Apes and monkeys ruled TV and film in the ’90s. See: Friends, George of the Jungle, Ed, Mighty Joe Young, Monkey Trouble, Dunston Checks In, and Buddy, a 1997 box-office bomb which starred Rene Russo as an eccentric, animal-loving socialite who raises a gorilla as her son. Alan Cumming co-starred as Rene’s butler/animal handler, and many of his scene partners were cute chimps.
25 years later, and one of Alan’s chimp co-stars is making headlines. His name is Tonka, and, up until recently, he was missing (and technically dead). Alan, concerned for Tonka’s well-being, teamed up with PETA and offered a $10,000 reward for anyone with information about the animal’s whereabouts. Luckily, Tonka has been found, and his owner, Tonia Haddix, admitted to Rolling Stone that she faked his death so she wouldn’t have to turn him into an animal sanctuary. Damn. There hasn’t been primate drama this messy since 2012’s Ikea monkey!
So here’s the rundown: Tonka was a chimp actor who appeared in Buddy and George of the Jungle. His original owner was Connie Casey, a woman who ran the Missouri Primate Organization, which housed and bred chimps. In 2016, Connie was sued by PETA, who accused her facility of violating the Endangered Species Act. This is where Tonia Haddix comes into the picture; Tonia wanted to help Connie with the lawsuit, so she took over the care of several of the chimpanzees. But in 2018, PETA added Tonia to the lawsuit. Eventually, all of Tonia’s chimps were ordered to be sent to the Center for Great Apes sanctuary in Wauchula, Florida. Except, Tonia claimed Tonka was dead. She told the judge in the case that the chimp had suffered a stroke, died of heart failure in 2021, and she’d burned his body in a fire pit.
But PETA and Alan Cumming didn’t buy her story, and continued to fight for Tonka. In April, Alan gave this statement to Variety:
“During the months we filmed together, baby Tonka and I became good friends, playing and grooming each other and just generally larking about,” Cumming said in a statement. “It’s horrible to think he might in a cage in a dark basement somewhere or have met some other fate, so I’m appealing to whoever knows what has become of him to please come forward claim the reward.”
PETA’s Deputy General Counsel for Captive Animal Law Enforcement, Brittany Peet, added:
“If he’s still alive, Tonka deserves to live out the rest of his days surrounded by chimpanzee friends at a lush sanctuary, as ordered by the court, and someone out there might be able to help PETA get him there.”
PETA eventually obtained an emergency court order to search Tonia’s home, and, last Thursday, authorities found Tonka. He had access to a 60-inch TV and tablet, and had recently participated in a St. Patrick’s Day party. Um… good for him? PETA paints a very different picture, via Rolling Stone:
The organization claims that when Tonka was found, he was being kept in a small cage nailed to the floor of Haddix’s basement. He was reportedly overweight, wasn’t allowed outside, and had no companionship with other chimpanzees — something crucial for chimps, according to the animals rights group.
Despite keeping Tonka hidden away for the past year, Haddix was finally 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.”
Tonia denies that she was going to have Tonka put down on June 2; she says he was just taking the sick chimp to the vet for a check-up. And she reeeally doesn’t give a shit that she got caught lying under oath:
“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.”
PETA says that Tonka needs urgent medical care after a year of isolation, 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.” As for Tonia? She’s currently being filmed for a Tiger King-esque documentary. Here she is being interviewed for a news segment last year:
And here’s a picture of her on Facebook:
So who’s gonna play Tonia in the mini-series? Does Emmy Rossum still have her Angelyne wig?