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How Tonka the chimp was found, alive, in a Missouri basement

Tonka explores his new home after being whisked from a Missouri basement to an animal sanctuary in June 2022.
Save the Chimps
via PETA
Tonka explores his new home after being whisked from a Missouri basement to an animal sanctuary in June 2022.

A chimp who once starred in Hollywood movies was found locked in a small cage in a Missouri basement last week — 11 months after his caregiver claimed he’d died.

Best known for starring in “Buddy” with Alan Cumming in 1997, Tonka had recently been living in a Festus, Missouri, compound that was previously used to breed chimps for entertainment. PETA filed suit, alleging horrific conditions on site, and last summer, owner Tania Haddix was ordered by U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry in St. Louis to relinquish the chimps, including Tonka, to an animal sanctuary.

Most of the chimps were turned over without controversy. But when it came time to surrender Tonka, Haddix made a startling claim: He’d died months before, and her husband had cremated him.

PETA had always challenged the story, saying Haddix’s shifting story and inability to produce any evidence of the chimp’s death suggested that she’d instead hidden him away somewhere to avoid compliance with Perry’s order. But only last week did the animal rights nonprofit get the proof it needed — with Tonka discovered in Haddix’s basement in Sunrise Beach, Missouri, near Lake of the Ozarks.

Jared Goodman, PETA Foundation’s vice president and deputy general counsel for animal law, said that a recording of a 28-minute phone call was key to proving Haddix had been lying.

In the call, recorded on May 22, Haddix discussed how she could make “a million dollars” off Tonka on TikTok if he wasn’t a “wanted fugitive.” More alarmingly, she claimed the chimp was in a state of congestive heart failure — and would be euthanized on June 2.

Jared Goodman joins St. Louis On The Air

“We knew we needed to rush to court immediately,” Goodman explained on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “If there wasn't much time to consider much else, then we needed to get to court and have Judge Perry issue an order that would save his life.”

Goodman filed in court on June 1. Not trusting Haddix to follow any court order after she’d lied under oath, Goodman filed a rare ex parte motion designed to keep Haddix in the dark until U.S. marshals could show up on her doorstep armed with the judge’s order.

Perry agreed. She signed the order at 4:20 p.m. that day. And by 7 a.m. June 2, Tonka had been found in his basement jail — a small cage built into a room in Haddix’s finished basement.

Goodman said the long-missing chimp was able to be looked at by primatologists, who disputed the idea that he needed to be euthanized. “We're still awaiting the results of a veterinary examination,” he noted. But, he continued, “There's no reason at this point to think that he will not live a long and healthy life in a sanctuary.”

Tonka has since been transferred to the Save the Chimps sanctuary in Fort Pierce, Florida, where Goodman said he is doing well. He needs to lose weight after his year of confinement; Goodman said he’s now being fed an appropriate diet.

The fate of Tonka’s former owner is less clear. The woman who once sobbed over Tonka’s (alleged) death and called chimps her “kids” has claimed she’s suffering from leukemia. She’ll face Perry in federal court in St. Louis on June 15.

“Miss Haddix will have the opportunity to explain herself to the judge and explain why she shouldn't be locked in a cage for her perjury and contempt of court,” Goodman said.

The Los Angeles-based attorney said criminal contempt is not out of line.

“You very rarely have a clear case of perjury like this, where it was such an elaborate story that was constructed, and there was a conspiracy to do so also, again, with her husband also submitting a false affidavit to the court,” he noted. “And then just such clear evidence that they were all willful lies.”

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 Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.