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FESTUS, Mo. – Jefferson County chimpanzees are at the center of a bitter fight between the Missouri Primate Foundation (formerly known as Chimparty) and the national animal rights group PETA. FOX 2 was recently granted exclusive access to the chimpanzee compound that’s under fire.

It’s Connie Casey’s property in Festus. Casey’s raised chimps since they were babies. They were once known for their chimp birthday parties, greeting cards and television commercials.

The chimps we saw have access to both outdoor and indoor cages through a series of tunnels. Casey did not come out for our tour.

“She’s here today, but she doesn’t want to be a part of anything because she is so heartbroken,” Tonia Haddix said.

Heartbroken because they’ll soon be moved out. Haddix stepped in about five years ago hoping to keep the chimps on the property.

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) sued Casey and her foundation alleging conditions were unsafe and unsanitary. Haddix had an idea to take the heat off of Casey.

“I’m like, ‘Connie, you can move these chimps, you can sell these chimps, you can give these chimps away. There’s nothing they can do about it,’” she said. “I said sign them over to me and let me take the brunt of that lawsuit.”

Haddix moved her mobile home to Casey’s property and took ownership of the chimps. Haddix says her decision now has her in contempt of court.

“I’m so dumb, but I still believe in doing what’s right,” she said. “And I love these chimps because I’ve gotten to know these chimps.”

Seven chimps are under contention. Four were in Festus for our visit. Three others have been moved to Eldon, Missouri. That’s part of the dispute. PETA’s lawsuit led to an agreement between the parties, where four chimps are to be transferred to a Florida sanctuary and three can remain in Missouri under Haddix’s care, but she must finish constructing this primate dome with agreed upon specifications.

At an April contempt of court hearing, PETA said that moving chimps to Eldon was not part of the deal. Under the agreement, Haddix is supposed to inform PETA on construction progress; however, court records show Haddix often responds to PETA’s requests for information with messages like –
“You are not the police, just a member of a terrorist group.” In another email, she wrote, “I am not your patsy nor slave.”

The four chimps in Festus will be transferred to an accredited sanctuary in Florida. But the agreement, from September 2020, is that Haddix must maintain care for the chimps until the sanctuary builds its enclosures. That’s still at least four months away and Haddix says complying with some aspects of the court-approved agreement she made with PETA is not possible- like this line from the court order, “Defendants are hereby enjoined… from inserting any body part into an enclosure.”

Haddix said, “PETA doesn’t want us putting our extremities in the cage so we always have to let them initiate. They think they should be in the wild, but they’re not because these guys were born captive.”

She showed us Connor and Candy.

“Candy was premature. She only weighed less than a pound, 3/4s of a pound when she was born,” Haddix said.

Haddix said Tammy was sleeping inside. Then there’s Kerrie.

“He’s gentle with me but he wouldn’t be with another typical male,” she said.

You could see Kerrie’s power in one quick interaction, in which Kerrie tried pulling Haddix into his cage.

“See just like right there, he tried to grab me. I’m aware of that, so I know what to do with him,” Haddix said.

Kerrie was one of two chimpanzees that escaped onto State Road CC last July.

The main part of the consent concerns Haddix’s obligation to modify or construct facilities to house the chimps, with the specifications and on the timeline designated in the agreement.

“These are incredibly complex and intelligent animals who need to have some semblance of a natural environment so they can engage in their natural behaviors,” said Jared Goodman, attorney for PETA. “Pursuant to our agreement, Ms. Haddix is required to provide certain information to us to ensure that her end of the bargain was being held up and as the court made very clear. She’s failed to provide any evidence that she’s met her obligations by the deadlines.”

Haddix questions her agreement, wondering why the sanctuary can get a year to prepare while she feels hounded. She explained how she lashed out in frustration.

“I said, ‘Come get your chimps, I’m done. I’m ready to walk away,’” she said.

That comment alone also puts her at risk. Walking away would be another violation.

“We don’t want Ms. Haddix in jail,” Goodman said. “We are not interested in her being fined and her funds being used for that instead of providing care for the chimps or whatever other animals she might have. Really, all we want is what we already negotiated.”

Haddix sobbed in her April contempt of court hearing in federal court. Both PETA and the judge said it wouldn’t make sense to lock her up, but she must follow orders or she’ll at least begin paying a $50 a day penalty. We’ll be in court for her next hearing.