JEFFERSON CITY — A chimpanzee named Travis mauled a woman and left her face unrecognizable when he escaped his home in Stamford, Conn., and attacked Charla Nash, a close friend of his owner on Feb. 16, 2009. A year later, another chimpanzee, Sueko, also escaped from his home in Kansas City, and attacked a police car. Both Travis and Sueko came from Jefferson County, Mo.
The Senate Agriculture Committee debated a bill that would require owners to obtain permits for and neuter their primates incited passionate testimonies from several Missouri primate breeders.
Sen. Joseph Keaveny, D-St. Louis City, sponsored the bill after Eric Miller, veterinarian and senior vice president at the Saint Louis Zoo, requested these large and exotic animals be regulated.
"Missouri is one of the few states with no (statewide) regulation of large and exotic animals," Miller said. "It's a national standard Missouri is working on catching up to."
Currently, Missouri regulates these primates on a county-by-county basis. Some counties in Missouri don't have primate requirements; others require primate owners to register their pets with the county sheriff. Owners must give the sheriff's office their address, a description of their primate and a description of the primate's living conditions.
If the bill passes, the Missouri Department of Agriculture would issue the statewide permits to primate owners, however, they have not yet taken a position for or against the bill.
More than 25 people attended a March 3 committee hearing to speak against the bill. Miller, the only proponent who spoke in favor of the bill, testified on behalf of the Saint Louis Zoo.
Suzanne Windsor, a U.S. Department of Agriculture-licensed exhibitor of primates, opposed the bill.
"It's an all out ban," Windsor said. "They are trying to go above and beyond what the state is supposed to be doing by going above and beyond federal regulations."
Her main concern was the bill's requirement to spay and neuter — both of which are high-risk surgeries for a primate, whose reproductive system resembles a human's. She said it would result in the gradual phase-out of Missouri primate breeding.
"For people that are USDA-licensed to breed and sell, it causes unnecessary surgeries on primates that could cause their deaths," Windsor said. "If you have a 22-year-old primate that's never been spayed, there's a good chance she could never come off that table [alive]."
Keaveny said he is looking into changes to the bill to appease the opposition. He said he has received several suggestions from a veterinarian to help the bill pass next year.
"We are open to making those [necessary] adjustments," he said.
The bill would exempt zoos, nonprofit organizations, animal control and law enforcement, circuses, educational institutions and exhibits, animal sanctuaries and veterinarians.
Currently, 15 states have a permit system for owning primates and 20 states have outlawed some, if not all, primate ownership. States that don't have regulations include Missouri border states Kansas and Nebraska.
A violation of the act would result in a class A misdemeanor charge unless the person intentionally releases a non-human primate, which would result in a class D felony.