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Union Ridge Wildlife Center owner Cy Vierstra hid Tonka the chimp from PETA while facing 12 felonies

Cy Vierstra hid Tonka the chimp at Union Ridge Wildlife for Tonia Haddix. Photo credit: Solamente Cy.

Key takeaways:

  • Union Ridge Wildlife owner Cy Vierstra is accused of hiding a chimpanzee named Tonka for Tonia Haddix to prevent PETA from placing the chimp at a sanctuary.

  • A documentary is in the works about chimps, featuring Haddix, who is facing criminal charges for lying about Tonka's death.

  • Cy is headed to trial on 12 felonies and one misdemeanor for allegedly embezzling nearly $300,000 from his town and using it to fund his own personal expenditures and to fund Union Ridge Wildlife.

  • Records show Cy has previously been accused of faking animals' deaths and lying to officials to hide illegal activity.

  • Cy is working with the organization SPARTN to raise $348,000 to complete a chimp house at Union Ridge. The amount of money that Cy is on the hook for in his criminal case is just $30,000 shy of the fundraising goal.

Cyril “Cy” Vierstra is accused of working with Tonia Haddix to hide a chimpanzee named Tonka in an effort to prevent PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) from moving Tonka to a sanctuary, while awaiting trial on 12 felony counts for embezzlement.

Cy is the owner of the roadside zoo Union Ridge Wildlife Center in Wilkesville, Ohio. Tonka is a former animal actor who had roles in “Buddy” and “George of the Jungle.” Tonka was one of a number of chimps held captive by Connie Casey, owner of the now-defunct Missouri Primate Foundation in Festus. Casey bred and sold chimps and trained them for the entertainment industry.

In 2017, PETA brought a lawsuit against Casey for violating the Endangered Species Act. In an attempt to moot the lawsuit, Casey transferred ownership of the chimps to Haddix, a known animal dealer whose customers are roadside zoos and private owners. PETA then added Haddix to the lawsuit and continued using the legal system in an attempt to remove the chimps and have them placed at a sanctuary.

Last year, a court ordered that Haddix’s remaining seven chimps be placed at a sanctuary. However, when PETA showed up to pick up the chimps, only six remained.

Haddix lied under oath to a Missouri judge and claimed the seventh chimp, Tonka, had died. When asked to produce a body for the deceased chimp, Haddix’s husband submitted a declaration in court stating that he had burned Tonka’s body in a fire pit.

In reality, Haddix illegally transported Tonka across state lines and hid him at Union Ridge Wildlife Center and kept him with Cy’s chimps.

The chimps at Union Ridge Wildlife Center. Could the chimp on the right be Tonka? Video credit: SPARTN.

Meanwhile, PETA upped the pressure to find Tonka, offering a $20,000 reward for the missing chimp. At some point Haddix traveled the eight hours back to Union Ridge Wildlife Center, picked Tonka up, and then smuggled him into her basement where he remained completely isolated from other chimps in an enclosure nailed to the floor.

"Chimp Queen" documentary

"Chimp Queen" Tonia Haddix.

A break in the case came when PETA obtained a recording of a June 2 phone call in which Haddix admitted Tonka was in her basement and said she had plans to euthanize him.

The phone call was recorded as part of a Tiger King-style documentary being produced. The documentary producer has not been publicly identified.

Tonka in Haddix's basement. Photo credit: PETA.

On June 5, representatives confiscated Tonka from Haddix and placed him at Save the Chimps in Fort Pierce, Florida. Photos and videos posted on social media indicate Tonka is settling in nicely at the sanctuary.

Tonka at Save the Chimps sanctuary. Photo credit: Save the Chimps.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office is reviewing the case to determine whether to charge Haddix criminally for hiding the chimp. If the Attorney’s Office declines to bring charges, Judge Catherine D. Perry wrote that she will initiate a criminal contempt proceeding against Haddix.

On June 8, Cy posted on the Union Ridge Wildlife Center page that the sanctuary Save the Chimps is exploiting animals and manipulating the public.

Cy argued that Tonka should have remained locked in the small basement cage with no access to the outdoors instead of being placed at a sanctuary with spacious enclosures because “bigger is not always better.”

“If the sanctuary needs your help now more than ever, the sanctuary should have asked for your help before offering sanctuary to an animal,” Cy wrote.

It is unclear how Save the Chimps could predict that Tonka would be found alive when Haddix repeatedly lied under oath and said he was dead.

Cyril "Cy" Vierstra indicted

Last October, Cy was indicted on 12 felonies and one misdemeanor for allegedly stealing more than $287,000 from his town and using it for his own benefit and to fund Union Ridge Wildlife.

Cy was formerly the Vinton Township Fiscal Officer. An investigation was launched in 2020 after Vinton County Auditor Cindy Waugh learned there were insufficient funds in the township’s account and found questionable charges on the township debit and credit cards that were assigned to Cy.

The subsequent audit and investigation revealed that between January 2016 and July 2020, Cy used the township debit and credit cards, and issued checks on the township bank account, for expenditures for his personal benefit, renovations to his residence, and to support Union Ridge Wildlife Center, according to a press release.

Cy discusses "creative" fundraising after allegedly embezzling nearly $300K.

Cy allegedly falsified copies of township trustee minutes and created false invoices, billing slips and other purchase and payment documents to hide the true nature and purpose of his personal expenditures.

The township reported $287,565.11 in financial losses attributable to theft by Cy. In addition, the cost of the audit to uncover Cy’s illegal activity is currently $30,471.20, and documents say that amount will continue to increase until the audit is closed.

The indictment, which was released in April, includes charges for theft in office, dereliction of duty, corrupt activity, telecommunications fraud and tampering with records.

