Primarily Primates

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, Jan/Feb 1995:

LEON SPRING, Texas–– Wally
Swett of Primarily Primates president Wally
Swett was among the first to advocate form-
ing the Association of Sanctuaries, and par-
ticipated in many of the founding discus-
sions, with the proviso that he not have to
attend meetings or be elected to any office
due to lack of time to perform the duties.
Pressured to attend meetings and take an
office anyway, he recalls, he withdrew
Swett’s non-participation still hurts
TAOS. Few sanctuarians in the world have
more credibility with peers than Swett, who
is considered the pioneer of the art of reso-
cialing institutionalized primates. Long
before Zoo Atlanta rehabilitated Willie B.,
the gorilla who spent 27 years in solitary con-
finement and is now Exhibit A for the suc-
cess of resocialization, Swett was routinely
taking monkeys who had spent a decade or
more caged, alone, in homes, roadside
zoos, and laboratories, and successfully
reintroducing them to family groups––some-
thing other experts had believed impossible.
When Swett backed away from TAOS, other
sanctuarians held back too.

Ironically, Swett and Primarily
Primates within a few more months became
the first nationally reputed sanctuary whose
reputation TAOS might have defended, if it
had been organized and motivated to do so.
In midsummer 1992, John Holrah of the San
Antonio-based animal rights advocacy group
Voices for Animals assembled an eyepopping
dossier of accusations against Swett, issued
by unhappy former staff and volunteers,
some of whom had been dismissed for cause.
Copies were circulated to several of Primarily
Primates’ major funders by PETA president
Ingrid Newkirk and Wayne Pacelle, now a
vice president of the Humane Society of the
U.S., but then national director for the Fund
for Animals––and a member of the TAOS
advisory board.
Normal procedure for representa-
tive self-regulatory bodies in such situations
is to promptly and privately investigate the
charges, with the presumption that the
accused is innocent until proven guilty, and
then, if the charges are not sustained, to
issue a statement of support for the accused,
backing a credible member with the credibili-
ty of the collective. If the charges are sus-
tained, the self-regulatory body usually seeks
to rectify whatever is wrong through a combi-
nation of peer pressure and lending a hand.
TAOS effectively did nothing.
Some individuals within TAOS did look into
the matter, but in Swett’s estimation the
group was already compromised by the activ-
ities of others who––aligned with Holrah in
unrelated advocacy matters––gave the
accusers a presumption of equal credibility.
Other investigations were carried out by
Friends of Animals and ANIMAL PEOPLE.
Each determined from the available evidence
that Swett had been badly maligned. A year
later, however, the Holrah dossier resur-
faced amid a bitter dispute over billing
between Swett and attorney Steven Wise,
who had represented him in that matter and
others, including a long battle over a major
endowment from The Dolger Trust.
The gist of the Dolger dispute was
that the money was left to the first Primarily
Primates, begun in Massachusetts by Muriel
Mackey. Swett and the late Greg Miller
founded the San Antonio sanctuary a few
years later, in 1981, with the understanding
that Mackey would eventually close the
Massachusetts site and move with her mon-
keys to Texas. By the time the present
Primarily Primates site was prepared, how-
ever, Mackey changed her mind. When she
became incapacitated, her monkeys were
reportedly neglected. Swett evacuated them
to Texas and arranged for the Dolger funding
that was supposed to provide for their upkeep
to follow them. Claiming Swett had “stolen”
the organization, volunteers associated with
the Massachusetts sanctuary fought the
arrangements. The case was finally settled in
Swett’s favor in 1993. Wise, owed tens of
thousands of dollars, immediately sought his
share of the settlement––but a bigger share
than Swett believes was due him.
Meanwhile, friction broke out
between Swett and two volunteers, Kay
Trevino and Melissa Karon, who contrary to
the conventional wisdom that volunteers and
wage labor should not be made board mem-
bers, had been added to the Primarily
Primates board. Both were ousted in the
1993 board election. Trevino and Karon
were among Swett’s ardent defenders a year
earlier, but Trevino now sent the Holrah
dossier to Texas assistant attorney general
John Vinson, adding complaints of her own.
Karon backed her up. Vinson sued Primarily
Primates––and two other witnesses for Swett
amended previous statements to A N I M A L
P E O P L E, while Swett stumbled in docu-
menting his own side of things, resulting in
reluctantly critical coverage.
But Vinson gradually backed off.
Initially seeking to oust Swett from the man-
agement, he eventually accepted legal
restructuring, in an out-of-court settlement
pertaining strictly to technical matters, with
no reference to standards of care, use of
funds, or relations with staff and volunteers,
all of which were attacked in the Holrah
dossier and the statements from Trevino and
Karon. Although Vinson told A N I M A L
PEOPLE several times that he intended to
reinstate charges pertaining to those issues by
March 1994, he hasn’t done so yet. Texas
