BOISE, Idaho – The father of a 22-year-old man accused of killing a monkey after breaking into an Idaho zoo said he believes the tragedy was a drunken prank that got out of hand and “turned into a horrible situation.”
Michael J. Watkins was arrested Monday and faces at least two felonies: burglary, for allegedly breaking into Zoo Boise; and grand theft, for allegedly taking the monkey and beating it so severely that it later died. His first court appearance is set for today.
Watkins’ father, Jerry Watkins, defended his son to the Idaho Statesman, saying he is “not a malicious monkey murderer.”
Jerry Watkins said friends of his son have told him Michael Watkins was drunk when he broke in to the zoo and wanted to try to get a picture with the monkeys.
“I’m thinking the monkey attacked him and he just tried to defend himself,” Jerry Watkins told the newspaper. “I don’t think he ever intended to kill it; he’s just not that kind of guy.”
The attack has left zoo staff and community members wondering what happened. Authorities so far haven’t said why they think the once-promising wrestler from western Idaho entered the zoo early Saturday, or why he might have harmed the animal.
Watkins’ stepmother, Susan Watkins, said in a brief interview Tuesday from her home in McCall that as much as the public is perplexed by what happened, “I am too. That’s all I can say.”
Susan Watkins told the Statesman that Michael Watkins is a new father. She said he did well in school and volunteered to help children in the summer. “He was a good kid. He’s my baby. I love him,” Susan Watkins said.
Authorities allege the suspect entered Zoo Boise, took a patas monkey from its cage and beat it so severely it later died of blunt-force trauma to its head and neck.
Police have said they don’t know whether Michael Watkins was under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of the break-in.
Court records show Watkins has been in trouble with the law several times since graduating from high school in 2008, including separate drug-related arrests in 2009 and 2010 and a conviction for driving under the influence in 2009.
On Tuesday, Michael Watkins was moved from a county jail in Washington County to a detention facility in Ada County in Boise.
Police don’t plan to charge a second man who was with Watkins on Saturday morning but apparently never entered the zoo.
A tip from a citizen led police to Watkins after identifying a hat found in the monkey’s enclosure as similar to one Watkins was wearing the night two intruders were spotted at Zoo Boise, one inside and one outside the fence.
A security guard frightened away the intruders, and then discovered the gravely injured patas monkey. Zoo officials and police were able to get the animal into a crate and to the zoo’s animal hospital, but the monkey died just a few minutes later.
No other animals were harmed.
Idaho law allows prosecutors to bring a grand theft charge against someone accused of killing livestock or other animals valued at more than $150 dollars.
Boise Police Chief Michael Masterson has said Watkins sought care at a hospital for injuries to his upper torso sometime after the incident. But the story he gave to hospital staff “did not seem to mesh up with the injuries,” Masterson said.
Police say Watkins was visiting Boise with friends over the weekend from his home in Fruitland, about 60 miles away near the Oregon-Idaho border.
In 2008, Watkins finished in third place in the state championship wrestling tournament for small schools like his, Fruitland High School. He competed in the 130-pound division.
Jerry Watkins told the Statesman his son is not an animal-hater. Michael Watkins had dogs while growing up and still mourns their deaths, including a couple of puppies that died of parvovirus.
“He cried and cried and cried over that situation,” Jerry Watkins said. “I believe he’s crying over this situation, too.”