Authorities confiscate Frankfort woman's pet monkey

Pet relinquished when owner learns of state's ban

jkegley@herald-leader.comApril 22, 2011 

FRANKFORT — Fighting back tears, Candace Ballinger handed over a canvas bag stuffed with diapers, formula and one of Caleb's favorite toys, and then said goodbye.

Caleb, who has never been a fan of strangers, paced nervously around his cage examining every bar and corner, issuing the occasional quiet, pitiful squeak.

"It's like giving up one of your own kids," Ballinger said Thursday as she watched two women carry Caleb away.

Ballinger surrendered Caleb, a Barbados green monkey, to the Primate Rescue Center in Nicholasville at the behest of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. Ballinger's family had raised Caleb for the past six months, but was recently informed that it was against the law to keep him.

Ballinger, 31, said she was not aware of that when she took Caleb in.

While that situation might seem unique, "it's actually not uncommon at all," said April Truitt, founder of the non-profit sanctuary near Wilmore. The center houses more than 50 apes and monkeys, many taken from people just like Ballinger. But Truitt said many confiscated monkeys aren't lucky enough to end up in shelters; they wind up being euthanized.

It has been illegal to buy and keep monkeys as pets in Kentucky since July 2005. It's legal to have them in surrounding states, including Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia.

Ballinger wasn't the one who bought Caleb. He was originally bought as a newborn in Nashville by one of her friends. But as the monkey grew, evolving from a cute, needy baby into an independent, mischievous handful with razor sharp teeth, the relationship apparently lost its luster.

The friend asked Ballinger, who had raised a female Rhesus monkey as a teenager, to baby-sit. What started as two-hour baby-sitting gigs morphed into two days and then two months.

"I got to the point where I said, 'I'm not doing this with you. You're not jerking him in and out of my home,'" she said.

Ballinger issued her friend an ultimatum: give the monkey to her, or risk having animal control investigate allegations of animal cruelty. The friend surrendered Caleb.

For the past six months, the monkey has lived with Ballinger, her husband, and their three children: Ethan, 9; Andrew, 11; and Justin, 12.

The family watched him grow, marvelling at how quickly he learned tricks — and how easily he got into trouble.

"He's like a little kid in a candy shop. You can't walk through the house without him snagging something," Ballinger said.

Caleb had his own stocking for Christmas, and presents under the tree — he got a blanket, some new bottles and a rubber fish.

During that six months, Ballinger's friend kept stalling when Ballinger asked her for Caleb's ownership papers. Finally, on Wednesday, Ballinger called a local animal control officer to find out what she needed to do to get copies of Caleb's paperwork.

The officer said he didn't know, and called the Department of Fish and Wildlife, which dropped the bomb: you can't have a monkey in Kentucky.

"I've talked to everybody and their brother trying to find a loophole to that law," she said. "I said, 'If I find one, I'm jumping in it.'"

Ballinger declined to name her friend because the Department of Fish and Wildlife is investigating. Franklin County Conservation Officer Jason Wells said Ballinger was not facing criminal charges.

"She has done the right thing," Wells said. "With her cooperation, we can get this animal to a place where it needs to be."

By Thursday afternoon, Caleb was already beginning to calm down, showing some curiosity about his new surroundings at the center.

Truitt and her husband founded the center in 1987. Like the woman who originally purchased Caleb, Truitt found herself unable to care for Gizmo — a crab-eating macaque her husband bought from a Cincinnati monkey dealer — as he grew older, stronger and wilder.

So they built the habitat in the scenic Jessamine Gorge between Nicholasville and Wilmore, taking in other monkeys in similar situations.

The facility provides care for the monkeys' entire lives; Caleb may live there for another 30 years, Truitt said.

The center also tries to raise public awareness; many don't know it's illegal to own monkeys since primates were quietly added to the list of banned exotic species.

"The Department (of Fish and Wildlife) hasn't done a fabulous job of educating the public — and their own officers — about the change in the regulations," she said.

The law was created because owning monkeys and great apes can be dangerous, Truitt said, citing a well-publicized attack in Connecticut in 2009. Travis, a 200-pound chimp, mauled a woman before police shot and killed it.

Most pet monkeys are taken from their mothers at birth, "which ruins them for life," Truitt said.

But Ballinger, speaking from a home that seemed considerably emptier without Caleb's jumping and squeaking, said she still hopes to find a loophole that will allow her to have Caleb returned.

"He's not a chimpanzee. He's not an animal actually big enough to take someone's life," she said. "There should not be this harsh of a law against it."

Truitt said she empathized with Ballinger, but said the heartbreak of parting with pet monkeys can be avoided.

"Don't buy an exotic animal as a pet, and you won't ever have to part with it," she said.

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