Each of the 12 felony charges levied against Cy carry penalties of up to 11 years in prison.

Animal Welfare Act violations

USDA records indicate Cy has had a total of four USDA licenses since 2005, three of which are listed as canceled. Under a previous USDA license, Cy was cited for unsafe tiger enclosures, failing to feed tigers nutritional food, feeding tigers meat swarming with flies, housing a camel in several inches of feces and urine, failing to sanitize water dishes and repeatedly failing to provide acquisition records for a bear.

Image credit: Humane Society of the United States.

In 2014, Cy was involved in a lawsuit with a group of roadside zoo owners to oppose stronger legislation governing exotic animals in Ohio after Zanesville roadside zoo owner Terry Thomson released all of his animals and shot himself. Deputies shot and killed 49 of the escaped animals including endangered tigers and lions.

In 2017, Cy was cited with three critical violations of the Animal Welfare Act after three Canadian lynx were killed at his facility. Cy told officials the lynx were killed by “wild dogs.” Two days later when the inspector questioned Cy about the incident, he confirmed that it was his personal dog that killed the lynx and he lied to officials because he didn’t want to disclose that it was his personal dog that killed them.

At the same two inspections, the USDA found an animal disposition form for two female lynx showing that Cy donated the lynx to a non-USDA licensed individual in Indiana in October or November 2016.

“When the licensee was asked about these animals, he provided the breeder’s name and USDA license number that he supposedly obtained the animals from verbally,” according to the inspection report. “In addition, he stated that the animals had been acquired one day prior to transferring them to the Indiana facility.”

Two days later, Cy admitted to the inspector that the information he provided about the lynx was false and he had never obtained the animals and instead had falsely created documents in hopes of eventually obtaining lynx from Indiana.

“The licensee stated that he thought that this would allow him to replace two out of the three lynx that were killed in December before anyone had realized that the three lynx were no longer at the facility,” documents say.

In a Facebook review earlier this year, Cy accused another facility of doing many of the same things that he's accused of doing.

In 2019, Cy was accused of boarding three monkeys for a private owner and then faking the monkeys’ deaths so that he wouldn’t have to return them.

Cy allegedly lied to state officials and to the owner of the monkeys and claimed they were humanely euthanized. The monkeys were later located in private homes.

Wildlife trafficking

"Monkey King" Cy Vierstra.

Cy was featured in a 2011 Inside Edition article "Tigers for Sale." A google search of Cy’s name brings up postings from 2012 offering a white tiger and fruit bats for sale.

The animal inventory records for Union Ridge Wildlife appear to show a pattern of wildlife trafficking. The most recently available inspection reports indicate that between March 12, 2019 (download report) and August 7, 2020 (download report), Cy obtained one barbary sheep and one chimpanzee, while 19 animals disappeared from his facility. The missing animals include three Jamaican bats, four brown lemurs, six ring-tailed lemurs, one snow macaque, two brown tufted capuchins, one red ruffed lemur and two black and white ruffed lemurs.

Although Union Ridge Wildlife Center has been accredited by the American Sanctuary Association (ASA) since 2017, Cy appears to be violating sanctuary accrediting requirements which prohibit buying, selling, trading or auctioning animals or their body parts.

In the 2021 documentary The Conservation Game, Cy is recorded selling an Arctic great horned owl to Grant Kemmerer of Wild World of Animals, a traveling exotic animal show.

Cy (left) and Tim Harrison. Photo credit: Tim Harrison.

Cy is a close friend of Tim Harrison who owns Outreach for Animals and was also featured in The Conservation Game. Social media posts indicate Harrison has worked to place animals at Cy’s roadside zoo.

As of June 2022, Harrison is working with Union Ridge Wildlife to raise funds for Outreach for Animals.

Hands on animal encounters at Union Ridge

Cy is operating Union Ridge Wildlife Center as an Airbnb. Visitors who rent the Airbnb house are allowed to wander the property and interact with the exotic animals. Numerous social media posts include photos and videos showing guests directly interacting with chimps, monkeys and lemurs.

Airbnb visitors can also purchase a tent camping experience next to the Union Ridge Wildlife tiger enclosure. These activities are a clear violation of ASA policies which state the animals can not be used in commercial activities that are exploitative in nature; sanctuaries may not allow free roaming public access to the animals or the sanctuary; and sanctuaries may not use animals for entertainment.

Photographs of the enclosures at Cy’s facility show many of the primates are housed in chain link dog kennels entirely on concrete.

Photo credit Union Ridge Wildlife Center.

An online fundraising campaign indicates Cy has begun working with an organization called SPARTN (Small Primate Animal Rescue Tennessee), directed by Michael Robison, an unlicensed exotic animal exhibitor and writer for the alt-right fake news website The Gateway Pundit. Robison keeps several pet primates inside his Tennessee home including a spider monkey who he exploits under the account @spidermonkeywinston. He has also posted numerous photos and videos where he directly interacts with the primates and chimps at Union Ridge Wildlife.

SPARTN and Union Ridge have begun fundraising in an effort to raise $348,000 to complete a chimp house at Union Ridge.

The amount of money that Cy is on the hook for in his criminal case is just $30,000 shy of the SPARTN fundraising goal for Union Ridge Wildlife.

Supporters who donate $25,000 to the project are rewarded with a two-day hands on chimp experience.

Allowing the public to directly interact with chimps is extremely dangerous. There have been numerous recorded incidents of chimps severely mauling people. In 2009, a Connecticut woman’s face was ripped off by a chimp named Travis who was shot and killed by police. Last year, a pet chimp named Buck was shot and killed after attacking a 50-year-old woman in Oregon.

It is unclear who will care for the animals at Union Ridge Wildlife with Cy facing prison time. The case is scheduled for a pretrial hearing on August 9.


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