Last May, Tonka the chimpanzee, an elderly ape who starred in George of the Jungle and Buddy alongside actor Alan Cumming in 1997, died, according to court records.
The chimp had recently suffered a stroke and died from heart failure, his owner Tonia Haddix claimed, submitting a declaration and court documents to a Missouri judge that detailed how the animal’s body was burned in a fire pit.
But this week, Tonka was found alive, secretly hidden away for the past year in Haddix’s Sunrise Beach, Missouri home where he had a 60-inch TV, an interactive iPad-like touch device, and had celebrated St. Patrick’s Day among a few of Haddix’s close friends.
On Thursday, authorities searched her home as part of an emergency court order obtained by PETA, whom she has been battling in a heated lawsuit since 2018. Faking Tonka’s death was a last-ditch effort by Haddix to keep her beloved chimp after a judge ordered her to turn over Tonka and six other chimpanzees to the Center for Great Apes sanctuary in Wauchula, Florida.
Haddix was busted by a recording of a phone call that PETA said it had received where the exotic animal breeder “confessed that [Tonka] was still alive but would be euthanized on June 2.”
With officials still on her property as of Friday, Haddix admits to Rolling Stone that she had lied about Tonka’s death, saying he’s been with her the whole time. “Oh absolutely, 100 percent,” she says. “In my house, yes.”
However, she denies that she had any immediate plans to euthanize Tonka, insisting that because of his poor health, her longtime vet was simply planning on doing a checkup that day, although the medic had recommended that eventually Tonka would need to be put down.
And despite potentially being found in contempt of court for lying under oath, Haddix laughs. “Honey, I’ve been held in contempt of court three times,” she says. “I have paid $50 a day [in fines]. I’ve been through the mill. I’m sure that there’ll be some jail time in this. Do I care? No, I don’t care. It’s because it’s about that kid. As long as that kid is safe, I don’t care about nothing out there.”
Tonka’s discovery is the latest Tiger King-esque twist in PETA’s suit against Haddix, who says there’s a documentary being filmed about her and the legal battle, with the camera crew en route to capture the story’s latest development.
It’s been a saga, with PETA first suing Tonka’s original owner Connie Casey, who ran the now-defunct Missouri Primate Foundation in Festus, Missouri, in 2016. (Casey was the breeder of a male chimp who mauled a Connecticut woman in 2009, and owned another chimp who was shot to death in 2001 by a neighbor after the animal had escaped.)
At one point, the facility housed at least a dozen chimpanzees, and PETA claimed there were numerous violations of the Endangered Species Act, including cockroach-infested facilities, “keeping chimpanzees in isolation [and] confining them to cramped, barren enclosures.”
Wanting to help Casey, Haddix took over the care of seven chimpanzees, including Tonka, but PETA claimed the facility still wasn’t adequate for the animals, and therefore added Haddix to the suit. After a back and forth over various improvements made to the facility, as well as a judge limiting the number of chimpanzees Haddix could have in her care, the chimps were eventually ordered to be sent to the sanctuary.
But Haddix says she couldn’t bear to part with Tonka, saying she had made him a promise that he’d “never ever have to do anything that he doesn’t want to do ever, ever again.” And after his alleged stroke earlier that year, Haddix claims she decided to fake his death.
The animal rights group had doubted Haddix’s story from the start, citing her conflicting accounts of how his body was disposed of and a whistleblower last August who claimed that Haddix had admitted he was still alive. After several public appeals for information, the non-profit teamed up with Tonka’s former co-star Cumming to offer a $20,000 reward for anyone who could help them locate Tonka, which led to his discovery.
“After months of searching, Tonka has finally been found and help is on the way,” PETA’s attorney Jared Goodman said in a statement. “He has endured nearly a year of isolation and likely needs urgent care, but if all goes well, PETA will soon arrange for him to be moved to a lush sanctuary where he’ll have a chance for a real life at last.”
The organization said it was also bringing in an “independent veterinarian to evaluate whether Tonka is healthy enough to travel to an accredited sanctuary.”
But Haddix believes that Tonka won’t survive being transported to a sanctuary, and even if he did, she says that a lack of human contact at the rescue facilities would kill him.
“Tonka just cannot tolerate that,” she explains. “If anybody knows Tonka, Tonka is not a normal chimpanzee. He is a people chimpanzee because he was raised for the movie sets and he could care less about other chimpanzees. He doesn’t act like another chimpanzee, he loves people.”
Haddix says she’s not sure who informed PETA that she was harboring Tonka, saying only a few select people were aware. “I feel sorry for the person that did and not because I’m threatening them in any shape or fashion but whoever it is will be publicized all over social media so they will be desecrated in that shape and fashion,” she says.
According to a 10-page transcript of the recorded phone call that PETA received that Rolling Stone has reviewed, Haddix was on the phone with someone who appeared to be from the documentary crew, discussing potential interviews with family members and updates about Tonka’s health condition, including seemingly confirming plans to euthanize Tonka.
“I had [the vet] out the other day on Mr. T and he’s in congestive heart failure, again, really bad,” Haddix is quoted. “And [the vet] wanted me to put him down the other day, but I just couldn’t do it. So he made an appointment for the 2nd of [June].”
“Yeah,” the other person responds. “Maybe we could interview your son and be around then at the same time. Let me run it by everybody, but that would work.”
“Because that’s the end of the legacy,” Haddix is quoted.
While Haddix didn’t respond to further comment on Friday if she was indeed planning to euthanize Tonka, she describes the chimp as her “best friend,” saying if PETA takes him away from her, she’ll die.
“I won’t make this and that’s okay because if they want that on them, to each their own,” she adds. “At this point, I don’t even really care, except for the fact that I want Tonka to be okay. That’s all I care about. And they are going to kill him, and I have already warned all the federal marshals. If there’s anything that happened to that kid, I feel sorry for them, because they will be sued from here to yonder.”