A Better Place

For nearly 30 years, Primarily Primates has offered a refuge for displaced animals

A Better Place
Photo By Traci Goudie

When Wally Swett, Kenneth Oberg, and Gregory Miller loaded up a trailer with various chickens, dogs, and monkeys, and made their way from Hanover, Mass., to Central Texas in 1978, primate sanctuaries weren't really done. While working at the Boston Zoological Society, Swett had started taking in pet monkeys (which in the Seventies were very much done) when, inevitably, they matured and became too much for their owners to handle. "Word got around, and pretty soon I was up to 19 monkeys," says Swett. "And then I had to – well, New England is cold. Outside is only six weeks, and the rest of the time they have to be inside. Which was very hard. So I enlisted three other people, and we moved to Texas, where it's going to be warmer. It was just a pin in a map, basically, you know, California's too expensive, Florida's too crowded – that leaves Texas."

Swett and his monkeys set up temporary headquarters on some land south of San Antonio. They had a three-year lease, a bunch of monkeys, and little else. "It just kept growing and growing," he says. "I had no idea the number of calls I would get. ... And if there's no place else to send them, then I take them in." They tended the animals and worked outside jobs to make ends meet for three years, with few prospects for anything but getting by. In 1981, with the lease about to expire, abandoned animals accumulating, and no particular prospects, Swett received an out-of-the-blue call from "Mrs. Thelma Doelger," as he never fails to call her, the wife of a California developer, who wanted to help him out. Swett threw out some small-potatoes requests; Doelger told him to aim higher. After securing a promise that Swett would remain with the facility for the rest of his life, Doelger purchased 8 acres in Leon Springs, several animal enclosures, and a year's worth of insurance for Primarily Primates' permanent home.

In 1983, Primarily Primates took in its first chimpanzee – from a sideshow. A few years later, with a few more chimps in residence, the sanctuary negotiated with the Buckshire Corporation, a Pennsylvania research facility, to retire its chimpanzees, and successfully integrated them into a balanced social group, something no one had been sure could be done with chimpanzees raised in laboratories. Along with a continuously replenished roster of other primates, big cats, birds, horses, foxes, dogs, and miscellaneous odds and ends cast off by pet owners, zoos, and the research and entertainment industries, Swett has continued to receive, rehabilitate, and provide lifetime care for numerous chimpanzees – including numerous Air Force chimps descended from the original NASA colony and farmed out for medical research after their military tours. Today, Primarily Primates is home to 75 chimpanzees.

Chimp sanctuaries are having a bit of a moment, it seems – mostly, though not wholly, due to the gradual downsizing of medical research done on chimpanzees and fallout from the federal Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance, and Protection Act, which helps fund chimp-retirement facilities and care. Just last month, The New York Times Magazine profiled the first facility built under the act – Chimp Haven, a lavish 200-acre Louisiana facility where chimps roam relatively freely – along with Carole Noon's state-of-the-art Save the Chimps sanctuary in Ft. Pierce, Fla., and a couple of other privately funded facilities.

It's a fine development for the chimps, not to mention a fairly astounding human stab at cultural reparation. It's also a character-defining moment for Primarily Primates: the scrappy, DIY, tooth-and-nail sanctuary getting by on donations from dowagers and B-listers and garden-variety animal lovers; the quirky, fanatically devoted, self-taught obsessive kicking ass for primates in the Texas Hill Country; the Robert Johnson to Chimp Haven's Rolling Stones; the mom-and-pop to their Wal-Mart. They were there from the beginning, man.

Honest Animals

I've never met Wally Swett in the flesh, but he assures me he's quite pretty. "Just say I look like a cross between Brad Pitt and ... Ben Affleck," he jokes on the phone. (If current photos do him justice, he's definitely rocking a rugged silver fox look to excellent effect.) Swett appeared on Those Amazing Animals (twice) with Burgess Meredith and Priscilla Presley and has been featured in several documentaries on the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, the Outdoor Life Network, and PBS. He's been the subject of numerous local and regional news stories and featured in national publications (notably a 2003 Atlantic Monthly profile of Oliver, probably the most famous chimp at Primarily Primates, in which the writer labeled Swett a misanthrope). He's been on Japanese and British television and in documentaries dubbed and screened around the world. He's hosted Jane Goodall at the sanctuary four times (he admits to being starstruck), most recently preparing an elaborate vegetarian dinner in her honor. He's negotiated masterfully for retired lab chimps with the late Frederick Coulston, for decades the Dr. Evil of primate research, and given numerous papers and talks at conferences around the world; just last week, he tells me, he was interviewed on Air America. Along with Goodall and a couple of other sanctuary directors who crop up repeatedly when you start to pay attention to these things, he's a smooth talker and an international primate superstar.

