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Excerpt: 'Forbidden Creatures'

Forbidden Creatures: Cover Detail

Chapter Nine

Trapped Together: Connie Casey and Chimpanzee Factory

I wanted to find out more about where Roberta and Phil's chimpanzees were born. Turns out, it was in Missouri, on a breeder's farm south of St. Louis. As I continue to research chimpanzees as exotic pets or ersatz children, it is striking to me how relatively commonplace such a relationship is, and with commercial captive-breeding facilities such as Chimparty busy generating supply, at least some of the demand is satisfied.

Chimparty is the brand name Connie Casey and her husband, Mike, conjured for their Festus, Missouri, compound, acreage literally crawling with animals, including a posse of chimpanzees. Connie Casey is regularly mentioned in news items regarding chimpanzees, and she continues to celebrate the private ownership of great apes. (She and Mike Casey are no longer a couple; the word around Missouri is that he lit out for Hollywood with their best money-making chimp.) Travis was born at the Festus compound, and Travis's mother, Suzy, was shot dead in a Festus neighbor's driveway when Suzy and two other chimpanzees escaped their confinement and went for a walkabout. The shooter, a self-described "country boy" named Jason Coates, claims he feared for his life when he encountered the free-ranging Suzy, yet he went to jail for the killing. After Travis attacked Charla Nash, Coates petitioned the governor for a pardon.

A colleague working at a St. Louis television newsroom told me that Casey no longer talked to journalists. Stories about her and her chimps had made for sensational headlines; my colleague thought gaining an audience with her would be a tough sell. I decided against just showing up at her front gate and pressing the buzzer, and I figured that the usual strategy of calling on the phone and suggesting an appointment would not be a good approach, either. I ruled out subterfuge: falsely presenting myself as in the market for a pet chimp in order to get inside the perimeter. The Fox News show Inside Edition already went that route when one of the show's reporters, Paul Boyd, toured Chimparty posing as a prospective buyer. Instead I sent an old-fashioned letter to Casey and enclosed a copy of my butterfly book in the parcel.

"I know that there have been considerable controversies surrounding Chimparty, and, of course, that is one of the reasons I wish to speak with you," I wrote. "I am committed, as a journalist, to doing all I can to understand an issue, and that means talking with primary sources." I drew attention to the fact that nobody I interviewed for the butterfly book complained about his or her portrayal in its pages. "If you look through The Dangerous World of Butterflies, I think you will agree with reviewers and with those I interviewed for the book that I reported accurately and treated all fairly. From what I've heard, you have important and fascinating stories to share, stories that I know will help me properly explain to the uninitiated the world of exotic pets."

I waited a week and started calling Connie Casey. Each time I called, the voice mail answered, and each time I left a detailed message and my phone number. I arrived in St. Louis and left yet another message, this time announcing that I was in her neighborhood. Casey finally returned my call, apologized for ignoring me, expressed worry that she might be making an error by opening Chimparty to my prying eyes and ears, and then invited me to Festus.

At this point I'm several months into my investigation of exotic pets and their owners. I'm finding it hard to accept the arguments offered by most aficionados of exotics to rationalize their hobby. As I worked to gain access to Connie Casey and her compound, I expected the experience to reinforce my growing prejudices, but I'm prepared for them to be debunked. Perhaps once I'm inside the perimeter fence, I'll find a happy interspecies homestead and a rationale for populating the heartland with captive-bred wild animals that belong in the jungles of Africa.

The weather is gray, and it's drizzling as I drive through the verdant hills on a Jefferson County road, keeping track of the passing miles and watching for landmarks. I come around a curve, and there it is, impossible to miss: Chimparty. A few of what initially look like farm silos sit in clear view of the road, but these are silos with their tops cut off and with wire mesh instead of walls. Even from the roadside the animals inside are easy to spot. Monkeys, monkeys, and more monkeys. Casey is waiting for me and opens the chain-link fence gate. She's wearing jeans and a blue T-shirt emblazoned with an American flag fluttering in the wind. Her hair is short and brown, her blue eyes look wary, but her hospitality is warm and generous. She escorts me to her house, and we settle into chairs on the front porch, looking out at enclosures filled with a variety of primates. A capuchin monkey directly across the drive from us rattles a loose piece of corrugated metal, its clattering impossible to ignore. "He's just trying to attract attention," Casey explains away the noise. Dogs join us. "He's got allergies, and he stinks," she says about her old white boxer, as he comes to nuzzle me, "but I still love him." To gain the few steps up the porch, Casey, who limps slightly, uses a hanging rope to hoist herself. Similar ropes are spotted around the house and the cages as exercise equipment for the apes. We exchange pleasantries and waste no time. I ask her why people are captivated by apes.

"They're so smart, and they're so fast, and they're so inquisitive, and their social group is so amazing. They have hands; they can manipulate. They're lucky because they have tails, so they have a fifth hand. I think people see reflections of themselves in primates."

"But why own a pet ape?" I ask. "And is pet the correct word for an animal that is so much like us?"

"Most people who have a primate as a pet, so to speak -- they're not pets. They call them family members. They come into your home, and they come into your heart. The primate becomes part of the family."

"But they're not just like us."

"No, I'm not trying to say that. They're definitely not." She searches for the words to explain why she surrounds herself with apes. "I can't explain it. It's just in your heart; it's either there, or it's not." Casey tells me that she believes most animal lovers, given the chance to interact one-on-one with a monkey or a chimp, would want one of their own. "People will probably think I'm awful, but I have to say, I probably love them as much as I love my children." In the same breath she adds quickly, "And I love my children. My daughters grew up with these chimps." They're off and married now, but they come to visit. "They still look at these chimps as their brothers and sisters, because they grew up with them." From where we're sitting, we can't see those chimp brothers and sisters, only the silo-cages across the driveway filled with various monkeys, and the capuchin and a lion-tailed macaque living in side-by-side cages next to us on the porch.

"It takes a lot of work," Casey says about ape keeping. A duck or a goose squawks from the pond next to the house. "I don't ever go on vacation."

"I can't imagine you could," I say, looking out at what I can see of her collection. She takes care of the animals with the help of one employee and a part-time volunteer.

"Truthfully, I don't want to go on vacation. I want to be here with these guys. People say, 'Don't you ever get tired of staying at home?' I do, sometimes. But I love my guys."

It's easy to see their appeal, even as she talks. The capuchin in the cage is playing with a napkin, acting as if it is a kerchief, making itself look like a babushka. It is cute, humanlike, and intriguing to watch.

"Why do we want to be with something that is so much like us but isn't us?" I ask.

From Forbidden Creatures: Inside the World of Animal Smuggling and Exotic Pets by Peter Laufer. Copyright 2010 Peter Laufer. Excerpted with permission by Lyons Press.

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Peter Laufer