Animal shelter accused of some monkey business


Wherever Jamie the monkey goes, trouble seems to follow.

About a year ago, the male macaque started a barroom brawl in Glen Burnie after it bit a woman on the lip.

Now the monkey lies at the center of a custody battle between his new caretaker, who runs a primate and animal sanctuary in western Howard County, and his old owners, who are trying to close the sanctuary down.

On top of all that, somebody filed an anonymous complaint about the 30-year-old shelter to the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning, which has determined that Colleen Layton, manager of Frisky's Wildlife and Primate Sanctuary, needs county approval to continue boarding animals on her property.

Layton, 48, who goes before the Howard County Planning Board later this month and the Board of Appeals in September, is worried the county will take her animals away from her.

"I wouldn't trade this job for every paycheck in the world," she said.

But Jamie's former owners, Steven and Kimberly Ritterspach, want the shelter closed for good.

Anne Arundel County officials forced the Ritterspachs to surrender their monkey last year after the barroom brawl; the animal has a history of scratching and biting people. The Ritterspachs, who had lost three infants, were inconsolable. Steven Ritterspach said he spent more than $20,000 trying to get the monkey back and still hasn't given up.

"It drove me to the point of bankruptcy," he said.

In their efforts to get Jamie back - they raised it like a child, with bottles and diapers - they began researching the sanctuary and believe there's more to Layton's nonprofit than meets the eye.

Although Layton said she provides a sanctuary for monkeys that have been rejected by their parents or forfeited by their owners, the Ritterspachs say she buys her monkeys, using volunteer manpower and good-faith charitable donations to support her monkey hobby.

"It's ... sanctuaries like Frisky's that actually make it tough for the good sanctuaries," Steven Ritterspach said.

Monkey enthusiasts say the animals are taken from their mothers at birth and sold for anywhere from $3,000 to $15,000. There are monkey Web sites and bulletin boards where people can trade war stories. Questions include "Where can I buy good monkey food?" and "Can monkeys be toilet trained?"

Camille "CeeCee" Dorian, assistant editor and part-owner of Monkey Matters magazine in San Diego, said she is familiar with Layton, and thinks Howard County needs to regulate the sanctuary better.

Dorian said Layton runs the shelter "to bring in funds, and she's not accountable in any way as to what she spends the funds on."

Layton denies the allegations. She said Ritterspach and his allies are unfairly lashing out at her. She worries that if her opponents succeed in shutting her down, her monkeys will go to shelters that won't pamper them the way she does.

"Our monkeys get cable TV and three square meals a day plus snacks," she said. She bakes a chicken for them once a week and gives them lollipops and popcorn as treats. She said that the monkeys tend to be "over-nutritionalized."

Joseph W. Rutter Jr., director of the Howard County Office of Planning and Zoning, said his department doesn't want to get in the middle of the Jamie custody battle. It just needs to make sure the sanctuary doesn't cause trouble for neighbors. He said the Board of Appeals will ask only one question: "Is this particular use at this particular location appropriate?"

Howard County code makes it illegal to have exotic animals "even if well trained, declawed, defanged, ostensibly domesticated and affectionate to people."

But Sgt. John Superson, public information officer for the Howard County Police Department, said he didn't know whether monkeys are illegal in the county.

Frisky's Wildlife and Primate Sanctuary is set back from rural Old Frederick Road in Woodstock, up a driveway lined with 50-foot pines. In addition to the one-story house Layton shares with her husband and seven or eight monkeys, there are three primate houses, a goat run and a chicken coop. A total of 23 monkeys live in the sanctuary.

Layton said she does not allow visitors to tour the facility. "This is a sanctuary," she said firmly, "not a zoo."

Despite occasional problems, the sanctuary has numerous supporters. One of them, Monte M. Most of Council Bluffs, Iowa, gave his monkey, Kiko, to Frisky's a year and a half ago after the monkey began biting him and his family. He said he chose Frisky's because of the care.

"Our monkey was very spoiled," he said. "We wanted our monkey to continue to be hand-fed." Most, who said he visits his monkey at least four times a year, said he's happy with the care Kiko has received.

"I see no problem with the way she has run her sanctuary," he said. "It's clean, and the monkeys get good care personally."

Layton said she spends 99 percent of her time on "fecal management." She said she sweeps and mops her home three times a day and spends the rest of the time cleaning cages. The hard work pays off; her home barely smells at all.

The monkey shelters, however, have a considerably more pungent smell. And Layton said almost all the monkeys bite, scratch and pull hair. Jamie likes to beckon to people enticingly - but will scratch when they try to pull their arms away.

Layton said she receives no government money for her shelter, which began 30 years ago with a box of abandoned rabbits. She said her husband's paycheck, along with volunteer donations, pays for everything from food to medicine to new shelters for the monkeys. Her husband, Scott Robbins, is a mechanic and welder.

"My husband earns $20 an hour and gets $20 a week," Layton likes to joke.

Along with her husband and volunteers, Layton said she does all the work at the shelter. She said she works from dawn until well after dusk every day, never taking weekends, holidays or vacations.

She does all her chores with a baby monkey named Yoo on her back.

Layton recently hired a lawyer, Terry A. Berger of Owings Mills, who said he is working on her case at no charge because he loves animals.

Layton said she's a little apprehensive about going before the Planning Board and the Board of Appeals, but she said she is doing it, as she does everything, to help her animals.

"You're here for the animals," she said. "There's a lot of times you just smile and grit your teeth at some of the humans."

Sun researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.

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