Entertainment

The Strange Story of Tonka, the Undead Hollywood Chimpanzee


In a preview of what might be the next Tiger King, there’s been a surprising twist in the bananas saga of Tonka, the chimpanzee and film actor. Rolling Stone has reported that the celebrated great ape, seen in films like George of the Jungle and Buddy—1997 was a great year for chimp cinema—is, indeed, alive, despite being declared dead by its owner one year ago.

It turns out that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is involved in a protracted battle with Tonka’s current caretaker Tonia Haddix, and has been making a documentary about the case. The organization is working to get Tonka and other apes under Haddix’s care turned over to a sanctuary in Florida. In what appears to be a move to make that effort moot, Haddix told courts that Brendan Frasier’s former co-star had died last year, and was cremated. 

In fact, Tonka is still alive, and has been living in Haddix’s Missouri home with “a 60-inch TV, an interactive iPad-like touch device, and had celebrated St. Patrick’s Day among a few of Haddix’s close friends.”

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When Haddix was asked by Rolling Stone about apparently lying under oath, she said, “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.”

Tonka’s journey from Hollywood to revenancy has been a curious one. He was previously at the now-defunct Missouri Primate Foundation, which was accused by PETA to be in violation of the Endangered Species Act. PETA sued the organization and, in 2017, Alan Cumming, who worked with Tonka on the film Buddy, issued a statement that read “[Tonka and I] developed a very close camaraderie during the months when we filmed. By the end of the shoot, his trainers let him groom me. It was a special friendship—one I’ll always treasure. I hoped to see Tonka the following year at the film’s premiere but was told that he was no longer manageable and had been ‘retired to Palm Springs.’ Over the past 20 years, I imagined him living out his post-Hollywood years on a sprawling sanctuary.”

He continued that “[Tonka] isn’t able to have complex social relationships with other chimpanzees and doesn’t have meaningful outdoor access to run, climb, or play.”

Earlier this year, Cumming, who did not believe that Tonka was actually dead, offered a $10,000 bounty for anyone who could find his former co-star.

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