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Federal judge orders Missouri woman who faked death of famous Hollywood chimp to pay PETA $224,000

Tonka the chimpanzee appearing in the 1997 movie George of the Jungle (YouTube screengrab)

Tonka the chimpanzee appearing in the 1997 movie George of the Jungle (YouTube screengrab)

A federal judge this week ordered a Missouri woman to hand over more than $200,000 to an animal rights organization for faking the death of a famous Hollywood chimpanzee following a protracted court battle.

U.S. District Judge Catherine D. Perry on Monday ordered Tonia Haddix to reimburse People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) $224,404.24 in expenses and attorneys’ fees the organization spent in removing Tonka the chimpanzee from her property. Tonka in the 1990s starred in several major motion pictures, including 1997’s “Buddy,” starring Alan Cummings and Rene Russo, and “George of the Jungle,” starring Brendan Frasier.

Following the end of Tonka’s career on camera, he was placed in the care of the now-defunct Missouri Primate Foundation. PETA later sued the foundation, claiming that its subpar conditions and care for the animals in its possession violated the Endangered Species Act. A federal judge then ordered the seven chimps in the foundation’s possession to be turned over to Haddix as a temporary custodian.

After continuing litigation, a judge in 2021 ordered Haddix to turn over the primates — including Tonka — to the Center for Great Apes. But when the time came, Haddix only provided six of the animals, claiming that Tonka had died.

Haddix, who had previously told NPR that she loved Tonka and the other chimps “more than the two children that I have,” swore under oath that she found Tonka dead in her home of natural causes. She further claimed that her husband cremated the chimp’s body. But despite a court order, Haddix failed to produce any evidence corroborating her claim about Tonka’s death and PETA brought in experts who contradicted several of her claims.

“On June 1, 2022, PETA provided that evidence in the form of an audio recording in which Haddix asserted that Tonka was still alive and that she was going to euthanize him on June 2, 2022,” Judge Perry wrote in Monday’s order. “PETA moved for a temporary restraining order preventing Haddix from euthanizing Tonka and allowing a veterinarian to evaluate whether he was healthy enough to travel. I granted the motion. Tonka was indeed alive, in Haddix’s basement, and healthy enough to travel.”

Tonka was later transferred to an animal sanctuary in Florida and PETA sued Haddix to recoup the costs incurred in the years spent in litigation over Tonka. Judge Perry ordered Haddix to provide the funds to PETA within 30 days.

In a statement to the Riverfront Times, a PETA representative said the organization was looking forward to “putting the award to use helping other animals still caught in the clutches of exploiters like Haddix.”

PETA did not immediately respond to a message from Law&Crime.


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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.