Primarily Primates

Primarily Primates is a non-profit organization in Bexar County, Texas that operates an animal sanctuary, housing 600 non-human primates and a variety of other animals. The organization was founded by Wallace (Wally) Swett in 1978, who ran the facility until 2006.

Animals at the shelter include primates formerly used in animal research, chimpanzees retired from the United States Air Force (mostly Holloman Air Force Base) and the NASA space program]], and Oliver, a chimpanzee exhibited around the world for many years and often referred to as the "humanzee," because of speculation in the past that he might be part human. Other notable chimps now living there include Willie and Harry who appeared in the film, Project X. Willie played Virgil the chimp, who was taught to pilot planes.

The Texas attorney general took control of the sanctuary in October 2006 after allegations that the facility was "unfit," and that public donations had been misspent while the animals lived in substandard accommodation. An Austin probate court put the sanctuary into temporary receivership and appointed a primate expert, Lee Theisen-Watt, to evaluate the animals' condition and supervise their care. The attorney general asked the court permanently to remove Wally Swett and his associates, and require them to repay some of the funds that were allegedly misspent. In April 2007, a settlement was reached appointing a new board of directors, which the Chicago Tribune writes includes associates of the previous operators, such as Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, a Connecticut-based animal-rights group that funded Swett's defense, and Stephen Tello, Swett's former deputy. A spokesman for the attorney-general's office said in a statement that "[t]he troubling conditions at Primarily Primates have been remedied."

Temporary receivership

The controversy began when a former employee of the sanctuary took undercover footage showing sick animals and primates confined in small cages. The material was handed to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which filed a lawsuit against Primarily Primates (PPI) in March 2006.

The courts dismissed the lawsuit, but the controversy continued. Both sides made serious allegations against the other, with PETA maintaining a highly critical website called Primarily Primates: Hell On Earth for For Animals.

The Texas Attorney General's office ordered the takeover of the sanctuary on Friday, October 13, 2006, and the appointment of a temporary receiver. Lee Theisen-Watt, a primatologist, was placed in charge of the sanctuary. Citing inadequate conditions, he began relocating animals. Employees of PPI expressed concern that animals would be needlessly killed for treatable illnesses, and questioned many of Theisen-Watt's decisions.

New management

On May 1, 2007, the temporary receivership ended and a new management team arrived. Upon their arrival, they videotaped the conditions they found at the sanctuary as it was left by Theisen-Watt, and published the footage on PPI's updated website. Chimp Haven, a sanctuary to which a number of chimps were relocated during the receivership, chose not to return the chimps to PPI.


In May 2007, Texas courts handed management of the facility to Friends of Animals, with a new board of directors headed by Stephen Tello, who had previously been involved in running the facility for 20 years. In addition to Tello, the new board consists of Patricia Feral of Friends of Animals, which funded Wally Swett's legal defense; and Lou Griffin, a veterinarian with laboratory experience of non-human primates. A primate veterinarian, Dr. Michele Martino, also joined the board, but resigned soon after. In a press release, Feral stated: "My promise to donors, advocates, and the public is that this sanctuary will be tidy, well-run, communicative, and a place advocates can be proud to support.

A spokesman for the Texas attorney general's office, Tom Kelley, said: "The troubling conditions at Primarily Primates have been remedied." He confirmed that Wally Swett will be permanently barred from the facility as part of the settlement.


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