Macaque Attack

Two-year-old Mason Alan couldn't have known about the fierce custody battle raging between his original adoptive parents and another caretaker struggling to keep the youngster at her side.

Nor would he have cared.

The brown-eyed, brown-haired imp just wanted what all babies want: loving arms to hold him, food in his belly, a place to sleep following another busy day spent with his playmates.

The court case involving Mason, which was decided by a Maricopa County jury in May, unfolded like thousands of custody wars fought before it.

Emotions ran high over the little guy, with talk of his best interests, rightful guardianship and even threats of violence rocking the lives of Shirley Godee, Kimberly Connell and Richard Smith, according to court papers.

Jurors ultimately decided to let Mason stay at Godee's home, among his own kind, grooming his playmates, swinging from ropes.

Mason is a macaque monkey.

"It was like losing a child," says Connell.

Connell and Smith declined repeated requests for further comment, following a loss they say broke their hearts.

What began as either a pet-sitting gig or an adoption -- depending on which side you choose to believe -- became the first civil court case of its kind in Arizona, with two people suing to recover a monkey, according to the attorney representing Godee.

In the summer of 1999, Mason the monkey was living with Connell and Smith in Nevada. The couple decided to move to Connecticut, where exotic pets like Mason are not allowed. They found a new home for the monkey with Godee, a Maricopa County resident who already had two other macaques. Mason moved from his Las Vegas home to Maricopa County in August of that year and Connell and Smith headed east.

At the time of the transfer, Mason was just 2 1/2 years old. In another year or two he would reach maturity, weighing about 15 to 25 pounds and standing almost two feet tall, not including his tail.

Just weeks after the move, however, Connell and Smith decided they wanted their monkey back, though it is unclear whether they planned to take him to Connecticut or have Godee keep him until they moved back. When they asked Godee to hand over Mason, she refused.

That's when things got ugly.

The battle for the monkey mushroomed from a dispute between animal lovers, to formal complaints, to a civil lawsuit.

In December 1999, Connell submitted a complaint to the Maricopa County Superior Court asking for a judgment to recover personal property she claimed was being unlawfully detained. In the complaint, Connell stated that Godee had agreed to return Mason on demand at any time during the two months following his arrival at her home.

Godee denied that agreement existed, and responded with a counterclaim seeking damages for emotional distress. The counterclaim states that Smith, during a phone call, "threatened Godee with coming to Arizona and putting a gun to her head," according to court documents.

Both complaint and counterclaim went unresolved after a mediation session was offered, so Connell filed a formal lawsuit.

Because the parties agreed to have their case heard in a special speedy format, no transcript of the trial exists. According to other court documents, Connell emphasized legal ownership of the monkey, while Godee built her case around what she believed were Mason's best interests. A blank certificate of ownership and the original agreement between Connell, Smith and Godee were cornerstones of the dispute.

Godee argued that Mason had already become part of a troop with her other macaques and said his health could suffer if he was removed. Further, she argued, Mason had gained weight and grown a fuller coat in her care. She claimed in court papers that Mason was too small for his age when he came to live with her.

Connell and Smith maintained that a member of the family had been ripped away from them and said Godee had not kept her word.

"It was a difficult case," says Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Hotham, who presided over the trial. "They talked in terms of being parents."

The jury was instructed to answer one legal question -- was Mason being "wrongfully detained" by Godee? The four jurors found he wasn't and unanimously voted in favor of her continued custody of the monkey. Godee won nothing for her counterclaim of emotional distress.

"We really felt for the client [Connell], but the paperwork was not legal," says one of the jurors, who has asked to remain anonymous. "We thought there was something funny about the whole situation . . . but like we said, our hands were tied," she says, adding that there appeared to be a miscommunication about the paperwork with the woman who delivered Mason to Godee's home.

Though Godee also refused to comment, photos of her two other macaques are available online at through the "munky mugs" link. Click on the macaque category and scroll down to the profile of monkey owner Godee. It is clear that she treats her monkeys like a doting mother.

The care and expense of caring for monkeys can create a bond that surpasses the love of an average pet, says Lu Hall, treasurer of the Simian Society of America.

"The love you feel for a monkey is similar to the love you have for your children," she says.

And if a pet is like a family member, then a monkey is the problem child.

Hall, a fellow macaque monkey owner, has traded animal advice with Godee for years, and says they both know all about monkey trouble.

Though monkeys are cute and easily handled as babies, when they reach sexual maturity they often become erratic creatures that can wreak havoc, kind of like teenagers, except they can stay that way for 30-odd years.

Monkeys, especially larger ones like macaques, can injure caretakers with bites and scratches, and can easily get into cabinets and destroy furnishings.

Buying a macaque costs between $3,500 to $6,000, says Hall, and contact with the animal, in addition to feeding and cleaning the cages, requires a minimum of four hours a day.

The time and money devoted to a pet don't matter in court.

"I know they can be a substitute for a child," says Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Bethany Hicks, who presides over family court. But in Arizona a pet is considered property.

Hicks and her colleagues occasionally see pet custody become an issue in divorce cases. It has become such an issue for some people that one Web site,, sells legal forms to protect a pet owner's rights. The forms include addenda that cover the ownership of pets in pre-nuptial agreements and divorce decrees, to documents outlining pet-visitation rights.

There was a time when people treated their pets like pets, says local pet counselor Kay Cox.

"In today's world we've made our animals our children," she says.

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Maria Luisa Tucker