No time for monkey business at Primarily Primates

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 1992:

SAN ANTONIO, Tex. Primarily Primates
has survived an attempted putsch, at least for
now, but the future of the showplace sanctuary
could yet be jeopardized by animal rights move-
ment politics.
Founded over a decade ago by former
zookeeper Wally Swett to house primates res-
cued from laboratories, roadside zoos, and
abusive exotic petkeepers, Primarily Primates
has expanded to accommodate nearly 400 ani-
mals. As Swett admits, there have been grow-
ing pains. Animals have often arrived at a
faster rate than funds to feed and shelter them.
Sometimes Swett and his volunteer staff have
been obliged to handle species they’ve never
seen before. Frequently they receive non-pri-
mates for temporary housing until other situa-
tions can be found—which can be difficult. A

Bengal tiger and a black leopard are now practi-
cally permanent guests, much to the discomfort
of some of the monkeys, whose kin the big cats
eat in the wild. Vandalism and theft by thrill-
seekers and hostile neighbors have been occa-
sional problems. And help is perennially
scarce; Swett still lives on site, pays himself
only $500 a month, has no full-time paid staff,
and contends with frequent turnover among vol-
unteers, many of whom arrive with lofty ideals
but little experience at long days of scooping
monkey poop, the most time-consuming daily
Primarily Primates has also been under con-
stant critical surveillance by opponents of
many of the animal rights groups who have
rescued primates, then delivered them to
Swett to receive lifelong care. Such opponents
would like nothing better than to discover ani-
mals living in substandard conditions. So far,
though, the sanctuary has a clean record.
“We’re inspected by the USDA, U.S.
Department of Fish and Wildlife,the San
Antonio Metropolitan Health District, and
Texas Parks and Wildlife,” Swett explains.
“Any one of them can pop in here at any time.
If bad conditions ever existed, all someone
would have to do is call one of those agen-
None of that stopped John Holrah of the San
Antonio-based group Voice for Animals from
sending a thick dossier of testimony about
alleged misconduct by Swett to numerous
Primarily Primates funders and supporters
toward the end of July. An investigation by
several dossier recipients indicated that the
central allegations were almost immediately
amplified by Fund for Animals national direc-
tor Wayne Pacelle and PETA executive direc-
tor Ingrid Newkirk, through a series of faxes
and telephone calls to other people prominent
in the animal rights movement—although
both Pacelle and Newkirk reportedly denied
having any involvement either in producing
the dossier or in attempting to push Swett
Holrah called for expanding the Primarily
Primates board of directors to diminish
Swett’s influence, and for ousting Swett from
management of the sanctuary. He further sug-
gested in his cover letter that, “’If Wally
remains in a position of control where he con-
tinues to reside on the premises, the situation
could become very volatile,” intimating that
the dossier might somehow be made available
to mass media and opponents of animal pro-
Nine former Primarily Primates volunteers
and part-time staffers contributed to the
dossier. At least some of them had been dis-
missed for serious cause, but the reasons for
their dismissal were neither discussed nor
included. Within days, Beltan Mouras of
United Animal Nations flew to San Antonio at
request of the Summerlee Foundation and con-
vened an informal hearing on the allegations,
but found them unsubstantiated. Several par-
ticipants in the procedure agreed that, “We
spent ten minutes talking about animals, and
three hours listening to personal attacks on
The hearing didn’t end matters, as the
dossier continued to circulate. Twice, on
August 4 and August 31, attorney Steven
Wise of the Animal Legal Defense Fund
warned Holrah that, “The damage already
done by the sending of so much misinforma-
tion to Primarily Primates’ friends and funding
sources has been great…if injurious falsehoods
continue to be communicated, the communi-
cators will be sued.”
Wise added that the Primarily Primates
board of directors considers Swett, “indispens-
able,” and has “no intention of expelling him,”
but did note that the board “continues actively
to discuss increasing its membership from four
to between five and eight directors.” A signifi-
cant board expansion could still lead to a coup-
d’etat, depending upon the loyalties of the
new members. The nominating committee ten-
tatively consists of Mouras and present board
members Kay Trevino and Melissa Karron.
Nominees proposed by Holrah include
Mouras; primatologist Roger Fouts; Donald
Barnes of the National Anti-Vivisection
Society, a close friend of Pacelle; Nedim
Buyukmihci of the Association of
Veterinarians for Animal Rights, who is close
to PETA; and Betsy Swart, who is both
Washington D.C. representative for Friends of
Animals and one of the three members of the
PETA board of directors, along with
cofounders Newkirk and Alex Pacheco.
Wise discounted any suggestion that the
move against Primarily Primates might have
been motivated or orchestrated by people or
groups with ulterior motives. Swett, however,
acknowledged doubts.
“The whole thing was very PETA,”
he told ANIMAL PEOPLE. “We had volun-
teers whose pattern of activity followed the
PETA strategy for infiltrating a laboratory.
They got in here and took photos before they
cleaned the cages instead of afterward, and
then said the photos show what it looks like all
the time. Two of the people who did that
weren’t here for very long. First one came,
and we thought she might have been a mole
from the way she was acting. Then she left
and another came in, separated by a few
months. Both of them were from New York,
both wrote first to ask about job opportunities,
followed up with telephone calls, and were
very persistent. Each moved to San Antonio,
telling people they were going to work here.
They took restaurant jobs and became volun-
teers. Then, after all that, one was only here
for a week and the other was only here for two
weeks.” In that time, though, one of the vol-
unteers apparently accessed the Primarily
Primates computer sysem without authoriza-
tion. Swett said he tried repeatedly to call
Newkirk and PETA director of investigations
Jeanne Roush about his suspicions, but neither
would respond.
Why would anyone want to take
over Primarily Primates?
“There’s no money in running the
sanctuary as a sanctuary,” Swett said, “but
you could have a gold mine here if you had a
national public relations apparatus. You could
get a quick influx of cash by advertising that
you’d had to rescue all these primates from
abusive conditions, and then you could eutha-
nize most of them, saying they were too far
gone to save. That would allow you to use
most of the money for other purposes.”
Primarily Primates meanwhile
received a significant vote of confidence from
the World Society for the Protection of
Animals, who sent a 22-year-old female chim-
panzee there for rehabilitation after she had
spent approximately 20 years in solitary con-
finement, first with a Mexican circus, then at
a roadside zoo, and finally at the Costa Rican
National Zoo. Continental Airlines and the
animal transport firm Animal Port donated
transportation services to move the chimp
from Costa Rica to San Antonio.
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