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Officials: Refuge became prison

The sprawling private animal sanctuary nestled in the picturesque hills above San Antonio was supposed to be a place of comfort and refuge for hundreds of chimpanzees, monkeys and other animals that had outlived their usefulness as research subjects, movie props or pets.

And for most of the last 28 years, Primarily Primates enjoyed an esteemed national reputation in the animal welfare community, attracting donations and support from zoos, universities and Hollywood celebrities.But somewhere along the line, according to the Texas attorney general, things began to go terribly wrong behind the chain-link fence that separated the animal refuge from the public. Charitable funds were misdirected, the attorney general alleged, used to buy groceries, liquor and even a house for one of the staff members. The sanctuary's founder, Wallace Swett, allegedly began "hoarding" hundreds more animals than the facility could hold.

By the time Travis County Probate Judge Guy Herman ordered a temporary receiver to take over the charity in October, finding that the sanctuary's managers were continuing to "neglect and mistreat" the animals in their care, many of the 75 chimpanzees were sealed inside filthy cages behind metal doors that had rusted shut. The heating system to protect the animals from subfreezing nighttime temperatures was broken. Animal feces and rotting food overflowed shallow trenches crisscrossing the grounds.

And cockroaches carpeted the floors and walls of some of the animals' sleeping houses, while rats had colonized others.

"We're talking tens of thousands of roaches," said Mark Ambrose, general manager of ABC Pest Control, an exterminating firm brought in last month. "It was probably the worst roach infestation I've ever seen."

Lee Theisen-Watt, the Dallas wildlife rehabilitator appointed by the court to try to improve conditions at the sanctuary, shook with anger as she led a reporter on a tour of the neglected facilities last week.

"I cannot excuse anyone for the suffering these animals have endured and are continuing to endure because there are things we can't fix immediately," Theisen-Watt said. "After seeing what I've seen and how long and how deep and how bad it is, I don't care what the intention was, it resulted in the most atrocious conditions and care and lives for these animals."

Groups square off

Yet what seemed to the state of Texas like an open-and-shut case of animal abuse is now roiling the animal rights movement, with two major groups facing off in a bitter struggle over the future of the sanctuary--and what exactly constitutes cruelty to animals.

On one side is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Virginia-based activist group, which began investigating conditions at Primarily Primates last year after receiving tips from concerned former employees of the refuge. PETA eventually passed its findings to Texas Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott, whose office quickly sought and received the emergency court injunction to hand control of the facility to a receiver.

"Bringing law enforcement down on the head of a sanctuary is not my idea of a case I long to take on," said Mary Beth Sweetland, PETA's senior vice president. "It's just galling that we have to spend our time working on something that should never have happened. But it did happen. And when we took a look at the extent of the suffering, it was impossible to turn away."

On the other side is Friends of Animals, another well-known animal rights group based in Connecticut, which has rushed to the defense of the former managers of Primarily Primates and is footing their legal bills as they battle in court to regain control of the sanctuary.

Friends of Animals President Priscilla Feral insists that the allegations of animal cruelty are part of a PETA plot to take over the sanctuary, euthanize all the animals and sell off the facility's valuable land. What's more, Feral contends that the animals at Primarily Primates received excellent care.

"I'm not freaked out by mice," Feral said when asked about photographs showing massive vermin infestations at the sanctuary. "If you have lots of food, certainly rodents are attracted. And the roaches--it's not odd that they are there. They are part of nature. If there aren't enough bugs around, [the receiver] will probably import them."

Last month, Herman found Feral and former Primarily Primates Executive Director Stephen Rene Tello in contempt of court for sending a mailing to Primarily Primates donors urging them to direct their checks to Friends of Animals.

PETA dismisses Feral's charges about its motives as absurd, and in fact, the group has no control over what happens to the sanctuary now that it is under a court's jurisdiction.

Few laws to set standards

But the internecine squabbling distresses other animal welfare groups, who view it as an inevitable result of the fact that there are few state or federal laws governing conditions at private animal sanctuaries.

"Without any kind of objective standards or arbiter in the way of a regulatory body, everyone comes away with their own approach and sides are often taken," said Richard Farinato, a sanctuary expert at the Humane Society of the United States who toured Primarily Primates last week. "A place like Primarily Primates subscribed to no set of standards other than its own because legally they are not bound to, and this is what happens. The place is in deplorable shape."

Swett, the sanctuary's founder, declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this story. Tello denied every allegation lodged by the attorney general.

"What they're trying to make you believe is that we didn't care, and that is absolutely false," he said. "We always made sure these animals had climbing structures and shelters and heat and companions."

When Theisen-Watt arrived to take control of the sanctuary on Oct. 13, there were 740 animals at the facility, including 87 capuchin monkeys, 21 macaques, 26 tamarins, 78 chickens and roosters and 39 guinea pigs. And by the accounts of eyewitnesses, veterinary experts and the attorney general, most were suffering greatly.

Only seven staff members were available to care for all the animals, including just two keepers for the 75 chimpanzees, which are among the most complex animals to sustain. Most experts suggest a ratio of no more than five or six chimps for each keeper.

The sanctuary employed no on-site veterinarian, and a clinic on the sanctuary's grounds had fallen into ruin, with mice and roaches nesting inside the broken incubators.

Theisen-Watt said sanctuary records showed no fresh fruit or vegetables had been ordered for the animals in two months. Most of the primate cages were barren of recreational features or toys for mental enrichment. Some monkeys had frostbitten fingers.

A grown male African lion was kept inside a cage secured by a single rusting bolt thinner than a pencil.

Nowhere to go

To relieve the acute overcrowding, Theisen-Watt arranged the transfer of 7 chimpanzees and more than 250 of the domestic animals to other shelters. She is seeking the court's permission to relocate another 41 animals to zoos and other refuges.

But for most of the primates, there are no alternatives because nearly every other suitable refuge across the country is full. That means Theisen-Watt must attempt a complete overhaul of the sanctuary, using what scarce funds are available in its depleted bank accounts. She has refused to draw the $50 per hour salary the court authorized her to take, instead spending her own money for lodging and food while temporarily located in San Antonio.

"That would be taking food out of the monkeys' mouths," she said. "I couldn't do that in good conscience."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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