Missouri monkey facility accused of faking death of famous chimp

PETA says temperature for alleged chimp cremation wouldn’t be enough to roast turkey

Gustaf Kilander
Washington, DC
Friday 20 August 2021 17:48
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<p>Actor Alan Cumming speaks while holding a photograph of himself with Tonka, his chimpanzee co-star from the 1997 film ‘Buddy’ during an announcement on June 23, 2017</p>

Actor Alan Cumming speaks while holding a photograph of himself with Tonka, his chimpanzee co-star from the 1997 film ‘Buddy’ during an announcement on June 23, 2017

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People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is claiming that the Missouri Primate Foundation (MSP) has faked the death of a famous chimpanzee and is hiding the ape despite the issuing of a court order.

PETA is arguing that a document showing that the chimp called Tonka was cremated at “165 to 170” degrees Fahrenheit (74°C - 76,5°C) is evidence that the chimp may still be alive as that temperature is not hot enough for cremation.

The MSP said the error was a typo and that Tonka died following a stroke and was actually cremated at 1,650 to 1,700 degrees (899°C - 926,5°C).

The company Chimparty, which later changed its name to the Missouri Primate Foundation, hired out its capuchin monkeys and chimpanzees for photoshoots, films, and parties for years. Tonka appeared in the 1997 film Buddy alongside actor Alan Cumming.

Animal rights groups claim that the company has mistreated its chimpanzees.

Three chimps escaped from the facility in Festus in eastern Missouri in 2001 and attacked three teenagers and their dog. One of them, a 17-year-old, shot one of the chimps, receiving a felony conviction that was expunged last month. Jason Coats, now 37 years old, told Fox2News that “it was absolutely self-defence,” after his record had finally been cleared.

The facility appeared in the news several times over the following years. The son of two of the chimps that escaped to attack Mr Coats tore a woman’s hands and face off in 2009.

The United States Department of Agriculture has on multiple occasions cited the MSP for holding chimps in small or unsanitary conditions, and PETA sued the company in 2016, accusing it of keeping apes “confined in cramped, virtually barren enclosures”.

Alan Cumming joined forces with PETA in 2017 to get Tonka moved to an animal sanctuary.

The MSP denied the allegations that it was mistreating its apes and filed a counter-lawsuit against a PETA whistleblower, who volunteered with the MSP and “acted as an informer, snitch, agent, and/or representative of PETA,” according to a December 2016 filing from the company.

The lawsuit from the MSP is ongoing while PETA has claimed victory in their lawsuit – except when it comes to the still-unclear case of Tonka.

After a veterinarian claimed that the former owner of the MSP didn’t know where Tonka was, the new owner who took over in 2018, Tonia Haddix, said Tonka died in May.

“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,” Ms Haddix told The Daily Beast.

With a history of a heart condition, she said she suspected that Tonka had suffered a stroke. She added that one side of his face had dropped and that “his elbow and shoulder were dislocated and his elbow was shattered”.

PETA says it hasn’t seen any evidence that Tonka has died, apart from an email from Ms Haddix’s husband Jerry Aswegan.

“I received 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 email from July states.

After being unable to find a cremation expert fast enough, and not having a cooler large enough to store the body for a later date, he decided to cremate Tonka on a fire, following the advice of a friend working with funerals.

“The fire stayed at 165 to 170 for three hours and burned for four needless to say it did the job,” Mr Aswegan wrote in the email.

In a court filing, PETA wrote: “For comparison, 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.”

In an affidavit released on Monday, Mr Aswegan wrote that the temperature had been a typo.

“When I drafted that email, I was running a petting zoo. 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, told The Daily Beast on Wednesday: “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. As we’ve noted in the motion, we have reason to believe Tonka is still alive.”

Ms Haddix has said that she doesn’t know how to prove Tonka’s death beyond the email and previous veterinary records showing that the ape was in a poor condition.

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