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I-Team: Sanctuary Sought For Surviving Chimp | News

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I-Team: Sanctuary Sought For Surviving Chimp

LAS VEGAS – In light of chimpanzee Buddy's shooting death earlier this month after he escaped from his enclosure, many people are now concerned about CJ, a female chimp they'd never heard of until two weeks ago. From the looks of it, she's holding up pretty well so far.

But as long as breeders are allowed to traffic in chimps and other exotics, and as long as Nevadans are permitted to keep wild animals in homes or backyards, the kind of tragedy that occurred with Buddy is certain to happen again.

"She's half human, half chimpanzee," said Timmi Derosa, a co-owner of CJ said. "It's so tragic, and it's why the breeders must stop. People who buy them think they are buying a human with fur and the cutest little human ever."

I-Team: Inside Chimps' Lives Before Deadly Shooting

Cuteness might be the most dangerous quality exotic animals have because it prompts so many people to buy them. CJ is now 13 years old. She lives in a backyard enclosure that cost poker pro Lee Watkinson $100,000 to build. That doesn't include costs for rent, food and a handler. Since the death of her lifelong companion two weeks ago, CJ has lived alone. She watches movies -- "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" is a favorite -- and interacts with the humans who care about her. She grew up with Buddy and, fortunately, did not see him die.

On the afternoon we spent with her, she nibbled food and seemed in a playful mood, not depressed as some had feared.

"CJ is doing fantastic," Derosa said. "She eats all day. She's happy, alert, relaxed. It's a thing that tortures me. Not only did we lose Buddy, that's horrible, but CJ is acting different, in a positive way."

CJ and Buddy grew up like brother and sister, but once Buddy reached sexual maturity, their relationship changed, their owners said. He was more moody and rougher with her. A Department of Agriculture inspector said last week that CJ appears to be fine right now, but primate expert Dr. Mel Richardson said it isn't healthy for her to live alone, and in the long term she needs to be with other chimps. Watkinson and Derosa said they are aware of CJ's needs.

"This was never our intention to keep her here for life," Derosa said. "This (backyard enclosure) was to make these chimps as happy as possible until we could bring them to a better sanctuary."

Co-owner Nikki Riddell, who raised CJ and Buddy since they were babies, agreed that CJ needs to go to an approved sanctuary to live out her life as a chimp. Riddell said she agreed a year ago to work with animal activist Linda Faso to make the transfer, but it is not easy to place a chimp, and it didn't happen soon enough for Buddy, whose escape led to his death. Riddell was devastated by the news, as were all of the various people who helped raise him…

"I got a phone call and (they) said he was dead," the chimp's caregiver, Dominique Tordjman said. "Then I turned on the TV and saw his body."

Buddy's death has intensified the search for a sanctuary for CJ. It has also focused public attention on the many other exotic animals living in the valley and the need for stronger regulation.

Other tragedies are waiting to happen, Linda Faso said, for the animals and for people, so long as breeders are allowed to continue selling chimps and other exotics. Such trafficking is just a mouse-click away and is big money. The infant CJ cost $60,000. Derosa said she thinks breeders should be made liable for life for the animals they sell.

"So, in 15 years if you're sitting at a table enjoying the money and a chimp goes out and kills somebody, you're going to jail," Derosa said.

One other factor now working in CJ's favor is that the owner of the property where she's housed is also pushing for her to go to a sanctuary. Dave Potochan has decided his own children can't visit the property while CJ is still there and he plans to dissolve the county animal permit once she is gone.

Friends said Potochan loved the chimps as much as anyone, but never took any of the money that was paid for the property rental and hopes CJ will be happier somewhere else.