John Michael Oyer just wants his chimp back. He says he raised Suco, a 22-year-old chimpanzee, since she was a baby. She's now at the Kansas City Zoo. And if Kansas City gets its way, she'll stay there for the rest of her life.
The scene that put Suco in the zoo has been splashed across YouTube and a TV clip show of police videos. Around noon on October 19, 2010, the 4-foot-tall primate was spotted ambling around Indiana Avenue between 77th and 78th streets. Witnesses told a municipal court earlier this month that the animal was slapping cars, at one point opening the passenger door on a vehicle and terrifying its driver.
With police, neighbors and animal-control officers swarming the area, Suco decided it was time for the real fireworks. She pushed a trash can down Indiana toward a police cruiser, then leaped onto the hood of the car and smashed the windshield. The vehicle's dash cam filmed the whole thing. Not long after that, Suco, as docile as a basset hound, got into the cargo van belonging to Mark Archigo, the boyfriend of Suco's other owner, Deborah Kaumans. The spectacle was over, but the drama was about to begin.
Animal-control officers cited Kaumans and Archigo for harboring a dangerous animal in the city, a violation of city ordinance 14.9. The two went to trial earlier this month. But Oyer, who wasn't in possession of Suco when she got out, says the case wasn't handled properly. He says it's a simple matter of getting back something that belongs to him.
"They've taken my property," he said in an interview before Archigo and Kaumans were tried in municipal court. "This is a property-rights issue."
Not according to city officials. But a new layer of confusion marred the case. The city had placed Suco at the Kansas City Zoo. Archigo and Kaumans were set to be tried together, but Oyer and Kaumans maintained that they owned Suco and that Archigo was a friend who cared for her. Oyer tried to convince Municipal Court Judge Ardie Bland to try him instead of Archigo. He likens the situation to red-light cameras.
"If you got a red-light traffic ticket — you know, one of those signal tickets — mailed to your address, and you went to court, and then your brother came in the court and said, 'Hey, by the way, I was driving the car that day,' would the judge let you be the one that accepts the charges?"
Bland denied Oyer's request and proceeded with the charges against Archigo and Kaumans.
In the frequently acrimonious trial, which included 11 witnesses and lasted more than four hours over two days, Assistant City Attorney Todd Wilcher made the case that Suco was being kept within city limits, in violation of the city ordinance. He said none of the more sensational aspects of the October events — whether Suco was a dangerous animal, how she got loose, the extent of the damage caused to the squad car — mattered. The question before the judge, he said, was whether Archigo and Kaumans were "keeping or harboring" a "nonhuman primate" in Kansas City, Missouri.
When Archigo, who had avoided speaking to the press, took the stand, he described a spectacularly unusual long-haul trucking lifestyle shared with Kaumans and Suco. They had trucked together throughout the country for years, never having a problem. Archigo and Oyer had completely redesigned Archigo and Kaumans' semitrailer to provide space and restraints for the chimp, he said.
Calling the chimp "a jewel," Archigo described Suco's diet as wide-ranging, including produce and meat. Questioned by defense attorney Camron Hoorfar, Archigo spoke at length about Suco's favorite fast-food choices when they were on the road.