Appeals board holds hearing on custody of aggressive monkey

Couple want it back

witnesses call it dangerous, not a good pet

November 11, 1999|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

A Glen Burnie couple's seven-month battle to regain custody of a pet monkey with a penchant for biting humans has reached the Anne Arundel County Board of Appeals, where testimony Tuesday night led to angry shouting at a witness by one of the owners.

In a 2 1/2-hour hearing, the county's animal-control administrator defended the seizure of Jamie, a male Bonnett macaque, from owners Steven and Kimberly Ritterspach in April after he bit a woman on her lip at a local tavern and touched off a brawl. A Baltimore Zoo primate expert said owning a monkey is not a good idea.

The testimony of Jamie's custodian, Colleen Layton, manager of Frisky's Wildlife and Primate Refuge in Woodstock, appeared to upset Steven Ritterspach.

Layton told the seven-member appeals board that Jamie is healthy but recently came close to attacking a volunteer at her Howard County shelter.

During a recess, Ritterspach passed Layton in a hallway and called her a liar. He could be heard shouting at her outside the hearing room after the session.

"He's been really aggressive with everybody that's been involved," Layton said yesterday of Ritterspach, contrasting his shouting with his repeated apologies for the barroom incident.

"Saying you're sorry and then attacking everybody is not helping," said Layton. Her refuge is receiving no money for Jamie's care, she said, adding: "If this continues, I'm going to have to say, `Sorry, [the monkey] has got to go somewhere else.' "

The board heard the county's side of the dispute Tuesday night and scheduled another round for Dec. 1, when the Ritterspachs and their lawyer, Eugene Brennan, will present their case for the couple to regain custody of the 2-year-old pet.

Prosecutor's remarks

Assistant County Attorney Sally Iliff, in opening remarks Tuesday, told the board that Jamie had been involved in seven biting incidents and that the owners had been given three written warnings and had been fined twice.

"Then these people decided to take their monkey into a bar," Iliff said. "We believe the testimony will show this animal is a dangerous animal under the best circumstances and should not be in the care of such careless people."

Animal Control Administrator Tahira Shane Thomas testified that the couple ignored warnings that their monkey could be seized if they continued to allow it out in public.

"I told them because of the blatant disregard they have shown, it was unlikely that we'd make any attempt to return the monkey," she said. "What was paramount to me was to safeguard public safety."

Zoo veterinarian testifies

Dr. Michael Cranfield, veterinarian at the Baltimore Zoo and an expert on primates, said macaques are aggressive and are known to carry diseases, including herpes B, which can be fatal to humans.

Cranfield said the animals become more aggressive during puberty, about age 3, which is a few months away for Jamie. He said monkeys such as Jamie grow to about 25 pounds during puberty and develop strong muscles and sharp, 1 1/2-inch-long canine teeth.

"My opinion is primates make very poor pets," Cranfield testified. "Most monkeys are purchased when they're young, and most monkey owners regret that they had the animal because of the aggression they begin to show.

"Even the best behaved are very unpredictable. I think Jamie could live in a cage where people would have limited contact. I don't think it is going to be a nice, loving, responsible pet."

Biting and bar brawl

The incident that began the long-running custody case occurred April 2 at the Speak-Easy-Inn in Glen Burnie, where the biting touched off a brawl in which two more people were bitten by the monkey, which then weighed 9 pounds, according to police records.

The animal control agency had on file reports of four incidents in which people were bitten or scratched by the animal earlier, and it received four more reports after the brawl was reported in the news media. None of those complaints could be confirmed.

The seizure of the monkey brought another fine for the Ritterspachs, bringing the total fines against them to $850. One of the fines was reduced when the Ritterspachs fought it in court. The others are pending, according to Tuesday's testimony.

The Ritterspachs, who have said they regard the animal as the child they could not have, first sought relief in May before a District Court judge who decided she did not have jurisdiction. She told the owners to make their case before the county's seven-member Animal Control Commission, an administrative review panel.

After seven hours of testimony in July, the panel decided that the animal control agency had acted appropriately in seizing Jamie. That finding is the subject of the appeal before the Board of Appeals.

Brennan, the Ritterspachs' lawyer, told the appeals panel that the owners were denied due process when the monkey was seized and that they did not have a meaningful hearing before the Animal Control Commission.

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