Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2007

After seven months, Armani comes home

Monkey returned to Rockville woman after legal battle with county

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
Elyse Gazewitz’s capuchin monkey Armani is home in Rockville after a Circuit Court judge ruled Monday that Montgomery County had erred in taking him. ‘‘I’m still flying high,” Gazewitz said.
Elyse Gazewitz looked forward Tuesday to giving her capuchin monkey Armani a bath after he woke from a nap. After winning a 7-month legal battle, Gazewitz was enjoying just being alone with him.

‘‘I’m still flying high,” said Gazewitz, 43, of Rockville. ‘‘I feel like I’m dreaming. I’m walking on a cloud.”

On Monday, Montgomery County Circuit Judge Terrence J. McGann ordered Armani returned to Gazewitz, saying the county had erred in seizing the monkey.

‘‘I don’t know if Armani celebrates Christmas, but if he does he has a good reason to be extra happy,” McGann said.

Several people in the courtroom burst into applause and tears at the judge’s announcement while Gazewitz lowered her head on the table and sobbed.

In a case that drew national attention, Gazewitz had vowed to bring Armani home after County Police Animal Services Division officers seized the 4-pound creature on May 16 and charged her with violating state law and county code involving possession of wild animals.

County Police Animal Services Division workers had received a call about the monkey’s welfare. They found the monkey in good condition. Gazewitz’s paperwork, however, showed he was born after May 31, 2006 — Maryland forbids ownership of the monkeys unless the creatures were owned before that date.

Gazewitz testified at Monday’s hearing that she had lied about the monkey’s age because he had not been vaccinated for rabies.

But it was her tearful pleas for Armani’s return that drew national attention to her plight and created a media frenzy that led to coverage of her monkey on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and other national television shows.

After the monkey was seized, county police placed him at the Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo in Thurmont, which billed Gazewitz nearly $1,400 a month during the legal fight.

The judge called the boarding fee ‘‘exorbitant” and ordered the county to reimburse Gazewitz.

‘‘Many outstanding universities across this nation don’t charge that much,” McGann said.

In explaining his ruling, McGann said the county gives owners of dangerous animals 10 days to find an appropriate new home before they are seized; Gazewitz was not given the same option even though Armani was not dangerous.

On June 6, the county’s Animal Matters Hearing Board ruled Armani was not a dangerous animal, but that the animal services officers had taken the appropriate action because capuchin monkeys are considered wild animals.

‘‘I’m sure Armani got some consolation from that,” the judge said.

When prosecutors dismissed the sole criminal charge against Gazewitz on July 25, ‘‘the county lost its moorings for the seizure,” McGann said.

The county should have released the monkey then, he said.

‘‘The county can’t now come in to court and resurrect its case that Armani is a dangerous animal,” he said.

Associate County Attorney William Snoddy said no decision had been made on whether to appeal the judge’s ruling.

The judge did find Gazewitz guilty of a civil citation of ‘‘interfering with animal services officers in the performance of their duties” because she stood in the threshold of her home in an attempt to block them from entering when they had a legal search warrant to enter. He fined her $100.