By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Armani the capuchin monkey went home to Rockville last night, seemingly befuddled by the legal and media frenzy his custody dispute triggered.
"It's Mommy," Elyse Gazewitz, the monkey's owner, said softly yesterday at the zoo where he has been kept for the past seven months. "You're going home."
The monkey squealed and shrieked when Gazewitz tried to embrace him as a crowd of onlookers and photographers looked on.
The reunion came after a Montgomery County judge ruled that officials should have released the monkey months ago and should now reimburse Gazewitz for much of the cost of boarding him in the interim.
"I never met Armani," Circuit Court Judge Terrence J. McGann said yesterday in court shortly before announcing his decision. "But I did get a card from him. He's quite a good writer. Nice penmanship. I was hoping he might be here today. He would be in his little tux, and he'd be well-behaved. But he's not."
More seriously, the judge provided the following explanation for his ruling:
County animal services officers seized Armani in May and charged Gazewitz with violating state law and county code provisions prohibiting people from keeping wild and dangerous animals as pets.
In June, Gazewitz appeared before the county's Animal Matters Hearing Board to appeal Armani's seizure. The board found that the four-pound monkey was not dangerous but that the seizure was lawful because officers had probable cause to suspect that Gazewitz had violated state law.
McGann said yesterday that the animal hearing board should not have considered Gazewitz's appeal until the criminal case was resolved.
In July, the Montgomery County prosecutor dropped the sole criminal charge filed in the case. Once that charge was dismissed, McGann said, "the county lost its mooring for the seizure."
Montgomery police said the monkey needed to remain confined at the Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo until civil citations were resolved. Had the county prevailed, Assistant County Attorney William A. Snoddy said, Armani would have been sent to a facility for wild animals in Florida.
Gazewitz has been paying roughly $1,300 a month for Armani's "room and board" at Catoctin -- an amount McGann called "exorbitant."
"Many outstanding universities may not charge as much," McGann said.
He ordered the police department to reimburse what Gazewitz paid Catoctin after the state charge was dropped.
In the only victory for the police department, the judge fined Gazewitz $100 for "interfering" with animal service officers by standing in their way the day Armani was taken. McGann dismissed the remaining civil citation she faced -- violating a county code provision that bars people from owning wild animals as pets, as designated by the state law -- saying that the county failed to demonstrate that Armani was dangerous or potentially dangerous.
The county can appeal McGann's ruling. Officer Melanie Hadley, a police spokeswoman, said officials have not decided whether to do so.
McGann told Snoddy that if county officials make a "180-degree turn" in the case and attempt to argue that the monkey is, indeed, dangerous, they must give Gazewitz 10 days to make arrangements before seizing it again.
McGann's ruling triggered applause and tears. Gazewitz, 43, bowed over the defense table and sobbed as her 73-year-old mother, Sheila, and other supporters wept tears of joy.
Before the seizure, Gazewitz pampered the tiny monkey, dressing him in clothes and diapers and buying him tire swings, toys and a small hammock. After he was taken, Gazewitz and her supporters launched a vigorous campaign to get him back. One sent postcards, supposedly signed by Armani, to various officials in the case.
The months of separation were taxing for Gazewitz, her mother said. Visits at the zoo were scary for the monkey because they were conducted near a snake exhibit, she added.
Shortly after the ruling, Gazewitz called the zoo to tell officials that the judge would soon sign the monkey's release order.
Catoctin General Curator June Bellizzi said Armani behaved well and broadened his culinary tastes during his stay at the zoo.
"He likes bananas, apples, blueberry muffins and biscuits," Bellizzi said.
When it came time for the official hand-over, Bellizzi warned: "He's going to go buck wild."
He did. The monkey fell on the ground as Gazewitz tried to put on his pink leash. He yelped loudly for a while, until he was placed in a pet crate and put into an awaiting van.
"That was the wild animal they kept talking about," Sheila Gazewitz said.