EXPLAINER

The bizarre story of Alan Cumming's chimp pal, a missing primate mystery involving a faked death

Here's everything you need to know about Tonka, the beloved chimp co-star who disappeared but was never forgotten

Published June 6, 2022 7:14PM (EDT)

Actor Alan Cumming attends the European Premiere of "My Old School" at Glasgow Film Theatre on March 03, 2022 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Roberto Ricciuti/WireImage/Getty Images)
Actor Alan Cumming attends the European Premiere of "My Old School" at Glasgow Film Theatre on March 03, 2022 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Roberto Ricciuti/WireImage/Getty Images)

We all thought the worst when it came to Alan Cumming's long-lost primate pal. Turns out, our fears were only partially right.

The Scottish star of stage and screen had built a caring relationship with a chimpanzee named Tonka, who had starred in a number of films in the '90s, including "George of the Jungle." The two shared a screen in the 1997 film "Buddy," cementing their friendship, which is why Cummming was horrified to learn of Tonka's disappearance later. 

The actor had been particularly vocal about locating the missing chimp. How could such a beloved animal performer be misplaced? Or worse . . . was there foul play? Rumors of a death were all the more frustrating for their lack of confirmation.

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Cumming made numerous public pleas to get to the bottom of the mystery and even addressed the distressing situation with Salon.

However, as of last week, the primate puzzle has been solved, thanks to a new investigation. But before we get to those details, here's all the background you need on the saga of Alan and Tonka, and the latter's "Tiger King"-esque escapade. 

The beginning of a beautiful friendship

In an October 2021 Salon Talks, Cumming shared how it all began, spending time mingling with four different chimps on the set of "Buddy," about an animal-loving millionaire (Rene Russo). Cumming, who plays an animal handler named Dick Croner in the film, also enjoyed playing and training with the primates on set.

Cumming grew closest to Tonka, among the four chimpanzees. The pair shot scenes together, shared each other's food and in one instance, enjoyed an intimate grooming session. The memory of their time together made Cumming look forward to participating in the inevitable round of PR for when the film was ready.

"So then what happened was the next year I came back to do press for 'Buddy' and I thought, 'Where's Tonka?' I thought I'd be doing pictures, and I thought they were going to surprise me with him," Cumming said. "Then there was this other little chimp I had to do a photo shoot with.

"Then they said, 'He's gone to live in Palm Springs. He's retired.' But then I went on a talk show they said, 'Oh, isn't it a shame about Tonka?' I was like, 'Did he die, and they're just not telling me?'" he continued. "They went, 'No, he's six now and he's sexually aggressive, so they were worried if he saw you.' So they couldn't have him near me because I was too arousing for this chimp. I took that as a huge compliment as well. But I also thought I would not like to be on live television, being sexually molested by an amorous chimp."

The plot thickens, and a reward is offered

Cumming later learned that Tonka was being held in the Missouri Primate Foundation (MSP), which was sued by PETA over its terrible housing conditions. According to Yahoo Entertainment, Tonka was officially declared "dead" by his owner, Tonia Haddix, in July 2021 after the animal rights organization attempted to rescue Tonka and his six chimp companions. 

"If he's dead or if he's on his own being hidden, it's just awful. It's such a sad thing for me that I had no idea that there weren't the conditions and regulations in place for animals," Cumming added. "Once they've done their thing in showbiz and they become too sexually aggressive, anyone could buy them, and all these awful roadside zoos and things like that that you see, they're just deregulated and these animals are treated appallingly."

In February, PETA posted a call for Tonka, stating that his "last known whereabouts were inside the former Missouri Primate Foundation (MPF) facility, a breeding outfit that previously rented out baby chimpanzees for events and sold them to private homes and movie exhibitors and was known as "Chimparty.'" The organization also offered a $10,000 reward for any information on Tonka.  

A few months later, on April 28, Cumming announced an additional $10,000 reward for anyone who could find the missing chimp.

"During the months we filmed together, baby Tonka and I became good friends, playing and grooming each other and just generally larking about," Cumming told Variety. "It's horrible to think he might be in a cage in a dark basement somewhere or have met some other fate, so I'm appealing to whoever knows what has become of him to please come forward and claim the reward."

Back in 2017, the actor pushed for the rescue of Tonka and his fellow captives from the so-called Missouri sanctuary, Vulture reported.

"As an old friend of Tonka's, I respectfully ask that you allow him and the chimpanzees at MPF to be sent to accredited sanctuaries where they can enjoy some semblance of the life that nature intended for them," Cumming wrote.

A death faked,  and the truth revealed

According to court documents submitted by Haddix, Tonka allegedly suffered a stroke last May and died from heart failure shortly afterwards. The documents and declaration also claimed that the chimp had been burned in a fire pit following his demise.   

However, those claims were refuted on Thursday, when authorities searched Haddix's home as part of an emergency court order obtained by PETA and found Tonka hidden in the basement. Haddix reportedly faked the chimp's death after a Missouri judge ordered her to turn over Tonka to the Center for Great Apes sanctuary in Wauchula, Florida.

The elderly primate was being kept in a small cage nailed to the basement floor, surrounded by "a 60-inch TV" and "an interactive iPad-like touch device," per Rolling Stone. "He was reportedly overweight, wasn't allowed outside, and had no companionship with other chimpanzees — something crucial for chimps," PETA also disclosed.

The organization busted Haddix after receiving a concerning phone call, in which the exotic animal breeder "confessed that [Tonka] was still alive but would be euthanized on June 2." Haddix told Rolling Stone that she had lied about Tonka's death and said he was kept hidden in her house over the past year. She also denied having any immediate plans to euthanize Tonka, explaining that the medic was the one who said Tonka would need to be put down soon due to his poor health.

According to a press release from PETA, Haddix "falsely and perjuriously claimed under oath that he [Tonka] had died prior to the transfer" of heart failure following a stroke. Haddix, however, seemed unfazed by her crimes.

"Honey, I've been held in contempt of court three times," she said. "I have paid $50 a day [in fines]. I've been through the mill. I'm sure that there'll be some jail time in this. Do I care? No, I don't care. It's because it's about that kid. As long as that kid is safe, I don't care about nothing out there."

After holding out hope all this time, Cumming finally knows the fate of his pal Tonka. And while the conditions the chimp had to endure were sobering, at least that will come to an end now that he's been found, thanks to all the attention his story received.

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By Joy Saha

Joy Saha is an editorial fellow at Salon, covering Culture. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park.

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Alan Cumming Buddy Chimpanzee Exotic Animal Breeder Explainer Peta Tonka