By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
The owner of a capuchin monkey seized by Montgomery County police pleaded guilty yesterday to illegally possessing a monkey but said the plea was a tactical legal maneuver rather than an admission of guilt.
An attorney for Elyse Gazewitz, whose pet, Armani, was seized in May, said the plea in District Court was a way to get a "ticket punched" so the "complex and interesting" issues raised by the case can be aired in a higher court.
"If we look at Armani's best interest, we have a very interesting issue," said the attorney, Anne E. Benaroya. "He doesn't realize he's a monkey, basically," and it is a hardship for him to be separated from Gazewitz.
Gazewitz was recently permitted to visit Armani at the zoo where he is being kept -- a meeting she said was emotional for both parties -- but the monkey's future remains uncertain. Benaroya said placing him in a wildlife preserve would be akin to taking a "kid from Potomac" and "placing him in Hickey," referring to a juvenile detention center in Baltimore.
Gazewitz said her pet capuchin is more like a child than a monkey. He misses her desperately and belongs home with her, she said.
"Armani will come home," she vowed yesterday.
Montgomery officials say the matter is pretty straightforward: Armani is a monkey, diapers and OshKosh B'Gosh outfits notwithstanding, and it is illegal to have pet monkeys in the county. Gazewitz broke the law, and she can't have Armani back.
"Cut-and-dry," said William A. Snoddy, an associate county attorney.
Snoddy said the prosecution has evidence that Gazewitz acquired Armani well after May 2006, the cutoff for keeping pet monkeys under a new law. People who had monkeys by that time have been allowed to keep them in some cases.
Gazewitz pleaded guilty yesterday to violating county law by possessing a monkey; interfering with animal control officers trying to seize the monkey; failing to vaccinate a dog; and failing to have dogs licensed. She is appealing all the convictions.
District Judge Patricia L. Mitchell waived a $500 fine for possession of the monkey, but Gazewitz was ordered to pay $390 for the other citations, her attorney said. The fine will be scrapped if she prevails on appeal. Defendants who plead guilty in district court do not lose their right to appeal.
Police took custody of Armani after receiving a complaint that Gazewitz had a neglected monkey. Officers found that Armani was well cared for but seized him because, for public health reasons, it is illegal to keep monkeys as pets in Montgomery.
In June, the county's Animal Matters Hearing Board rejected Gazewitz's contention that Armani was seized improperly, a ruling she has appealed to Circuit Court. She has also filed a lawsuit to force the return of the monkey.
Armani's story has drawn national attention. Gazewitz created Armani's Wish, a Web site used to publicize the case and raise money to advance her cause. A petition circulating online is titled, "Bring Armani back to his life friend Elyse Gazewitz."
Another Web site, http://Cafepress.com, offers T-shirts, coffee mugs, book bags, boxer briefs and even a thong with Armani's photo and the words: "I just want to come home."
Gazewitz recently won a small legal victory when a Circuit Court judge said she should be permitted to visit Armani at the Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo in Thurmont. Their first reunion was Saturday.
"The pain went away when I saw him," Gazewitz said. "When he heard my voice, he started going 'wu-wu-wu-wu-wu-wu!' "
They spent an hour together Saturday and another hour Sunday, Gazewitz said. Parting was hard, she said. "He wouldn't let go of me," she said. "It was very emotional. I had to have assistance."
She said Armani seemed well cared for. "The caretaker has done a wonderful job with him," she said. "He is great. He's eating. The only thing that's wrong is he's missing me."
Gazewitz said she intends to limit her visits because she worries that the separation after brief encounters could be devastating to Armani.
"I don't want to get him so upset again," she said. "When Mommy left, it was not nice."