Civil war within rescue groups: Primarily Primates and Colorado Horse Rescue

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 1993:

by Merritt Clifton and Marcia King
contested transitions of leadership may be finalized this month at Primarily Primates and
Colorado Horse Rescue. On September 13, Texas assistant attorney general John Vinson is
scheduled to ask the 224th Judicial District Court in San Antonio to remove Primarily Primates
founder and longtime animal caretaker Wallace Swett from any position of authority within the

organization. Later in the month, the members
of CHR will be asked to ratify major restructur-
ing, begun with the ouster of cofounder and
longtime president Sharon Jackson.
Classic breakdowns
The simultaneous, unrelated actions
culminate long-running parallel disputes involv-
ing two of the best-known and best-respected
animal rescue groups in the United States.
Each dispute follows a pattern of internal break-
down common to nonprofits, in which differ-
ences arise between hired help and a troubled,
often overworked adminstrator; the help takes
the disagreement to the board of directors,
whose normal function is oversight and policy-
making, but which has typically left most deci-
sion-making to the administrator; the board,
instead of either backing or firing the adminis-
trator, divides administrative authority and
becomes involved in day-to-day management;
divided authority results in further conflict,
including between the board and a now alienat-
ed administrator; and eventually key personnel
depart, often to found a competing organiza-
Specific issues at both Primarily
Primates and Colorado Horse Rescue have
included allegations that animals were neglected or mistreat-
ed; that funds were misappropriated or missing; that volun-
teers were improperly dismissed; that outside interests were
orchestrating a takeover; and that the underlying conflicts
involve fundamental differences in lifestyle.
However, in each case an intensive investigation
by ANIMAL PEOPLE has produced more evidence of
problems resulting from stress, fatigue, and miscommuni-
cation than evidence of deliberate wrongdoing by anyone
involved. Our investigation further suggests that as each sit-
uation deteriorated, escalating charges and countercharges
among the partisans produced further breakdowns of trust,
which in turn led to more stress, more fatigue, more mis-
communication, more essential jobs not getting done, and
more diversion of resources into the ongoing dispute.
Primarily Primates
The Primarily Primates situation surfaced first, in
July 1992, when John Hollrah of the San Antonio-based
activist group Voices for Animals compiled a thick dossier
of testimony by former staff and volunteers about alleged
misconduct by Swett and his longtime companion, Stephen
Tello, who live on the premises and have received minimal
direct compensation. Hollrah forwarded the dossier to
numerous Primarily Primates supporters and people he
believed to be supporters, including Fund for Animals
national director Wayne Pacelle and People for the Ethical
Treatment of Animals executive director Ingrid Newkirk,
neither of whom had actually had any oversight authority or
direct economic interest in Primarily Primates. Both
Pacelle and Newkirk immediately amplified the central alle-
gations by circulating them to other people prominent in the
animal rights movement, before the Primarily Primates
board and major funders had the opportunity to conduct an
investigation. Their actions may have delayed a strong
board response by a year; both have a history of orchestrat-
ing coups within other organizations, and Holrah’s demand
for action included a demand that the three-member board
be expanded to include several close associates of Pacelle
and Newkirk. The impact of the dossier was further weak-
ened by the intensely personal and seemingly exaggerated
nature of many of the accusations against Swett and Tello,
some of which came from people whom Swett had fired for
cause. Swett charged that the whole episode was an
attempted PETA takeover of Primarily Primates, which has
considerable unexplored fundraising potential, and suggest-
ed that some former volunteers among his other accusers,
whose involvement with Primarily Primates had been brief,
had been PETA agents.
Attorney Steven Wise, representing Primarily
Primates, eventually warned Holrah that further circulation
of the dossier could result in a defamation suit.
The Primarily Primates board and major funders
did, however, find enough substance to the various
charges that board members Kay Trevino and Melissa
Karon were appointed, together with Beltan Mouras of
United Animal Nations, to find means of improving over-
sight. (The third board member was and is Swett himself.)
In particular, the board and major funders were concerned
about apparent erratic behavior by Swett, variously attrib-
uted to stress, depression, and consumption of alcohol.
Swett resisted the challenge to his autonomy. Finally, in
July 1993, Swett unilaterally “fired” Trevino and Karon,
claiming he had the authority to do so as the only voting
member of the organization; sued to remove them and
Wise from their positions representing Primarily Primates;
added Tello and a Connecticut woman, Joan Belosi, to the
board in place of Trevino and Karon; and departed on a
trip to Belgium with Tello, purportedly to participate in an
international gathering of primatologists. Swett and Tello
subsequently missed a number of scheduled functions,
while purportedly engaging in recreation.
Exasperated, Wise took the situation to the Texas
attorney general’s office. As assistant attorney general
Vinson researched the case, Swett unsuccessfully sought a
temporary restraining order to prevent Wise from speaking
to Vinson––a motion, Vinson said, which would have had
no precedent in American law. The motion was denied on
July 28. The court refused to hear the case for removing
Swett at that time, but on the same day Vinson filed a peti-
