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Pierce Onthank, Oil Company President, Cited For Owning Endangered Ape

JOHN CHRISTOFFERSEN   03/ 9/09 11:07 PM ET   AP

Siamang

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Six weeks before a 200-pound chimpanzee nearly mauled a woman to death, state officials were cracking down on the owner of a 14-pound siamang that was still wearing diapers made for infants.

Pierce Onthank, the president of an oil and gas company, was charged in January with illegal possession of a primate for keeping a siamang, a type of gibbon that is native to rain forests in Malaysia and Indonesia and can weigh up to 30 pounds and stand 3 feet high.

The Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection says he never had the required permit.

The owner of Travis, the chimpanzee who mauled the woman, also did not have a permit. But Travis was allowed to go unmonitored, while the owner of Koby the siamang gibbon is facing a court hearing and possible fine.

"I'm very disturbed," said state Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington. "It simply points out to me why we need to have definitive legislation on this issue."

The mauling triggered Congress and state officials to consider strengthening laws against keeping exotic animals. A bill proposed by Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Gina McCarthy would impose penalties of up to one year in prison and a $2,000 fine.

"If a statute lacks any standards or guidelines for determining what should be permitted, enforcement may look like it's very selective and even arbitrary," Blumenthal said. "These arbitrary and capricious outcomes demonstrate why we need a complete ban on possession of any wild, potentially dangerous animal."

But DEP spokesman Dennis Schain denied there was selective enforcement, saying there was a formal complaint about Koby that triggered an investigation but no complaint about Travis. Travis also was obtained legally, but Koby was not, he said.

"They're two very different sets of circumstances that were affected by changes in state law regarding possession of primates," Schain said. "The fact that there was a formal complaint in the case involving Mr. Onthank strengthened our hand and gave us a sound basis to bring charges against him."

Onthank, 49, said he was preparing Koby to be placed in a zoo for breeding.

"I have never taken any of my animals from the wild, nor have I ever placed my animals in the pet trade," he said in a statement.

The charge against Onthank, who could face a fine of less than $500, comes a month after a Stamford woman, Charla Nash, was mauled by Travis, a former television commercial star. Nash, 55, is hospitalized at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. Police shot and killed Travis but haven't decided if they will file charges against owner Sandra Herold.

DEP officials knew of Travis from a 2003 incident in which he escaped from a moving vehicle and led police on a two-hour chase through downtown Stamford. But they did not enforce the permitting requirement because they had no other complaints about him.

Issuance of a permit would not have changed what happened, Edward Parker, chief of the state Department of Environmental Protection's natural resources bureau, said last month.

Officials in Fairfield, where Onthank lives, have registered 16 incidents involving his dogs, and neighbors had complained he had 12 monkeys, a tortoise, large iguanas and an otter.

In October, Onthank took Koby to the Lionshare Zoological Center in the Greenwich/Stamford area while he tried to sell his house.

Lionshare's owner said the pet siamang had very thin hair and dry skin, and a curator there said Onthank also had owned monkeys, lemurs and a two-toed sloth, a court affidavit stated.

DEP began investigating and learned Onthank never had the required state and federal permits for the ape, the affidavit said. The ape was seized as evidence but left in the care of Lionshare, according to the affidavit.

Onthank's wife said Sunday that Koby, age 2, weighs about 14 pounds and wears diapers.

Experts say siamang gibbons are powerful and are potentially dangerous to humans.

"Primates are basically unpredictable," said Stephen Rene Tello, executive director of Primarily Primates, a sanctuary in Texas that has offered to take the siamang. "That animal will change into an aggressive wild animal very quickly."

Onthank, who also is being investigated by federal authorities, has "a history of improper care and control of both exotic and domestic animals," the affidavit said.

Onthank heads Westport-based American Energy Group, an oil and gas drilling company that has interests in Pakistan and Galveston, Texas.

A court appearance scheduled for Monday was continued until March 31.

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Filed by Marcus Baram  |