Katie Moore / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS - State wildlife officials confiscated four monkeys from an autistic woman from Florida last weekend on Bourbon Street.
64-year-old Joan Newberger said the monkeys were confiscated illegally, because they’re her “service monkeys.” But the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries categorizes them as illegally-owned primates, saying they don't believe the monkeys meet the definition of service animals that’s spelled out in the Americans with Disabilities Act.
You see all kinds of things on Bourbon Street during Carnival, including drag queens in costume, but what you don't typically see is a woman in a pirate costume with four live monkeys, also dressed in pirate costumes.
“We were dressing up for the Mardi Gras and we dress up as pirates,” said James Poole, caretaker for Newberger.
Poole said letters show doctors in Texas and in Florida have diagnosed Newberger with a form of autism, and for years, she's traveled everywhere with the four monkeys.
Newberger said they're registered with a group in Texas as her service monkeys, like a seeing eye dog, only they help her with other tasks, like bathing.
“I can't vacuum. I can't be in water. I don't, none of that. My feet are real itchy now. My, everything bothering me,” Newberger said.
She said she’s reacting to not having her service monkeys, that according to Poole, calm her down. The two said wildlife agents and police didn’t tell her she couldn’t have the monkeys in the French Quarter until the moment they seized them.
“They didn't give us no warning. They say look you need this paperwork, I'd say, fine.I'll go get it. We don't have a problem with it,” Newberger said.
But wildlife officials tell a different story.
“What we found was a couple that was, I don't know what you would call them, street vendors, street performers, they were in costume with four monkeys. The monkeys were in costume,” said Maria Davidson, Large Carnivore Program Manager for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
Wildlife officials said they received complaints that Joan and her caretaker were here on Bourbon Street taking money for pictures with the monkeys.
Joan responded, “I'm walking and everybody like, oh, I want picture! I want picture! And we can't go anywhere. They don't let us move. They keep us in one spot for an hour. So, I said, oh pictures, two dollars just to get rid of them. Most people go what and they'll walk away.”
But according to Wildlife and Fisheries, possession of any non-human primates has been illegal in Louisiana since 2006. “We were told they were service animals because the animals provided emotional support and comfort. By its ADA definition, that does not meet the service animal definition,” Davidson said.
Newberger and Poole said the monkeys were trained to help her before she got them.
“It's not easy to train for my disability,” said Newberger.
But wildlife agents confiscated the monkeys anyway, and wrote Newberger and Poole citations.
“This isn't some wild animal that we snatched out of the swamp in New Orleans and we’re running around making money on it. She's had these marmosets for going on six years now. The pates [monkey] she's had for going on four years,” Poole said.
Wildlife agents said it’s up to the Orleans Parish Municipal Court to decide if Newberger can get her monkeys back. But Newberger's court date isn't until early July, and she's already been to the emergency room once to get help calming down.
In the meantime, the monkeys are in zoological care. According to Wildlife and Fisheries, the monkeys had a diaper rash and diarrhea when they first confiscated them because of only drinking fruit juice and eating baby food, what they describe as an improper diet.
“They should be eating solid food, fruits and vegetables,” Davidson said, and drinking water.
It’s something Newberger denies, saying the monkeys didn’t have diarrhea, and that she’s concerned the separation may be causing them to go into shock.