tion with the court which “seeks to remedy Swett and
Tello’s breaches of fiduciary duties, misapplication of
charitable funds and ineffective administration of Primarily
Primates, and requests injunctive relief and appointment of
a temporary receiver to manage and rehabilitate the affairs
of the corporation.”
This is the motion that will be heard on
September 13. The petition contends that, “Under the
totalitarian management of Swett, substandard and almost
cruel conditions have been allowed to exist over the past
several years endangering the health and well-being of the
(approximately 450) Primarily Primates animals. Some
animals have been inappropriately starved. Animal cages
and housing areas have remained unclean for many days
and even weeks, allowing feces and urine to build and col-
lect. Animals have been kept in cruelly substandard and
oppressively small boxes and cages, often for many months
at a time.”
According to Vinson, the Primarily Primates
records indicate that between December 1991 and June
1993, Swett and Tello used funds donated for animal care
to purchase “$875 of alcoholic beverages; $1,147 of ciga-
rettes; $173 of pain/cold medicines; $736 of hair care
products; and $2,668 of non-Primarily Primates-related
food products (lobster, shrimp, fish fillets, coffee,
cheeses, TV dinners, etc.) These figures include only the
more significant or larger personal purchases.” Over 18
What happened at Primarily Primates and Colorado Horse Rescue?
(continued from previous page)
months, the amounts if complete would not be abnormal,
but Vinson contends that the receipts probably do not docu-
ment all purchases and that such purchases were made with-
out proper authority.
Swett told ANIMAL PEOPLE that, “The allega-
tions you’ve been hearing are not essentially the same; they
are the same,” as those heard a year ago. “In other words,”
he argued, “the same package is being circulated again.”
His contention is that the majority of the charges against
him are based on information taken out of context.
But there is one big difference from last year.
Trevino, Karon, Wise, and two of Primarily Primates’
major funders all energetically and publicly defended him
last year. This year, Trevino, Karon, and Wise are the
complainants. And this year both major funders told ANI-
MAL PEOPLE that they had been deeply disturbed and
disappointed by subsequent events and discoveries.
“Wally had one last chance to get his act togeth-
er,” one big backer said. “He didn’t do it.”
Colorado Horse Rescue
Sharon Jackson founded CHR, profiled in our
March issue, as an extension of a personal one-woman,
one-horse rescue project. The March ANIMAL PEOPLE
had barely appeared, however, when Jackson was ousted
from the CHR presidency in a coup apparently led by co-
founder Jill Pratt, the secretary/treasurer and head of the
CHR adoption center in Golden. The coup resulted from a
division of authority that began, according to Jackson,
“when my daughter-in-law died of cancer in the midst of
two serious impounds, and my own health began to fail as
exhaustion set in. I received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s dis-
ease in November.”
At that point, Jackson hired longtime volunteer
Jane Rose to become live-in barn coordinator at the CHR
rescue farm in Arvada. A series of conflicts between
Jackson and Rose over horse care followed, especially
involving recommendations for euthanasia. Veterinarians
were repeatedly asked to overrule one another, and each
faction claims the other improperly dismissed volunteers so
as to have only friendly witnesses. Eventually, two CHR
veterinarians resigned and a third vet was notifed in mid-
August that she would be forced off the board for remarks
she made to a local reporter.
“There was an adversarial relationship,” DVM
Stacey Pederson told ANIMAL PEOPLE. “The coopera-
tion was severly compromised. It was pretty obvious there
were power plays going on. I was literally asked to take
sides two or three times.”
As the conflict expanded, Jackson, Pratt, and
their supporters demanded various records from one anoth-
er, and accused each other of withholding potentially
incriminating information about finances and adoptions.
“Sharon had a hard time letting other people take
on responsibilities,” Pratt states. “She wanted to do it all
herself and she couldn’t, and she didn’t want to delegate it.”
Confirms CHR board member and attorney Laura
Nagle, “We realized Sharon could not run the show alone,
and Sharon disagreed.”
Removing Jackson from the presidency didn’t set-
tle matters––even after the board reaffirmed its action a
month later at a second meeting called because Jackson
claimed the March meeting was improper. Following the
April vote, Jackson demanded that her ouster be taken
before the CHR membership. But there was no definitive
membership roster. The original bylaws gave voting mem-
bership to anyone who contributed at least $10, and mem-
bership records were not kept apart from the mailing list.
Understates Nagle, “The old bylaws didn’t seem
to account for the growth of the organization.” As many as
4,000 people might have become voting members. “In
order to act,” Nagle explains, “half of that membership
would have to assemble or return a proxy vote. This was a
logistical nightmare.” The matter never came up before
because, according to Nagle, Jackson failed to convene
annual membership meetings, as required by law.
Nagle and nonprofit law specialist William
Callison have now redrafted the CHR bylaws to clarify the
authority of the board and terminate the voting rights of
membership at large, pending ratification at the September
meeting. Claiming the rewrite and resultant delay in call-
ing a membership meeting were part of a conspiracy
against her, Jackson and her husband Steve meanwhile
resigned from the board in June, to found a new group
called the Colorado Equine Crisis Intervention Foundation.
“This one,” she says, “will be more tightly con-
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