Recovery of “Movie Star” Chimp Highlights Many Animal (And Human) Welfare And Rights Issues

Tonka, a 38-year old chimpanzee with a substantial Hollywood career behind him, has been removed from a Florida basement and is now in a sanctuary for chimpanzees.

Actor Brendan Fraser played George of the Jungle in the 1997 live action version of the 1960’s cartoon. The cartoon hero was a slow-witted parody of Taran of the Apes. Tonka had a role in the film.

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.

Tarzan of the Apes has had a long multi media career. In this cover for Tarzan and the Lost Empire by Ace Publishing Frank Frazetta has depicted Tarzan with Nkima, a small monkey who was his companion in the novels. Chimpanzees came to the big screen in adaptions of the character.

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.

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In the movies Tarzan was accompanied by a chimpanzee often called Cheeta. Perhaps a dozen chimpanzee actors played the role starting in the 1930’s. Photo by Public Domain Pictures on

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.

Published by ursusrising

long time writer and editor living in Los Angeles

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