Primarily Primates's orangutan enclosure
Primarily Primates's orangutan enclosure (Photo By Christia Madacsi)

But on the day I visit Primarily Primates, expecting a tour and interview with him, I'm greeted instead by Laura Joann, a member of Primarily Primates' office staff. I'm told that Swett is ill and that she'll be giving the tour instead. Between the sticky June heat, the dense foliage that's creating a reasonably jungly atmosphere, and whatever stereotypes of eccentric animal lovers I have clattering around in my head, I start to get a slightly Heart of Darkness vibe, fleetingly wondering if Swett's gone reclusive and feral.

Which is, of course, ridiculous – or at least a highly fantastical version of a partial truth. "I do feel more comfortable when I'm around the animals, because you can trust what they're telling you," says Swett. "And, unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there that lie. ... Especially at the expense of the wild animals. And, you know, the animals come first. I don't think that makes me a people-hater, but I do distrust what a lot of people tell me. Whereas animals have always been honest with me," he chuckles.

Though the animals, particularly the chimps, are his passion and focus, their survival has depended on Swett's being their charming, unflagging emissary to the animals with wallets. He's the guy who meets the press and works the contacts and tells the stories, tirelessly, to the endless stream of reporters and filmmakers and donors.

Since that slow, smelly trip southward nearly 30 years ago, Primarily Primates has acquired a staff of seven, 65 more acres, a seven-member board of directors, a large pond, steady drabs of media exposure, and numerous animal enclosures – not to mention approximately 600 primates and 200 other wild animals to care for and, they hope, get back to something approaching their natural state. Just to maintain the current level of operation – with no increase in staff or facilities or inflation allowance – they have to raise $1.1 million a year. Expansion and acquisition of additional animals requires extra fundraising. All that's come almost exclusively from mostly small contributions by individual donors, punctuated by occasional grant money and a couple of white-knuckled, last-minute saves by the Mrs. Thelma Doelgers of the world.

Animal sanctuaries tend to attract the passing attention of a certain kind of celebrity. It's a convergence that casual observers sometimes have a hard time not playing for laughs, but one its beneficiaries see merely as fortuitous, when it pans out. "I don't want to give anybody the impression that celebs are big givers, because they're not," says Swett, when I ask about the signed pictures of Buddy Hackett, George Clooney, and the cast of Third Rock From the Sun gracing Primarily Primates' office walls. "Not financially. Deep in their hearts, there seems to be a great deal of respect and love for this kind of work, but ... they're not, as a rule, great donors. Except for Mr. Barker, of course."

In 1986, Primarily Primates had $38 in the bank and "multitudes of animals" to care for, says Swett. "Animals kept coming in, animals that were slated to die if we didn't take them in." On Christmas Eve, Swett received a call from Bob Barker. After establishing he really was that Bob Barker, he told Swett he wanted to make a donation in memory of his recently deceased wife, requesting only that the sanctuary post signs in her honor. "Two weeks later," says Swett, "a check came in for a quarter of a million dollars." Work on the Dorothy Jo Barker great ape complex began.

Primarily Primates' most recent miraculous occurrence had less to do with celebrity saviors than with old-fashioned neighborhood organizing: After discovering that City Public Service, the San Antonio-area public utility, was planning to buy and develop 65 acres of land adjacent to Primarily Primates, complete with "a supersubstation with electrical wires that would go over the top of the chimp enclosures," Swett says, the sanctuary "went on the offensive," organizing homeowners' meetings, investigating the effects of electrical emissions, raising issues about endangered species in the area, and generally working the civic system. When the electrical company asked for an extension, the sanctuary was able to match the down payment on the land, but had only a month to raise the remaining money required for purchase – close to $1 million, says Swett. In yet another nail-biter, thanks to a couple of sanctuary patrons, he says, "We got the mortgage on the very last day, and that was a complete miracle."

Dominance or Fear

Wally Swett amid the beasts
Wally Swett amid the beasts (Photo By Andy Cockrum)

Most people are surprised to hear that there are 600 primates – including quite a few chimps, baboons, and gibbons – living in a sanctuary a few miles from San Antonio ("Monkeys? 600? In Texas? Really?"). The truth is, between zoos, research facilities, and who knows how many private homes, Texas is relatively lousy with monkeys – it's just that most of them aren't fortunate enough to live as close to wildness as they do at Primarily Primates.

