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October 16, 2017

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County Government:

Chimp-permitting request likely to cause uproar at county commission


Joe Schoenmann

This is Kenzy, a 7-year-old chimpanzee, one of four chimps and a capuchin monkey at the center of a battle before Clark County commissioners, Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012.

Kenzy the Chimp

Kenzy, a 7-year-old-chimpanzee, one of four chimps and a capuchin monkey is at the center of a battle before Clark County commissioners. The primates' owner, Mike Casey, is seeking a use permit to keep the animals in this location for another year. County staff has advised against it, and animal rights activists have mobilized and sent nearly 2,000 emails to County Commissioner Steve Sisolak in opposition.

Chimps in neighborhood

With his bright, wide-open eyes, Kenzy gazes with evident curiosity at the visitor. Behind steel fencing that encloses Kenzy on all four sides and overhead, the 7-year-old chimpanzee is a picture of calm.

James “Mike” Casey, who said he feels about Kenzy the way parents do about their children, tries to get the animal to do a few tricks by telling him “feet up!” or by singing “Happy Birthday."

Kenzy’s not having it. The monkey gazes at Casey and his guest, then jumps atop a large plastic drum and taps out a rhythmic beat with his fingers. Finished, he walks back and forth making a long kissing sound by squeezing air between his thin, pursed lips.

Or maybe Kenzy’s blowing a raspberry. He might just be if he knew that Casey was talking to a reporter about what is expected to be an uproar -- over Casey and his monkeys -- today in the chambers of the Clark County Commission.

Weeks ago, the Enterprise Advisory Board gave Casey approval to continue housing four chimps and a capuchin monkey in the backyard compound of the rented home near Decatur Boulevard and Robindale Road. The advisory board only “advises,” so Casey and his landlord, Stacy Jones, will seek a use permit today from commissioners.

Casey says he only wants a permit until the end of 2013, when he hopes to move onto a larger plot, about five acres, where he intends to build a large sanctuary, “like a retirement facility,” for his animals.

Opposing Casey are at least 1,900 animal-rights advocates from around the country and the county’s own staff, which has recommended the permit’s denial.

Commissioner Steve Sisolak, whose district includes the 2.1-acre property, said he has received about 1,900 emails opposing the use permit, many of them from supporters of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which posted an “alert” about the matter on the Internet. Many of the emails focus on animal treatment, whether it is humane to keep an exotic animal as a pet, and relay a few horrific moments in the last 25 years of Casey’s life as a chimp owner.

Despite some of the more salacious emails and allegations, Sisolak said he was only interested in one thing: making sure the permit request fits within the guidelines of county code and keeps the neighborhood safe.

Although the home previously housed a cougar and two tigers. Sisolak said the area has changed in recent years. A small uptick in the economy, he said, has encouraged a local builder who is constructing new homes just behind the backyard wall of the rental home.

Sisolak said he has been advised about a chimpanzee’s high intelligence, manual dexterity and ability to manipulate latches and doors. He also talks about the two chimps in July that figured out how to escape from their enclosures in the northern Las Vegas Valley. Police shot and killed one of them.

“If a chimp got out, there’s some dense housing that was not there when it was approved for tigers and lions,” Sisolak said. “It might have been appropriate then, I don’t know if it is now. I need more information on that.”

Kenzy and the other monkeys are enclosed in individual outdoor cages. Another cage with padlocked doors encloses those cages. At night, the animals go into smaller cages inside an RV parked between the cages and the back wall.

Casey has more than 20 years experience with primates and uses them to make a living. His business, “A Great Ape Experience” advertises use of the monkeys for birthday parties, company events, school assemblies, festivals, bar/bat mitzvahs and “you name it.”

They have also been used in commercials and movies, he said.

Now he will try to sell the idea that they are housed safely and humanely to county commissioners.

Casey said he thought he was fine with the county’s Animal Control division because after he moved into the house in late 2010, an Animal Control officer inspected the cages and “said it looked great.” But after the escaped chimp incidents in July and August, Animal Control returned for a re-evaluation. This time they found violations. Casey attests that by Nov. 15 he had fixed everything Animal Control had pointed out.

That still might not be enough.

In its analysis of the use-permit request, county staff focused on safety as the reason they believe the house is a bad place to house exotic pets.

“There is a history of exotic animal locations in Clark County that have confirmed reports of escapes,” the report reads. “Due to the aggressive nature of wild animals, especially chimpanzees, staff cannot support a location that puts many citizens at risk for an attack … In addition to physical danger, exotic animals may carry diseases that put humans at additional risk.”

It concludes by saying “this request will negatively affect the public health, safety and welfare in conflict with the standards for approval for a use permit.”

Commissioners can take or leave county staff advice, but Sisolak said it is hard to ignore the safety concerns with the chimp escapes so fresh in everyone’s mind.

Though it isn’t in the staff analysis, past safety issues with chimpanzees are also likely to come up, Casey acknowledged.

Casey and his now ex-wife previously ran a chimpanzee refuge in Missouri in 2001 when three of the refuge’s chimps escaped. One of them, Suzy, was shot to death by a young man who said he feared for the life of his friends and his dog. A judge later fined the young man and sentenced him to 30 days in jail for misdemeanor animal abuse.

But the February 2009 mauling of a 55-year-old Connecticut woman stands out because it resulted in the first-ever facial transplant in the United States. A chimpanzee named Travis, who was purchased as a baby from the Missouri refuge, attacked Charla Nash and tore off her face, resulting in the surgery. Travis was raised in Connecticut but was Suzy’s offspring. Police shot and killed Travis after the attack.

Sitting in his backyard, Casey has his own personal reminder of the care that must be taken with the animals. A long scar along the right side of his nose is the result of an older chimp, he said, that bit off most of his nose years ago.

Casey blames himself; he walked into the chimp’s living area but older chimps are more territorial, which he said is likely what accounted for the attack. It took many surgeries to get his nose looking how it does today.

Kenzy’s eyes rarely stray from Casey, and Casey sits looking back at Kenzy.

“I don’t want to be here for another 10 years,” he said. “Just five, maybe 10 months. But don’t kick us out in the middle of winter. I hope we can move on in June, maybe July.”

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