attorney general’s office deputy press secre-
tary Sonya Sanchez said in August that the
case is still under investigation, but there is
no sign of any activity.
Allegations refuted
Even if Vinson’s case remains dor-
mant, the legal fighting isn’t over. Wise,
unable to collect his full bill in Texas, con-
tinues to sue Primarily Primates in
Massachusetts. But charges of negligence
toward animals on the part of Swett and his
longtime partner Stephen Tello have never
been verified––and have been refuted by
every independent witness, including former
Kansas City Zoo primate keeper Margaret
Cook. Finding several primates sold by the
zoo during the mid-1980s in allegedly abu-
sive roadside zoos and traveling animal
shows, Cook has purchased several and
placed them with Primarily Primates. The
best-known among them is Pumpkin, an
orangutan, who has his own trust fund, to be
used eventually to build him a cage big
enough to share with a mate. Pumpkin is
meanwhile in a temporary structure, slated to
become one corner of the permanent quarters.
Failure to finish the permanent quarters was
construed as neglect by some of Swett’s
accusers. Alarmed, Cook and primatologist
Carol Noone inspected Primarily Primates in
late 1993, when the furor was loudest.
“I saw absolutely no signs of either
neglect or mistreatment,” Cook told A N I-
The orangutan cage hasn’t been
built because the trust fund isn’t yet big
enough to build a mate-sized facility, and as
Tello explains, “He’s going to be here for the
next 40 years, so we want to build him the
best structure we can.”
“I saw no cruelty whatsoever,”
Cook continued. “Primarily Primates isn’t
the greatest place in the world for these ani-
mals, because they belong in the jungle. The
facilities are like a second-class zoo,” with
most of the animals occupying corn-crib
cages, while the water and electrical systems
are inclined to frequent breakdowns. (Swett
says he’d lay out the water and power lines
entirely differently if he could do it over.)
“But the public isn’t allowed in to gawk at
the primates and harass them, and things
have improved dramatically since 1987,”
Cook finished, “when I first visited.”
Primarily Primates is also endorsed
by San Antonio attorney Richard Streiber,
who placed a tufted capuchin there in 1991,
after keeping her for 15 years as a household
pet. Visiting the capuchin “several times a
week,” Streiber says she’s receiving excellent
care. Since Wise was dismissed, his firm
represents the sanctuary.
Although the allegations have hurt
Primarily Primates financially to the point
that the paid staff has been cut back to one
person beyond Swett and Tello, who draw
small stipends rather than salaries, ANIMAL
P E O P L E likewise found only exemplary
care on a recent visit, made with just 24
hours notice. If anything, the financial pinch
has improved conditions in one respect: to
save labor, the once neatly mowed grounds
have been allowed to grow up. Tall grass and
wildflowers surround the cages, while oak
trees and drooping Spanish moss provide
shade. It’s as close to a jungle as is possible
in the Texas hill country. The primates are
for the most part oblivious to humans, busy
instead with each other, or interacting with
the squirrels, rabbits, guinea fowl, and other
small animals who roam between cages. The
Primarily Primates population has also stabi-
lized, as short funds have obliged Swett to
set limits on what he can take. Most primates
can still be integrated into family groups
within existing enclosures. Non-primates are
generally referred elsewhere. Two sleek
black panthers, who purr and roll in the dust
like housecats, are the most noteworthy non-
primates remaining in residence. They’re due
to get expanded quarters soon.
Stood up for Cuny
The ultimate irony of the official
non-involvement of TAOS on behalf of Swett
is that in the middle of it all Swett did stand
up for current TAOS president Lynn Cuny,
when she was maligned under parallel cir-
cumstances. Five of the same former volun-
teers and staff who contributed to Holrah’s
dossier attacking Swett took a strikingly simi-
lar dossier on Cuny to local TV news reporter
Mike Turcot, who ripped Wildlife Rescue
and Rehabilitation for four nights in a row
during November 1992. Turcot focused on
allegedly inadequate fencing, deliberately
breaking a strand of Cuny’s wire––with some
effort––to make his point on camera.
Catching the broadcasts, Swett recognized
that “the allegations were almost carbon
copies of the ones made about me and
Primarily Primates.” Although Swett and
Cuny have often clashed (their sanctuaries are
just 15 miles apart), he immediately sent the
station a letter of support for her, and tele-
phoned ANIMAL PEOPLE. Calling the sta-
tion to find out what was going on, A N I-
MAL PEOPLE found Turcot preparing fur-
ther attacks, alleging financial improprieties
at WRR––based on a serious misreading of
WRR filings of IRS Form 990.
The fifth night, the station apolo-
gized for Turcot’s attacks.
Cuny remembers Swett’s interven-
tion. Significantly, soon after her election to
the TAOS presidency, she and other TAOS
officers discreetly helped arrange A N I M A L
PEOPLE’s return visit to Primarily Primates.
Efforts to re-establish formal relations
between Primarily Primates and TAOS m a y
soon follow.
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