NEAR THE TEXAS-LOUISIANA LINE — Even in their Texas hideout, Jim and Donita Clark are terrified that wildlife agents from their home state of Louisiana will descend on their motorhome and seize the four Capuchin monkeys they've reared for 10 years.
Four months ago, the couple fled before authorities showed up at their house for an inspection, and ever since they've been hiding out with their monkeys — all of them cooped up in the recreational vehicle.
Exotic animal owners like them say wildlife agents have been cracking down in Louisiana and around the country after high-profile cases of exotic animals getting loose or attacking people. At least six states have also banned the ownership of wild animals since 2005, and Congress is also mulling tighter restrictions.
The couple fears the monkeys will be confiscated and sent to a zoo if they return home to DeRidder, La.
"It's not what I fought for ... to be treated like this," said Jim Clark, a 60-year-old disabled Vietnam veteran, as tears streaked his face. "It's not right to think they can come into your house and do this to you with or without a warrant."
As Clark talked on a recent day, the adorable monkeys looked on from their cages. Hands gripping the cage bars, a couple of the hyper, super-inquisitive furry creatures — capable of lightning-fast vertical leaps — barely moved and cooed softly. The motorhome is a far cry from the DeRidder house that boasts two monkey playrooms and a large outdoor enclosure.
"To take these guys out of their home and throw them in a zoo? It's like taking a little child out of a mansion and throwing it into the ghetto," Donita Clark said. "It's that devastating. It's destroyed us both emotionally. We'll never be the same."
Crackdowns in Louisiana and elsewhere have gained momentum since a man in Ohio released his personal zoo of lions, tigers, zebras, bears and monkeys before killing himself. The 2009 face-mauling of a Connecticut woman by a chimpanzee also highlighted the dangers of keeping wild animals in residential neighborhoods.
"It was a wakeup call to the nation that we should no longer tolerate the reckless decision-making by a small number of people," said Wayne Pacelle, the head of the Humane Society of the United States.
Veterinarians and primate experts generally agree that monkeys — like all wild animals — shouldn't be adopted as pets.
"They are not animated toys. They're so intelligent they're difficult to keep in a stimulated environment long term," said Dr. Patricia V. Turner, the president of the Association of Primate Veterinarians.
She said monkeys kept in homes often end up obese and suffering from emotional stress that takes the form of self-biting. Monkeys are garrulous social creatures and need to be around their own kind, she said.
In Congress, one proposed bill would ban unlicensed professionals from buying, selling or moving primates across state lines. Meanwhile, 24 states now ban the ownership of primates and 11 others require permits, according to the Humane Society. Hundreds of cities and counties also have local bans.
Exotic animal lovers feel like they are under assault.
"So many of us want to disappear, and have our own community where we can safely keep our monkeys," said Ann Newman, the owner of seven monkeys in Arkansas and the president of the Simian Society of America, a membership group for monkey lovers.
Monkey owners say their animals hardly pose a serious danger to the public — they're unlikely to do the kind of injury a wild big cat or great ape might.
To Dan Stockdale, a celebrity wild animal trainer in Tennessee, the backlash on exotic animals owners goes too far. He said many private owners do a better job than some zoos and sanctuaries.
"Unfortunately, exotic animals and those who own exotic animals are in the spotlight. Society's knee-jerk reaction is eliminate them."
Ohio lawmakers are considering whether to forbid anyone from having a wild animal as a pet after the incident there.
"If they start confiscating, you're going to see a lot of people going underground," said Nancy Nighswander, who leads Uniting A Politically Proactive Exotic Animal League, a group lobbying against bans on private ownership of wild animals. She lives in Tiffin, Ohio, and owns five monkeys and a cougar.
There is no accurate count on how many pet primates there are in the U.S., but estimates range between 3,000 and 15,000.
Louisiana has taken a hard-nosed approach. In 2003, the Legislature passed a law banning exotic animals as pets, but allowed people who already owned monkeys to keep them. Starting in 2006, owners were required to obtain permits, keep their animals away from the public and have yearly veterinary checkups. There were only about 20 households in Louisiana with wild animals, all of them monkeys, according to state officials.
Now the state says it will issue new permits only after a home inspection.
"Louisiana has strict laws and regulations to prevent the kind of situation that happened in Ohio," said Maria Davidson, a former zookeeper and state Wildlife and Fisheries Department biologist who crafted the state's ban on wild pets. "You certainly don't want a monkey loose in your neighborhood."
The Clarks got their first monkey — Tina Marie — more than 10 years ago from a woman who was unable to look after the animal.
"We felt sorry for her," Donita Clark said. "I had never thought of having monkeys in my life."
They adopted three other Capuchin monkeys — Meeko Mae, Sara Jo and Hayley Suzanne — and became a bit monkey crazy.
They built a large cage and a wire walkway into their modest home in DeRidder. The monkeys slept in the house, going to sleep when the lights were turned off. They took showers in the bathroom, complete with shampoo and soap. They wore diapers.
The Clarks networked with other monkey owners and invited humans and simians to picnics at their home. The self-taught experts helped others learn to care for their monkeys and build cages.
Now, monkey owners in Louisiana accuse the state of bully tactics and unlawfully confiscating monkeys. They point to at least three instances since 2009 when monkeys were seized.
"It's like someone walking into your home and taking your kids," Donita Clark said, paging through binders with photographs, written testimony and documents she'd collected from aggrieved monkey owners.
Davidson said the right action was taken in those cases. In one case, the monkey owner did not have a permit; in another, a snow monkey allegedly bit the hand of a girl and in the third case the owners allegedly had violated their permit requirements.
The Clarks fear they could be next. On Oct. 27 wildlife agents and sheriff's deputies showed up at their home. But the Clarks had already fled after getting a tip.
Davidson said the state didn't intend to seize their monkeys and just wanted to inspect their home. She said the Clarks' flight was suspicious. But she added: "We'll give Donita the benefit of the doubt."
The Clarks, however, say they're not going home until they're assured the monkey's won't be taken.
Their exile is hard on them and the monkeys.
"They're arguing with each other like we're arguing with each other," Donita Clark said, sitting on the couch in the RV and looking at her girls.
"They have not seen daylight since October," Jim Clark said. "These guys are like humans. They need sunlight."
The couple feels stuck. They don't tell friends or family where they are because they're so terrified. And they're running low on money.
"I'm terrified 24 hours a day and there's no light at the end of this tunnel, no way out," Donita Clark said.
"But we're not going to give up," Jim Clark said to encourage his wife. "We're not going to let them go. We promised them forever a home."