be waking up in an unfamiliar place, with unfamiliar people, unfamiliar animals, and without the woman who spent years as essentially, his adoptive mom.
Eventually, it was too much, and she left.
Haddix and her husband found a large stick inside the chimp-proofed room, which was not there before. They worry that it was used to prod the chimpanzee into doing what they wanted him to do.
PETA had agreed, and the court had ordered, that the chimps would all be going to the Center for Great Apes in Florida, a sanctuary that Haddix had chosen. It is where the other chimps had already been relocated. She believed that was where he was heading.
That wasn’t the case, and nobody told her.
Instead, PETA loaded up Tonka and brought him to Save the Chimps, the one that Haddix had been terrified of them ending up at.
The following is a portion of an interview conducted by this reporter at the Festus facility in July, 2021 — weeks before the first chimps were seized.
A 13-year-old chimp from Missouri recently died at Save the Chimps. Her name was Tiffany. She grew up being loved and doted on in a human home, and the isolation in the outdoor enclosure was too much for her, even though she had a chimp companion. She went on a hunger strike and starved herself to death.
“They’re going to kill him, they’re going to kill my boy” Haddix cried upon learning the news. It was the sound of pure pain and grief that you hear from someone being told that their loved one had passed.
According to a report from TCPalm, two chimps, Tiffany and another named Tuffy, placed at Save the Chimps, “with various underlying health issues” were housed in an outdoor special-needs enclosure when they arrived at the sanctuary in April 2018.
“Four months later, Tiffany was euthanized, having lost a third of her weight because she would not eat, a TCPalm investigation found. Her liver was failing, her muscles were rupturing, she had pneumonia and her breathing was labored, medical records show. Tuffy had lost 10% of his weight. The last time he was weighed six months ago, he had lost another 1.5%, according to a sanctuary spokesperson’s email this week.”
The US Department of Agriculture blamed the sanctuary for inadequate care. They have cited Save the Chimps for 12 violations of the Animal Welfare Act over the last five years. Three were critical violations for medical care, according to the report.
“No other chimp sanctuary had that many violations in the same time frame and none had any critical violations, according to the USDA’s online database. Save the Chimps is billed as the largest privately funded nonprofit sanctuary of its kind in the world, with about 60 employees caring for about 230 chimps,” the report added.
Out of all the primate sanctuaries in the US, PETA had chosen the one that they knew Haddix was terrified of. Union Ridge in Ohio had offered to take Tonka and allow her to see him whenever she wanted. They have three female chimps and are working on a new massive enclosure. PETA ignored the offer.
It is hard to see any explanation for this beyond spite. It no longer appeared to be about Tonka, it appeared to be about the hunt and payback, because Haddix had defied them.
That analysis gained even more validity when PETA released their press release about the “rescue.” The organization took a photo, which was supposed to be banned per the court order, of Tonka inside an enclosure. They zoomed in close as he sat at the door and shut off the light behind him. They claimed that he was in a “tiny cage nailed to the floor” in her basement.
The “tiny cage nailed to the floor” was actually a large room in the lower level of her house that had been chimp-proofed and a separate holding cage attached for situations like when they needed to clean up the area or if a vet was coming by. It had a couch, a 60 inch television, and lots of enrichment activities.
As marshals and law enforcement was coming in and out of the house, he needed to be in the secure room. PETA posted a photo of him at the door, heavily cropped and darkened, so that it would appear the door to the room was a small cage.
In typical fashion, the organization did not expect anyone to zoom out and look at the big picture.
Here is the bigger picture:
This is a smaller temporary enclosure for when areas needed to be cleaned of if a veterinarian was coming to check on him:
An outdoor enclosure was also in the process of being constructed. PETA knew this, but they did not bother to include it in their press release. They wanted their donors to imagine the chimp was locked in a box in some dingy dungeon basement — no matter what the truth actually was.
Haddix now faces a contempt of court hearing on June 15, during which time PETA will attempt to have her placed in prison for faking Tonka’s death. She has had difficulty finding legal representation, as there are very few who are willing to take on an organization with a war chest the size of PETA’s.
In the meantime, PETA tagged their trophy and we will have to wait and see if he survives their game.
“I know I was doing the right thing,” Haddix said. “Unless you have a love for a primate, you can never understand.”
Editor’s Note: This reporter lives with primates and has become great friends with Haddix during her time following this case.