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Arts & Life

What happened to Tonka? Missouri chimp at center of court battle is missing — or dead

PETA Honorary Director Alan Cumming, who worked with Tonka on the 1997 film "Buddy," joined with PETA in calling for Tonka’s release from the Missouri Primate Foundation and helped announce PETA’s lawsuit against the facility in 2017.
PETA
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PETA Honorary Director Alan Cumming, who worked with Tonka on the 1997 film "Buddy," joined with PETA in calling for Tonka’s release from the Missouri Primate Foundation and helped announce PETA’s lawsuit against the facility in 2017.

Tonka’s owner, a Missouri woman named Tonia Haddix, says he is dead. PETA doesn’t buy it.

A federal judge in St. Louis has been grappling with a peculiar question in recent months: Is the celebrity chimpanzee at the center of a high-profile legal battle dead? Or did a Missouri woman fake his death to avoid turning him over to an animal sanctuary?

The chimp in question is Tonka, who became friends with Hollywood luminaries including Alan Cumming while co-starring in the 1997 film “Buddy.” Years after the film, Cumming has said he was shocked to learn Tonka was living in a cage in Festus, Missouri. While Tonka was ostensibly housed by the nonprofit Missouri Primate Foundation, PETA alleged in court filings that the “foundation” was actually a series of “barren and unsanitary enclosures,” a violation of chimps’ protected status under the Endangered Species Act.

After U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry refused to dismiss PETA’s claims, the parties came to a settlement: The Missouri Primate Foundation would surrender some of the chimps in its care and make a series of specific upgrades to its facility.

The organization failed to do so. That’s when Perry ruled that it needed to surrender all the chimps still on site, including Tonka. But when it came time to turn them over, Tonia Haddix of the Missouri Primate Foundation said she wouldn’t, and couldn’t, turn over Tonka. She claimed he was dead.

As proof, Haddix has been unable to produce anything beyond an email from her own husband saying he’d burned the body to ash — something PETA’s experts have argued is impossible.

Haddix’s testimony also failed to satisfy Perry. While she declined to hold Haddix in contempt of court, she kept the case open, allowing PETA to bring more evidence of Tonka’s whereabouts.

Reached by phone, Haddix insisted that Tonka died of natural causes after suffering a massive stroke last April. She said she had her husband cremate him quickly since it was a hot day and she couldn’t find a crematorium able to take him.

But Jared Goodman, PETA Foundation’s vice president and deputy general counsel for animal law, said PETA’s investigation suggests Haddix is lying. “It is an ever-changing story,” he said of Haddix’s protestations.

“Even this supposed statement that Miss Haddix was calling around to different crematoriums but they didn't return her call is an entirely new story that she didn't indicate to us when we had asked for evidence, and that she didn't state in court when telling the story about what happened with Tonka,” he noted on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air. “In fact, we've looked into crematoriums in the St. Louis and Missouri area and found that there were places that are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including on holidays, and would cremate a chimpanzee. The story just does not add up.”

This photo of Tonka was taken at the Missouri Primate Foundation. A judge ordered him to be transferred from the facility, but his owner said he died before he could be relinquished.
Courtesy of PETA
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This photo of Tonka was taken at the Missouri Primate Foundation. A judge ordered him to be transferred from the facility, but his owner said he died before he could be relinquished.

Haddix has offered to let PETA search her house. But Goodman says the nonprofit has never suggested that’s where Tonka is. He noted that Haddix is an animal broker who facilitates the sale of exotic animals. “She has an entire network of individuals who could potentially house Tonka for her, where she can still visit him and prevent him from being sent to the sanctuary,” he said.

Goodman said PETA will continue to search for Tonka. “As we discussed, he could potentially be anywhere if he is still alive,” he said. “So we certainly have our work cut out for us. But that's not something we're going to let up on.”

He said the organization is pleased that the Missouri Primate Foundation has been shut down — and most of its chimps transferred to accredited sanctuaries.

“Knowing that these animals are not going to be held in the squalid and fully inadequate conditions at that Festus property is a huge victory,” he said. “And of course, a huge victory for the eight individual chimpanzees who through this lawsuit have now been transferred to sanctuaries where they're thriving.”

As for Haddix, she noted that she was not involved with the Missouri Primate Foundation prior to attempting to help it improve conditions, and fight the court case, in 2019.

Of the chimps previously held on site, she said, “I love those kids more than anything in life. As I stated on the courthouse steps, I love those kids, more than the two children that I have.” Losing Tonka, she said, “was devastating.”

She said she regrets not better documenting what she insists was a death from natural causes. But now, she said, she is suffering from leukemia and just wants the legal battle to end.

“I've tried everything to fix the situation,” she said. “I have tried to offer PETA anything and everything that I possibly could.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, and Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

Copyright 2022 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

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