Most people should be so lucky, for that matter; the complex looks like the most bucolic Hill Country B&B retreat you can imagine, if it were filled with wild animals and sounded like several converging jungles. When Laura Joann and I step out of the office, one of two modest limestone structures near the facility's entrance, we're greeted by the warning screeches of an impossible tumble of agitated spider monkeys. Joann, a former small-business owner who headed here from California with her two daughters more than 13 years ago and has worked at Primarily Primates' office pretty much ever since, leads me slowly through the complex. It's covered in live oaks and cedar, with intact understory and winding paths lined with antique roses and shaded, roomy animal enclosures. I'm warned not to make eye contact with the hamadryas baboons, rescued from petdom and research, but my deferential demeanor does little to soothe the male, whose absolutely terrifying peals and dominance displays assure me that he's the boss of pretty much everything. The pitch rises and the clatter intensifies into what sounds like (but isn't) complete pandemonium; how insane would you have to be, I wonder, to think that would make a good pet?

And so it goes, with variations, past some Barker enclosures, more spider monkeys, lemurs, langurs, tamarins, capuchins, rare howler monkeys with their low-pitched, hellraiser moans. I get used to the sounds, start to enjoy them, appreciating the fact that they're letting me know my presence isn't normal. Primarily Primates is not open to the public, and caretakers try to minimize human contact; the animals are not there for display, and they have every reason to be alarmed and alerted. There are lions, leopards, more lemurs, colobus monkeys, and a De Brazza's monkey named Grandpa. The cacophony surges as we emerge from the shade and approach a vast pond flanked by tall grasses and bird enclosures. A huge group of red-eyed black swans, retired movie geese, and various exotic birds get their several cents in. Parrots and people exchange multiple hellos. "People get parrots, and they outlive their families, and they outlive their kids, or they make too much noise," says Joann. "People die, and they don't realize parrots and monkeys live 40, 50 years, beyond most marriages now ... so they include us in the will, and send us their animals. Sometimes they send money, but most times, just ..." she gestures at the vast array of exotic plumage.

Wild animals are really not cool pets. Most people have figured this out by now, but the staff of Primarily Primates is resigned to the fact that they'll probably never entirely see the end of the steady trickle of pet owners desperate to unload their cute monkeys, foxes, leopards, and god knows what else when they mature and start to bite, smell, and, usually, exhibit the neurotic behavior that comes from being imprisoned away from their own kind.

A cursory conversation with those in the know will also put you off monkey entertainment – any diversion that requires live primates, or any wild animal for that matter, to perform – for good. Turns out that, unlike domesticated animals, the chimpanzees whose antics on stage and screen we adore – who entertain us because they are so very much like us but cuter, more innocent, funnier, and, well, wilder – can only be "trained" with continuous abuse and torment. That manic, gummy chimp smile, the one most of us think is an irresistible indicator of a primate having a good time? That's fear.

Oliver at Rest

We emerge from the path into a clearing covered with prairie grasses, a bit of brush, and some late wildflowers: the sanctuary's recently acquired acreage. The acquisition and fundraising allowed them to build proper brachiating enclosures for their gibbons, who hoot and trill musically as they swing. The sanctuary is also building a new chimp enclosure there, and keeps a couple of rescued horses, foxes, and other animals in the area, but the bulk of it will be kept to preserve, protect, and in some cases reintroduce native plant and animal species.

A Better Place
Photo By Traci Goudie

Between pond and plains are the chimpanzees – Primarily Primates' raison d'être.

When Swett began rehabilitating chimps, few people believed it possible. The prevailing wisdom was that lab chimps, raised in captivity and isolation, could not be resocialized at all, much less with different types of chimps. Add the various kinds of psychic damage done to animals in the entertainment business, and hopes were not high. Swett was convinced it could be done – and it can, but it takes a Manhattan doyenne's obsession with social arrangement. Swett and staff separate and reunite, isolate and reintroduce, often forming successful troops with combinations of age, type, and gender that would never be found in nature; he has on occasion had to bottle-feed a surprise baby, arrange for the donation of a young companion for the tot, and then bottle-feed her, too.

But there are payoffs: Overlooking the pond are vast, airy enclosures where the chimps from the film Project X mix with the Air Force and other former lab chimps – along with the now-teenage, bottle-fed Deeter, Jewel, and Champ – swinging, playing, displaying their strength, and confronting the human interlopers; a similar mix inhabits other enclosures, with tenants signing, climbing, hooting, showing off, or sitting calmly, depending on their upbringings and personalities. Near the slightly smaller enclosures is one chimp who never quite fit in: Oliver, Primarily Primates' most storied resident.

