It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Take a gaggle of 10- and 11-year-olds at a birthday party, throw in a couple of rented monkeys and just sit back and let the camcorders roll.
“The monkeys hopped from shoulder to shoulder and from person to person,” said Susan Vanlandingham of Leawood, who was throwing the birthday bash for her son, Ben. “It seemed like a free-for-all. … We thought, ‘This is great.’ ”
But when one of the monkeys, a little Capuchin named Wyatt, jumped on a child grabbing for Cheetos, it kicked off a litigation battle that still isn’t resolved five years later. Even today, there is disagreement over whether Wyatt bit the child twice or just scratched him.
This week, Ron Aryel, the former Johnson County public health officer who ordered that Wyatt be euthanized to be tested for rabies, filed a malicious prosecution lawsuit against Wyatt’s owner, Debbie Barnett of Paola.
Barnett had sued Aryel and other health officials in 2005 for allegedly putting Wyatt down needlessly; that lawsuit in Miami County District Court was dismissed last summer.
“He can sue away,” Barnett said Thursday, after learning of Aryel’s lawsuit against her. “I have nothing.”
Five months after the birthday-party incident on May 7, 2003, she said, the stress of it caused her and her husband to separate. She had been working as a veterinary technician for him, so she stopped that too. And that birthday party was the last time she’s taken any of her monkeys to a public event.
“I lost my marriage, I lost my profession. I lost my life. But the worst thing was we killed a nonhuman primate who was in the middle of this whole thing for nothing.”
Attorney Arthur Benson, who is representing Aryel, said he imagines Barnett was close to 4-year-old Wyatt, just as people are close to their pets.
“I’m sure she feels very upset about it but that’s not a reason to haul off and sue,” Benson said.
Because Aryel was a contract employee with Johnson County, he had to hire his own attorney to defend himself against Barnett’s lawsuit, Benson said. Aryel’s federal lawsuit in Kansas City, Kan., seeks compensation for that, as well as for the damage he says he suffered to his reputation and the emotional distress he endured.
Aryel, who referred questions to his attorney, is no longer working for the county.
While the 2003 birthday party was in progress, the incident with Wyatt and the 11-year-old boy did not seem like that big a deal, said Vanlandingham, who was holding the party in her backyard.
But afterward, the mother of the boy called a doctor and the dreaded word rabies entered the conversation. She learned that rabies is life-threatening and that her son would have to undergo a grueling series of shots unless authorities could test the monkey to ensure he did not have rabies.
“It was very scary,” said the mother, who asked not to be identified.
Aryel maintains he consulted with other health officials and determined that the only way to find out if Wyatt had rabies was to euthanize him and conduct tests on his brain. Barnett objected, and said in her lawsuit that a health officer in Miami County was exploring other options.
Barnett and her then veterinarian-husband had obtained Wyatt from a zoological park in Missouri, Barnett said. He had lived with them since he was a day old and was like a child to them.
Barnett said Wyatt was never exposed to any wild animals or any animals infected with rabies. In fact, she said, Wyatt and the other monkeys they owned had been vaccinated against rabies.