Street. Lewis-Tonka, whose caretakers swore under oath that the chimpanzee died of heart problems last year, is now at Florida’s Primate Sanctuary — alive.
Last weekend, authorities removed a former movie chimpanzee from a cage in the basement of a caregiver’s home in Sunrise Beach, Missouri, near the Lake of the Ozarks.
The revelation that Tonya Haddicks, 52, was secretly hiding Toonka in her basement, came from a taped May 22 phone call with a documentary filmmaker, in which she said her vet planned to assess the chimpanzee’s deteriorating health and possibly euthanize him.
Animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, obtained a recording of the call and then obtained an emergency court order to stop any euthanasia of Toonka and remove the chimps from Haddix’s home.
“It’s a very happy day for us and Tonka,” said Jared Goodman, PETA’s attorney. “We never gave up on finding him because we never bought into the lies about his death. Nothing was ever added. And so we knew it was very likely there somewhere.”
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Tonka gained fame by appearing with actor Alan Cumming in the 1997 movie “Buddy”.
The legal struggle between Betta and Hadex over Toonka and other chimpanzees has been raging in federal court for years. Haddix admitted in an interview with Post-Dispatch this week that she and her husband faked Toonka’s death and lied in court to avoid being extradited to PETA last summer.
“It’s been nearly a year since he should have been rescued the first time and we are very fortunate that we were still able to save him and were able to find out this information before Haddix apparently planned to kill him,” Goodman said.
Goodman said PETA was not behind the phone call, but he wouldn’t reveal how the group obtained the audio recording.
The animal welfare group has long claimed that Tonka and other chimpanzees who were formerly at the now-defunct Missouri Primate Foundation near Festus were improperly cared for and housed — allegations that Hadix denies.
Haddix signed a 2020 decree of approval approving the dispatch of four chimpanzees to the Great Apes Sanctuary Center in Wauchula, Florida. Beta said she would have kept three, including Tonka, but failed to comply with the order’s requirements to house the three chimpanzees.
The case began in 2016 when PETA alleged that chimpanzees were being held in inappropriate conditions at the Missouri Primate Foundation and that their treatment violated the Federal Endangered Species Act. Haddix said she was involved in the care of the chimpanzees, and the lawsuit, when the facility’s founder, Connie Brown Casey, fell ill and was unable to care for them.
The foundation took care of rescuing retired chimpanzees and zoo animals. Casey and her then-husband also ran Chimparty, which provided chimpanzees for parties, commercials, and other activities.
Last summer, when Jefferson County sheriffs and the US Marshal Service oversaw the removal of six chimpanzees from the facility, Haddicks claimed Tonka had died of congestive heart failure. Her husband gave an affidavit in court saying that he cremated the body.
But PETA activists did not believe that Toonka had died. In February, they offered up to $10,000 for information leading to Toonka’s location or confirmation of his death. A federal judge has declined to try Haddicks in contempt of court for failing to properly document the chimpanzee’s death, but has given Beta the opportunity to present additional evidence.
“I lied to them,” Haddicks said on Tuesday. “I did it to protect (Tonka) from PETA’s evil clutches. He’s like a son to me. I love him as much as I love my kids, maybe more.”
Haddix told Post-Dispatch that Toonka was staying with a friend in Missouri until November, when the chimps came to live with her.
Since November, she said, Toonka has been kept in a cage in her finished basement — which is equipped with a 60-inch TV and an iPad so he can watch YouTube — until she and her husband can build an outdoor enclosure in the woods on their property.
Several times, Haddix has referred to Tonka as her “child,” “son,” or “humanzee,” saying “he’s half human, half chimpanzee because of his upbringing.”
“I have chosen to keep Toonka as I know he will die in peace and with the people who love him,” she said. “I did it for that chimpanzee. I promised that chimp that he would never be abandoned, never had to work again, and that he could retire and be with the people he loved.”
She said her vet was planning a check-up on Thursday and that she would only consider euthanasia if he recommended it.
Goodman said that based on PETA’s initial assessment of Tonka, Haddicks’ claim that he was close to death was “greatly exaggerated.” Goodman also disputes Haddicks’ claim that Toonka is older than 38, saying the chimpanzees are closer to 30.
“There is no indication that he is ever nearing the end of his life,” Goodman said.
Next week, US District Judge Katherine Perry will hear evidence about Toonka’s well-being and decide whether to hold Haddicks in contempt for defying court orders.
It was not clear if Hadids could face perjury charges. But she says she’s not too concerned about legal problems, because she says she has terminal cancer.
“I don’t have much time for this world,” she said. “I have acute myeloid leukemia. They give me six months, three months, and I don’t get treated. So if I die in prison, I die in prison. If I die outside, I die outside. Care.”
PHOTOS: Chimpanzees move away from property of Festus