Swett calls Oliver a "national treasure." The chimpanzee started his life somewhere in Africa, of course, though the precise location of his capture is one of the many mysteries that surround him. To those who know about such things, he has always been a particularly odd chimp – small head, light skin, weird ears, unchimplike smell, that sort of thing. Oliver's penchant for walking upright and preference for the company and activities of humans (nightcaps and coffee, television, flirting with the ladies) over those of apes (the disdain was mutual) led to a long career of exploitation and display as the purported missing link, or "humanzee." In the 1970s, reported the Atlantic, he was paraded in front of crowds at New York's Waldorf-Astoria and then dragged through a three-week tour of Japan, where he was filmed for what amounted to his own personal Real World for Nippon TV (in addition to receiving an offer to mate with a Japanese actress for reasons of science) in exchange for genetic testing that was said to yield ambiguous results. (More recent and sophisticated tests have shown Oliver to be undeniably a chimp, even the most mundane kind of chimp, although Swett believes he's a yet-to-be-discovered subspecies, citing recent finds of "another subspecies of gorilla and another subspecies of chimps in the last five years" as evidence of this possibility.)

When popular attention subsided, Oliver was cycled through a variety of animal "parks" and roadside zoos, eventually ending up at the Buckshire Corporation, who did not use him for research but kept him in a tiny cage for seven years and claimed not to know his origins. Primarily Primates acquired Oliver with the first group of chimpanzees it got from the research facility; for a while he was able to live with a group of "extremely mellow" chimps, Swett says, but as he became increasingly blind and deaf was moved to his own enclosure to avoid accidental injury (even mellow chimps are rambunctious, it seems). Swett estimates his age to be 45 or so, the tail end of the lifespan of a chimp in captivity (chimps in the wild generally die younger). He still hears and responds to the calls of humans, moving slowly to the edge of the enclosure at Joann's call. He looks like nothing so much as a sweet old man in a retirement home. Which is, give or take a few chromosomes, what he is. "He's just had a horrible life," says Swett. "But he's doing okay."

Old Debt

When he first started rescuing primates, Swett knew that he could only offer better, not ideal, conditions for them. Early on, he explored the possibilities of eventually returning them to the wild. "I have tried three different approaches in West Africa to see if it might be possible to do release programs, and came back just absolutely convinced it wouldn't work, in the countries that we were working in, at least," he says. In trying to reintroduce them to Ghana – where they have been wiped out by a combination of habitat loss and capture for meat and trade (including the original Air Force chimps) – he was defeated by trade lobbies creating panic that Americans were trying to use the chimpanzees to introduce disease to Africa. He's witnessed similar failures in Gambia and Liberia, and says he's heard of tamarins reintroduced to the wild in Brazil being easily recaptured, because they had once been pets or in zoos, and cycled back into the pet trade.

When you ask Swett why he does what he does, the answer is "guilt." Most articles on him feature the story of his being a kid, getting a pet squirrel monkey, and being required by his mother to keep it in the basement, where it died young. It's doubtful that guilt for unknowing mistreatment of a childhood pet has kept him at it all these years, but it might be part of why he calmly plugs along, raising money for things like new enclosures for the last of the Buckshire chimps, whose arrival will be doubly thrilling because it will signal the end of that facility's use of chimps in research.

"I don't know if it's really guilt," he says, "but it's just trying to repay what I did wrong as a kid. You know, I should have done more research, not listened to my mother ... I think that's part of it. Although I'm fascinated by the learning process and so forth, having seen monkeys and some of the tropical birds in the wild – when you actually see a pair of parrots flying across a river, and then you think of them being kept in someone's house in a parrot cage, it's just horrible."

It's hard not to point out that they're still better off at Primarily Primates than they were when he got them.

"That's the only way I justified it to myself when I came back from Africa," he says. "Every single one is in a better place than it was before. It may not be perfect, but it's in a better place than they were before." end story

For more info, see www.primarilyprimates.org. Donations can be sent to Primarily Primates Inc., PO Box 207, San Antonio, TX 78291-0207.

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animal rescueanimal sanctuary, Wally Swett, Kenneth Oberg, Gregory Miller, monkeys, Primarily Primates, apes, animal sanctuaries, Mrs. Thelma Doelger, Leon Springs, Buckshire Corporation, NASA, Chimp Haven, Carole Noon, Save the Chimps, Jane Goodall, Frederick Coulston, Laura Joann, Bob Barker, Dorothy Jo Barker

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