CUYAHOGA COUNTY, Ohio — Rico Exotic has always loved animals.
“Growing up in poverty, you end up becoming a product of that poverty,” he said. “To keep me from fighting my mental issues like depression, anxiety paranoia that comes from being in that environment, animals was my way to cope."
The 22-year-old’s real name is not Rico Exotic but he didn’t want WEWS to use his full name. He grew up in Cleveland and said the nickname "Rico Exotic" caught on as people recognized his love for any and every animal.
“I rescued one of the raccoons [from a neighbor] and that’s when they started calling me Rico Exotic.”
Eventually, the number of animals he owned grew.
“I had a raccoon, degus, coatimundi, lemur, and my monkey, Mike,” he said.
When Rico posted his grivet monkey, Mike, on TikTok a year ago, his following grew, too.
He now has 1.5 million followers and more than 35.5 million likes on TikTok and 117,000 followers on Instagram. He shows viewers how he cares and bonds with the animals in the videos.
“I give them a safe place. I give Mike a safe place,” he said. “A lot of people support what I do and respect what I do.”
But earlier this month, the Ohio Department of Agriculture received a tip about his monkey. They raided his Northeast Ohio home on Nov. 17.
“I turned the corner to my kitchen and there are five firearms in my face and police shields. I was so confused because I didn’t know what I possibly did to cause this,” he said. “They cuff me, then I’m asking like, ‘What did I do?’ and they’re like, ‘Where’s the monkey?'”
The Ohio Department of Agriculture classifies Mike, a grivet monkey, as a dangerous wild animal. A spokesperson for the agency said that Rico did not have a dangerous wild animal permit for him.
Rico was not aware that grivet monkeys were classified as dangerous under Ohio law. He said he thought he was doing everything right.
“It’s not clear. It don’t say grivet monkeys on there,” he said. “I didn’t want to violate the law and then post it on social media so I can get targeted.”
ODA’s Division of Animal Health put Mike under quarantine while searching for an adequate sanctuary for him. Rico said he wasn’t given clear instructions for the timeline of quarantine and what to do with Mike.
“They told me I had to get him out of the state or they were going to come back and take him,” said Rico.
He said he didn’t want the state to take Mike, so he took him to an animal rescue in Tennessee.
Rico said it was a hard goodbye.
“This situation is very critical on both of us. When I’m down or I’m feeling sad, Mike knows. He wouldn’t let me go the whole night, he held onto me.”
But because Rico violated quarantine orders, he’s now in more trouble with the state.
“Which is kind of confusing because I had to get him out of the state. How could I do so?” he asked.
He’s hired a lawyer to fight the charges against him but just wants to be reunited with Mike.
“It may seem that it’s a pet to anyone else like, ‘Oh it’s just a monkey, get rid of him,’ that’s not the case. I look at him as my son. I took him in. He was abandoned.”
He started a GoFundMe page to raise money to get his animals out of the state and open an animal sanctuary.
“So, I can relocate and I can get me a new home and have a safe place for me and my animals legally.”
The ODA said the matter is an open investigation. For a list of animals considered dangerous in Ohio, click here.
This story was originally published by Jessi Schultz at WEWS.