Primarily Primates digs out after six & a half months of receivership
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2007:
SAN ANTONIO–A month after returning to Primarily Primates,
executive director Stephen Rene Tello told ANIMAL PEOPLE,
“Ninety-five percent of the debris” left by six and a half months of
court-appointed receivership had been cleaned up.
From October 15, 2006 until May 1, 2007, Primarily
Primates was managed by receiver Lee Theisen-Watt, whose background
was in wildlife rehabilitation, and a variety of PETA staff and
The sanctuary was seized largely based on claims by two
former Primarily Primates staff members who had been dismissed for
cause. The allegations were forwarded to now retired Texas assistant
attorney general John Vinson and Office of the Texas Attorney General
investigator Christopher Krhovjak in May 2006 by PETA counsel for
research and investigations Leona Stormont.
The Texas Office of Attorney General on April 27, 2007
agreed in an out-of-court settlement to “fully and completely
release, acquit, and forever discharge Primarily Primates,”
founder Wally Swett, other staff and board members, and Friends of
Animals, which absorbed the sanctuary in August 2006, from “all
claims” brought against them in connection with the seizure.
The seizure came 12 years after Vinson pushed a similar
attempted takeover, also based on claims by former employees,
amplified by PETA and attorney Stephen Wise, who had previously
represented Primarily Primates.
Wise was in December 2000 suspended from legal practice by
the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts for his conduct in
connection with the case.
Tello, involved with Primarily Primates in various
capacities for nearly 20 years, was originally named executive
director of the sanctuary in August 2006, after Swett retired as
part of the merger with Friends of Animals. Although Swett remains
involved as a consultant, he is no longer on the Primarily Primates
board of directors.
The reconstituted board includes Lou Griffin O’Neill, who
for more than 20 years directed the former South Texas Primate
Observatory, operated since 2001 as the Animal Protection Institute
Primate Sanctuary. Griffin is now assisting Tello in the day-to-day
management of Primarily Primates.
“We are focused on finding where everything is,” updating
the animal inventory, and locating or replacing missing or damaged
equipment, Tello told ANIMAL PEOPLE.
As many as 300 animals were relocated from Primarily Primates
to other facilities during Theisen-Watt’s tenure. Among the
recipient institutions were the Houston SPCA, Wildlife Rescue &
Rehabilitation, the API Primate Sanctuary, Chimp Haven, the Center
for Captive Chimpanzee Care, the Duke University Lemur Center, and
Tello said letters had been sent to 12 institutions seeking
the return of various animals. Two recipients had agreed to return
animals, Tello recounted. Four had initially balked, Tello said,
but only one had refused in writing to return animals.
“They are our animals, first of all, and we have plenty of
room,” Primarily Primates attorney and board member Eric Turton told
Cindy Tumiel of the San Antonio Express-News. “There’s no question
that there’s space for them, and we would like them back. They are
part of the Primarily Primates family.”
Primarily Primates and Friends of Animals are expected to
pursue with particular vigor the return to Primarily Primates of
seven retired research chimpanzees from Ohio State University, the
survivors of a colony of nine who were retired to Primarily Primates
in February 2006, over the objections of PETA and OSU researcher
Sally Boysen. The colony came with an endowment of $324,000 from OSU
for the chimps’ habitat and care.
One chimp died on arrival, while being unloaded. Another
died two months later. Both deaths were determined by necropsy to
have resulted from pre-existing heart conditions.
PETA sued to try to force Primarily Primates to send the
chimps to Chimp Haven. The case was dismissed five weeks before
Primarily Primates was placed in receivership.
“Our hope is that the chimps from OSU be returned to their
rightful home and refuge, and that’s Primarily Primates,” Friends
of Animals president Priscilla Feral told Mike Lafferty of the
As part of the out-of-court settlement, the Texas Office of
Attorney General agreed to support efforts to bring the OSU chimps
back to Primarily Primates. But Primarily Primates must complete the
chimps’ quarters by October 2007, and will be subject to inspection
by the Office of the Attorney General for the next two years.
“The condition of the facility has been greatly improved.
Overcrowding has been alleviated,” said Texas Office of Attorney
General spokesperson Tom Kelley.
Chimp Haven representative Rick Delahaya expressed
disappointment. “This is pretty much their home,” Delahaya said.
“We knew it was on a temporary basis,” legally speaking, “but we
thought the judge and the attorney general would have the chimpanzees
Friends of Animals particularly opposes leaving any Primarily
Primates animals at either Chimp Haven or the Duke University Lemur
Center because both are associated with biomedical research. Chimp
Haven houses chimpanzees who have been retired from research by the
National Institutions of Health, under a contract which allows the
NIH to recall them to lab use, if there is ever a reason. So far,
the recall clause has never been invoked.
Duke University is extensively involved in animal research of
various kinds, but the Duke University Lemur Center does not do
invasive research, and has an independent board of directors. The
management was restructured and the facilities were extensively
improved after deficiencies attracted media notice in 1998 and
Recovering animals, Tello told ANIMAL PEOPLE, was likely to
be a long-term project. Restoring the Primarily Primates facilities
is his short-term priority.
Three water pressure systems serving different parts of
Primarily Primates had been dismantled during the receivership,
Tello reported, apparently because someone did not understand how to
fix a plumbing problem. New tranquilizer darting equipment,
purchased just before the receivership started, could not be found.
Holding cages used to temporarily house incoming animals had
been demolished, Tello said, while routine maintenance of permanent
facilities was neglected.
“We have 63 corn crib cages,” Tello said. “Last October I
started replacing their climbing structures and ropes, which provide
the behavioral enrichment for the smaller and medium-sized monkeys.
The job was never completed. Most of the monkeys in the corn crib
cages had nothing to climb or swing on,” but the cage floors, Tello
said, were layered up to a foot deep in feces-splattered mouldering
Removing the hay from the cages and disposing of it safely,
Tello said, had been one of his biggest management headaches, in
part because the hay had incubated tens of thousands of biting flies.
Friends of Animals on May 14, 2007 distributed and posted a
videotape showing some of the Primarily Primates chimpanzee
enclosures and other facilities, made during the transition of
PETA president Ingrid Newkirk claimed on the PETA web site
that during the six-and-a-half-month receivership, “relief was
delivered to hundreds of chimpanzees and other animals who had been
neglected,” by PETA personnel who provided “veterinary care, proper
feed, clean water, and the comfort of bedding and nesting boxes.”
Tello and Swett told ANIMAL PEOPLE from the beginning of the
receivership that Theisen-Watt and the PETA volunteers were making
critical mistakes in their choices of toys and food for the chimps in
particular. Tello and Swett predicted that the Theisen-Watt team
would end up with messes that could not be cleaned up safely without
The video, showing mainly the quarters for a colony of
former NASA chimps, affirmed the predictions. As FoA captioned,
and Tello narrated on the video, “The clip shows grassy enclosures
littered with refuse, including soft toys and stuffing from soft
toys, Fig Newton wrappers, potato chip wrappers, and brown paper
bags. There is a Mountain Dew box. There are numerous wet and
heavily soiled blankets. Food is lying in excrement and excrement on
“The first two weeks involved an intensive effort to clean
the refuge grounds in and surrounding the enclosures, which were in
severe disarray,” Friends of Animals emphasized. “Clean-up has been