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Two Announcements

By Lauren Choplin

In a more just world, if a chimpanzee disappeared, his absence wouldn’t have anything to do with human beings. It wouldn’t prompt concern that he was caged, suffering, and without the company of others of his kind. It wouldn’t necessitate repeated requests for information from government agencies. It wouldn’t mean that the same people who benefited from keeping him out of sight had near total control over his whereabouts and well-being. In a more just world, it would mean the chimpanzee was with kin–able to roam freely in his natural habitat and to vanish, whenever he chose to, deep into a forest with members of his troop, experiencing all the richness chimpanzee life has to offer.

It is thus with sadness and outrage for all chimpanzees who have been deprived of their natural lives and freedom that we make two announcements today.

First, we believe our chimpanzee client Kiko–after spending years living in captivity in Niagara Falls, New York–has died.

We make this statement based on records we recently received from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation indicating that a chimpanzee who had been in the custody of Carmen and Christie Presti had passed away in 2016. Kiko is not named in these records but he was the only chimpanzee in their custody at that time. We then sent a letter to the Prestis asking them to confirm whether Kiko is alive or deceased. They did not reply.

Kiko photographed with a chain and padlock around his neck.
Kiko photographed with a chain and padlock around his neck.

Originally “owned” by an exotic animal collector and trainer named Roger Figg, Kiko was at least partially deaf as a result of physical abuse he suffered on the set of the made-for-TV movie Tarzan in Manhattan. After becoming the property of the Prestis, he lived in a cage in a cement storefront attached to the Prestis’ home. When allowed outside, Kiko could be seen in photos with a steel chain and padlock around his neck, which the Prestis appeared to use as a leash.

Until recently, we believed Kiko was alive based on the findings of a private investigator we hired to confirm Kiko’s whereabouts, our local sources, Carmen Presti’s remarks to reporters through 2018 (in which he referred to Kiko as if he was still alive), and photographs of Kiko posted to the Prestis’ Facebook page in 2020. At no point during this timeline did the Prestis acknowledge Kiko’s death.

Kiko experienced little freedom in life, but we know his story and court case will help ensure the future freedoms of other chimpanzees. In 2018, a judge on New York’s highest court issued an opinion regarding Kiko and Tommy (our first chimpanzee client) in which he urged his fellow judges to treat the question of nonhuman animals’ rightlessness as “a deep dilemma of ethics and policy that demands our attention … To treat a chimpanzee as if he or she had no right to liberty protected by habeas corpus is to regard the chimpanzee as entirely lacking independent worth, as a mere resource for human use, a thing the value of which consists exclusively in its usefulness to others. Instead, we should consider whether a chimpanzee is an individual with inherent value who has the right to be treated with respect.” While the Court declined to hear Kiko and Tommy’s cases at that time, the same Court will hear arguments later this year in support of our elephant client Happy and her right to liberty.

Our second announcement pertains to Tommy who, like Kiko, has been treated as a “thing” to be bought, sold, traded, confined, hidden, and exploited with no oversight or consequence. 

A photo of Tommy the chimpanzee holding onto and peering out from the grating of a cage
A photo of Tommy at the DeYoung Family Zoo as screenshot from documents PETA obtained via FOIA requests.

Beginning in 2016, various media outlets reported that Tommy’s location was unknown–in that he was seemingly no longer on the used trailer lot in Gloversville, New York where he was when we first filed suit on his behalf, yet there was no definitive proof he was elsewhere. In 2021, Patrick Lavery told the Times Union he “couldn’t remember” where he sent Tommy. Based on abundant evidence we’ve collected and which we detail in this blog post, we believe Tommy–if alive–is imprisoned at the DeYoung Family Zoo in Wallace, Michigan. The DeYoung Family Zoo no longer has the chimpanzees in its custody on public display, so little is known about Tommy’s captivity or his physical and psychological health. Starting today, we’re calling on the DeYoung Family Zoo to free Tommy to an accredited chimpanzee sanctuary. Like all chimpanzees, he deserves to live with freedom and dignity. Tomorrow we’ll share all of the information we have on Tommy and ways you can help free him to a chimpanzee sanctuary.

Our deepest thanks to everyone who has joined us in advocating for Kiko and Tommy. With your support, we continue to fight for a world where chimpanzees aren’t hidden in cages at the total mercy of humans but rather, in the words of Judge Fahey, treated with respect.

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