The star witness said nothing Tuesday, but she won the jury with her eyes.
She sat on the lap of the plaintiff, clinging to a pink stuffed animal and glancing around the Independence courtroom. Following a few questions, lawyer David Wylie, representing the plaintiff, asked Donald Petty, representing a defendant, to step forward.
Then the plaintiff handed the animal over. “Awwww.” said a few members of the jury.
“No questions for the monkey, Mr. Petty?” Wylie asked.
“No questions,” Petty replied.
With that, the 3-month-old white-headed female gibbon ape, a resident of the Monkey Island Rescue and Zoological Sanctuary in southeastern Jackson County, was excused.
It represented a brief moment of levity in a civil trial that began Tuesday at the Jackson County Courthouse Annex in Independence.
Dana Savorelli, owner of the sanctuary often known as Monkey Island, is seeking monetary and punitive damages from defendant Catherine Montes, who once served as a sanctuary volunteer and whom Savorelli alleges seized three monkeys from the property in 2007.
Montes, in turn, has denied that allegation. She is seeking actual and punitive damages from Savorelli, whom she says has misrepresented the case to officers and reporters.
The litigation stems from the October 2007 disappearance of the three monkeys from the sanctuary in Greenwood.
Montes had faced burglary and theft charges in the incident, but those charges were dropped in October 2008, one month after Buchanan County authorities recovered two of the monkeys, Nicholas and Abby.
The charges against Montes were dismissed because of problems with evidence, Jackson County prosecutors said at the time.
In April 2011, a Missouri appeals court upheld the receiving stolen property convictions of Lisa Shinkle, from whose home Buchanan County authorities recovered the two monkeys.
Tuesday’s court appearance of a 3-month old monkey was the latest unusual moment in the matter. During a court appearance by Montes in December 2007, a group of protestors wearing furry ape suits appeared in the courtroom, holding signs that read “Where’s our stolen monkeys?”
Some of that tension was evident Tuesday.
In opening arguments, Wylie alleged that Montes had taken the monkeys without permission. Petty, meanwhile, described how Montes had begun serving as a volunteer at Monkey Island almost every other day. “She loved those monkeys; it became a considerable part of her life,” Petty said.
But that tension ebbed early Tuesday afternoon when the 3-month-old monkey arrived in the courtroom of Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Michael Manners in an animal transport kennel.
Savorelli held her in a side office before bringing her into the courtroom just before the jury returned from a break.
The monkey stayed on Savorelli’s lap for about 15 minutes while he testified. Savorelli demonstrated how animals can be identified with a microchip scanning device. He passed a scanner over the animal, and jurors heard a tiny beep from the microchip implanted beneath its shoulder blades.
Wylie asked Savorelli to identify darts and other devices used in the delivery of animal tranquilizers. Savorelli testified that he had used such tranquilizers in 2004 when, at Montes’ request, he had to sedate and retrieve Nicholas from Montes’ home after the animal she had purchased six years earlier had grown too difficult to handle.
Savorelli also described how he had grown up fascinated with animals and in the late 1990s purchased the approximately 10 acres in Greenwood that he decided to devote to the care of exotic animals.
Savorelli identified copies of the animal dealer licenses issued to him from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
He also detailed the physical layout of Monkey Island, which he said serves as the home of approximately 50 monkeys, as well as other animals, such as llamas, horses and donkeys. The facility’s name comes from the small island, situated in a small pond, that is visible just off South Harris Road in southeastern Jackson County. It remains a common sight, he said, to see four of five cars pulled over on the road’s shoulders, their occupants looking at the residents of the island, which currently includes six lemurs and two gibbon apes.
The case is scheduled to continue today.