Finding Refuge at Save the Chimps

How a famous chimpanzee found his happily ever after at a Fort Pierce rescue sanctuary

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Tonka the chimp at his new Fort Pierce home. Photo courtesy of Save the Chimps
Tonka the chimp at his new Fort Pierce home. Photo courtesy of Save the Chimps

A Hollywood star missing in action and a faked death? The story of Tonka the chimpanzee’s rescue plays out like a true crime podcast—but this time, there’s a happy ending.

Tonka the chimp. Photo courtesy of Save the Chimps 1
Tonka. Photo courtesy of Save the Chimps

Tonka, who turns 31 this month, is a former animal actor known for his roles in George of the Jungle and Buddy. When Tonka hit adolescence, he retired from acting and was eventually given to the Missouri Primate Foundation. When the facility—which PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) sued for violating the Endangered Species Act—shut down, Tonka ended up with an exotic-animal broker named Tonia Haddix. Earlier this year, the Missouri woman was court-ordered to surrender Tonka and her seven other chimpanzees.

But Haddix claimed Tonka was dead. And PETA, along with Tonka’s former co-star Alan Cumming, launched a nationwide search for the animal, whom they weren’t so sure was really deceased. Thanks to an anonymous source, the case was solved this past June: Tonka was indeed alive, living caged in Haddix’s basement. 

Magic is one of the Sunrise Seven. Photo courtesy Wildlife Waystation
Magic is one of the Sunrise Seven. Photo courtesy Wildlife Waystation

PETA took immediate action, and Tonka was rescued. The organization contacted Fort Pierce–based sanctuary Save the Chimps, and within days Tonka arrived at his new home on the Treasure Coast. The 150-acre chimp sanctuary currently houses 221 resident chimps who live in 12 families on separate “islands” within the property. After living in captivity for years, the chimps all have control over their own lives and are treated to lifelong care by an expert medical team, nutritious meals, and enrichment activities. 

“We provide chimps with a life as close as possible to what they would have in the wild,” says Save the Chimps CEO Ana Paula Tavares. “Tonka has been doing really well and has access to the outdoors and other chimpanzees—things he did not have previously.”

Ernesta is one of the Sunrise Seven. Photo courtesy Wildlife Waystation
Ernesta is one of the Sunrise Seven. Photo courtesy Wildlife Waystation

In July, Save the Chimps (which is the largest chimpanzee sanctuary in the world) embarked on another rescue mission, this time in partnership with FedEx. Seven chimps, who had worked in show business and/or been used for lab experiments and were living out their retirement at a California refuge needed a new home when theirs was threatened by wildfires. The group was flown to Save the Chimps as part of FedEx’s “Delivering Good” initiative, where they were socially integrated following a 60-day quarantine. The chimps were dubbed the “Sunrise Seven,” as Fort Pierce is known as the Sunrise City. 

Jeff is one of the Sunrise Seven. Photo courtesy of Save the Chimps
Jeff is one of the Sunrise Seven. Photo courtesy of Save the Chimps

Save the Chimps is not open to the public, but Treasure Coast residents can show support by donating to help cover the daily cost of care, by bidding on items through the sanctuary’s online “All Things Chimp” auction November 4-13, or by running in the sanctuary’s eighth annual Chimpathon race November 13. 

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