Madison County wins custody of monkey

News-DemocratJune 28, 2013 

— The future of Nina the monkey now rests with the Madison County State's Attorney's office.

The java macaque named Nina has been in the spotlight since June 2, when her owner, Kendra Houghland of Alton, brought her to a pet event in a park. When a 6-year-old boy came near Houghland's dog, Nina bit him on the arm.

The boy and his family elected for him to undergo preventative rabies treatments rather than have Nina tested for rabies, which would have required euthanizing her. The boy's current medical condition is not known, according to state's attorney Tom Gibbons.

However, Houghland did not have legal ownership of Nina at the time, as Illinois law has forbade private ownership of primates since 2011, with few exceptions. Primates are considered dangerous animals under Illinois law, and in fact Houghland had consulted with a veterinarian about having Nina's teeth removed to prevent her from biting.

Madison County had initially placed Nina with a caregiver who is permitted to keep monkeys, as the county animal control facility did not have facilities for primates.

But Gibbons said officials recently discovered the caregiver, Cynthia Ann Ray, had sent Nina out of state to Simian Society in Indiana.

On Friday, Madison County Circuit Judge Barbara Crowder ruled that Nina now belongs to Madison County.

Ray said she sent the monkey away because she could no longer take care of her as well as her own spider monkey, and thought the Simian Society could find Nina a good home. She didn't realize she didn't have the right to make that decision, she said.

For her part, Houghland said she didn't know she wasn't allowed to keep a monkey. She said she paid a $1 fee each year to the city of Alton for pet registration, which she said they filed as "other" because they didn't have a category for monkeys.

"I made a commitment for life," Houghland told Crowder. "If I can't have her back, I want to be able to see her. She's like my child."

Houghland said Nina was raised her entire life around humans, and her veterinarian has said she would have difficulty adjusting to an all-simian environment.

"She was treated like a member of my family," Houghland said.

Gibbons said they have made arrangements with experts at the St. Louis Zoo to have Nina retrieved from Indiana and taken to a primate sanctuary, where she will be treated well, and will never bred or sold.

"That is our intention, and we are seeking this order so that we can carry it out," Gibbons told the judge.

Crowder granted custody of Nina to Madison County with the understanding that she will be taken to a facility where she will be cared for, and told Gibbons to keep Houghland informed as to Nina's eventual home.

"It's a testament to both of you that you were willing to do what you could for her," Crowder told Houghland and Ray.

Gibbons said as far as he knows, this is the first monkey-related case for the Madison County State's Attorney's office. No charges have been filed in the incident, but he said the case is still under review.

Houghland was in tears after the hearing, saying she was worried that Nina would not be able to adjust. "She's afraid of strangers, of lightning and thunder," she said. "She was raised from the day she was born as a child, not a primate ... I'm willing to pay for the mistake I made, but I don't want to make her pay."

Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at edonald@bnd.com or 239-2507.

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