Couple is pining for their monkey

Pet: A Glen Burnie couple who treat their pet like a child hope to get it back after it was taken into animal control custody for several biting incidents.

April 22, 1999|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

A monkey walks into a bar

That's no joke to Steven and Kimberly Ritterspach of Glen Burnie, whose pet Bonnett macaque, Jamie, a repeat-biter, recently touched off a barroom brawl.

On May 11, a District Court judge will decide whether the 9-pound monkey returns to the custody of the couple that raised it like their child, or is sentenced to life in a Howard County refuge.

Since the bar incident almost three weeks ago, the 2-year-old primate has been in isolation at Frisky's Wildlife and Primate Refuge in Woodstock.

Anne Arundel County's animal control department says Jamie should stay there. But the Ritterspachs say the department has wrongfully detained their monkey.

Some animal lovers familiar with primate behavior say keeping Jamie from the humans who raised him is harmful. Other experts say nothing is better for the animal than being with other macaques, and the refuge has seven.

While Jamie has not inflicted serious damage, he's sent seven people to local doctors with bites and scratches.

The public "should not be exposed to the potential of danger just because the owner has it out in public and the monkey bites at will," says Tahira Shane Thomas, animal control administrator.

Not just a pet

The Ritterspachs have not regarded Jamie as just a pet. Since 1996, Mrs. Ritterspach, 32, has given birth prematurely to three babies -- a girl and two boys -- who died within weeks. They bought Jamie for $3,777 from Exotic Adoptions in New Jersey in 1997 a year after their first daughter died at 57 days old.

"This is the closest thing to a child we could have," Mr. Ritterspach said.

After watching a daughter so fragile she couldn't be touched die, the sight of a baby animal clinging to his wife moved him, he said.

They dressed the monkey in tiny diapers, punching holes in the seat with a thumb for its tail. Mrs. Ritterspach would nestle the infant in a sling 24 hours a day. She changed the monkey's diaper 10 times a day, dressed it in baby sleepers, and filled a nursery with cat hotels, poles, nets and toys. The animal cuddled in the bed at night between the couple.

"A kid couldn't ask for a better life than we provide for this monkey," Mr. Ritterspach said.

Biting from the beginning

Still, trouble happened from the start. When the monkey was 3 months old, it bit an 8-year-old Pasadena girl who tried to pet him during a trip with Mr. Ritterspach to the Earleigh Heights carnival. Less than a year later, he bit a 12-year-old.

"The majority of these incidents, if [the victims] were honest with themselves, they would say, `Geez, we had warning.' It has never been life-threatening to anyone," Mr. Ritterspach said.

Not so, said Jay Mapp, the Baltimore Zoo's senior primate keeper. Even a nip from a macaque can be serious.

Their teeth are "longer and larger than a German shepherd's. They're like daggers," he said.

Macaques also can carry herpes B, a deadly virus that has no cure.

After Jamie bit a family friend in September and a woman outside her Pasadena barbershop in November, animal control declared the monkey dangerous and ordered it restricted from public contact.

After another biting episode, animal control fined the Ritterspachs $100. When an animal control officer saw the monkey at Mr. Ritterspach's used-car lot in Pasadena in February, the officer took the monkey into custody and issued a $250 fine.

Brawl at bar

Then came the brawl April 2. Depressed by the death of their third baby two weeks earlier, the couple went to a birthday party for a friend at a local bar. They took Jamie on a leash. Then they stopped by the Speak-Easy-Inn in Glen Burnie, where a woman blew kisses at Jamie. He bit her on the lip.

The mix of a screaming woman, her boyfriend and a frantic monkey in a crowded bar late at night erupted into a brawl that spilled into a back alley. Jamie bit two more people. Police used pepper spray to subdue Mr. Ritterspach, who was charged with assault, reckless endangerment and resisting arrest.

Animal control seized Jamie and fined the Ritterspachs $500.

Mr. Ritterspach acknowledges he was wrong to take Jamie out, and says that if they get the monkey back, they'll never do it again.

"The only thing I can do is say if we can just get our child back, the monkey will never ever be in public again," he said. "Nothing is worth what our family is going through."

Pub Date: 4/22/99

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