Appeals board holds hearing on custody of pet monkey

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.

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."

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 said.

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