The story has many heroes and villains and is in many ways similar to stories of human actors who became victims after their lucrative careers ended. The story is also similar to legal fights between human families and caretakers.
Tonka was the animal lead in a series of major films. He was featured in George of the Jungle, a 1997 spoof of the original Tarzan story starring Brendan Fraser. He was featured in a number of other movies as well.
Eventually, he fell under the ownership of Tonia Haddix who owned Tonka and several other chimpanzees. Haddix ran afoul of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and became the target of a lawsuit alleging poor treatment of Tonka. He was allegedly kept confined and without companionship of other chimpanzees. PETA was prevailing in court. That is when the case took a “Joe Exotic” style twist. Haddix allegedly faked Tonka’s death. She claimed he had died a year ago and had been cremated. Her ruse was discovered and PETA succeeded in getting an emergency authorization to remove him from her basement and take him to a sanctuary.
In a twist, Haddix told media outlooks that Tonka is more attuned to humans due to his career and really does not want to be around other chimps.
Haddix was allegedly preparing to euthanize the chimp when he was reovered. She says he is in poor health but some news reports say otherwise.
The legal rights of animals. and whether they should legally be treated as humans, is an emerging area of law. Top legal schools including Northwestern, UC Berkeley, Stanford, Harvard, and Georgetown have courses or specializations in animal rights law. As do the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Virginia and Lewis and Clark College.
Cases such as that of Tonka bring more legal attention to the issues raised. Currently, the highest court in New York is preparing to rule on a case involving an Asian elephant. Is Happy really happy at the Bronx zoo or is she mistreated as Tonka allegedly is?
As noted earlier there are some strong parallels to human mistreatment of other human celebrities. Child actors had to fight to get their earnings back from rapacious relatives. Even such superstars as Mickey Rooney could be mistreated by relatives in their later years.