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Chimp at the center of custody battle in court today

12:19 PM, Jan 23, 2010   |    comments
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Update: Judge turns down DNA request in chimp custody case

Sarasota, Florida -- Custody battles can be complicated, emotional and downright nasty, and it's not all that different when it involves an animal. Usually couples fight over a pet dog, cat, or even a bird.

But this custody battle involves a baby chimp.

11-month-old Eli has known only one home with his animal baby-raiser in Sarasota Gini Valbuena.  

"I've raised him since he was 3 months old. It takes a lot of diapers, a lot of baby formula it's 24/7 care," she says.

Photo Gallery: Chimpanzee caught in custody battle

Valbuena will raise Eli for the first two to three years before he returns to his owners in California, who are animal trainers. But someone else claims ownership to the baby chimpanzee that is worth $65,000. He's a Missouri man named Mike Casey and he's going to court to seek a DNA test.

"If it's good for the state of Florida to execute people based on DNA evidence, I think it's good enough to determine the lineage of this animal," says Jason Wandner, Casey's attorney.

Unlike with children where there are birth certificates showing who the parents are, with animals like Eli, there are no birth records and that raises a lot of questions.

Casey owned a chimp habitat in Missouri. He told the judge when he and his wife were going through a bitter divorce, she allegedly sold Eli, despite a court order. Casey believes Eli's mother is one of his apes, but she died before it could be proven.

While Casey says he has no physical proof, he believes Eli's mother Ella was pregnant and died after complications from child birth. Her death came about two months after Eli was reportedly born.

Valbuena tells the judge she picked up Eli on May 24, 2009 at the Caseys' chimp habitat, but the location was set up out of convenience. Valbuena has been friends with Casey's ex-wife for more than 20 years. She says Eli's owners, Steve and Donna Martin, bought him from another breeder in Missouri. Since Valbuena had wanted to visit two of her chimps living at the Casey facility, she asked they meet there instead of traveling to the Martin's home in California to pick up Eli.

"People know animals, like humans, have familiar characteristics they look like their relatives," says Wandner.

"There's no evidence he belongs to Mike Casey, because does he look like one of his chimps? I don't think so," adds Valbuena.

Judge Charlie Roberts agrees and based on a lack of evidence, denies the DNA test, but leaves the door open for Casey to try again in court. Wandner says they will be back.

"We're going to dig as deep as we can until we find the truth," assures Casey's attorney.

"It's frivolous. It's someone angry over a bad divorce trying to claim something as his just to hurt his wife further," says Valbuena, a long time friend of Casey's ex-wife. She adds, "It's all about money and greed."

Some say instead of what's best for the child or in this case, Eli the chimp. While the legal proceedings continue, Eli will continue living with Valbuena in Sarasota. 

Chimps are illegal to own as pets in Florida, unless the owner is a licensed professional exhibitor.

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