By DARREL MAGER
MORRINSVILLE - A circus-owner being targeted by the animal rights group that liberated the orphaned chimp Buddy says she would rather die than give up the primate's older brother, Mr Muggins.
Morrinsville resident Carolyn Ridgway, who owns the Little Big Top circus with husband Charlie, said she was 6-year-old Mr Muggins' surrogate mother and that he would be traumatised if sent to join Buddy in the Chimfunshi Wildlife Sanctuary in Zambia.
"Mr Muggins has lived with me for six years and there is a strong bond between us," she said.
"I am definitely his surrogate mother. He sleeps in the bed with me every night.
"When he has been ill, I've held water in my mouth and dribbled it into his mouth because he wouldn't drink any other way.
"He's a part of our family. He brushes his teeth every morning. He uses the toilet," Mrs Ridgway said.
"We've never been investigated for animal welfare concerns, so I don't know how this group can justify wanting to take him. It would be detrimental to his health and mental well-being.
"I'd go bush with Mr Muggins before they ever got a chance to lay their hands on him."
The Auckland group Save Animals From Exploitation (Safe) persuaded a Fiji circus-owner to hand over Mr Muggins' baby brother Buddy after the chimp's mother Lola died. Lola, at 36 New Zealand's oldest circus chimp, died soon after being sold by Circus Magic, owned by Mrs Ridgway's brother-in-law, Cary.
Buddy is slowly adjusting to freedom in Zambia and the group now wants to liberate Mr Muggins and his older brother, Sonny, who is still owned by Cary Ridgway.
Safe spokesman Gary Reese said: "What Mrs Ridgway is forgetting is that chimps tend to get aggressive after puberty, so what is going to happen to Mr Muggins when he's fully grown and they can no longer control him?
"Mr Muggins' 12-year-old brother Bubba had to be put down after he became aggressive in 1996."
But while Mrs Ridgway was digging her heels in, Cary Ridgway yesterday offered to give Sonny up, provided money changed hands and he was allowed to go to the Chimfunshi reserve with the chimp.
"I'd be happy to pay for the trip out of my own pocket," he said.
"I've been with Sonny since he was born and sending him away would be like sending away a child, so I'd need to be there to help make that transition easier."
Mr Reese said his group did not want Mr Ridgway involved in the rehabilitation but was keen to negotiate. Safe would not pay for an animal's freedom.
The group was looking at legal options, including the new Animal Welfare Act, to have the chimps released.
Mr Muggins is performing in Taranaki and Sonny has been entertaining thousands of schoolchildren in the Taupo region.
By DARREL MAGER