Primates' Fate in Limbo

Legal battle deciding fate of Bexar Co. animal sanctuary's inhabitants heats up over decision to move seven chimps to primate sanctuary in Louisiana

One of the residents of Primarily Primates, which is currently embroiled in a fight over who should control the animal sanctuary.
One of the residents of Primarily Primates, which is currently embroiled in a fight over who should control the animal sanctuary. (Photo By Traci Goudie)

The ongoing legal battle that will decide the fate of Bexar Co. animal sanctuary Primarily Primates Inc. and its hundreds of animal inhabitants heated up Nov. 16 over a decision to move seven Ohio State University chimpanzees that were brought to PPI earlier this year to the federally funded primate sanctuary Chimp Haven in Louisiana. The decision to temporarily relocate the chimps caused a stir at PPI Thursday morning, says PPI President Stephen Tello. Tello told the Chronicle that he got a phone call that morning from PPI employees who told him receiver Lee Theisen-Watt and a handful of others – including attorneys from the controversial group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, whose involvement in the PPI controversy seems to be fueling distrust between the sanctuary and the state – were preparing to move the chimps. The employees told Tello, he said, that they feared the move was being done in violation of a court-ordered stay requiring Watt to receive court permission before undertaking any action to permanently move or to euthanize any of the animals living at the 75-acre sanctuary. As it turned out, Watt's decision to move the OSU chimps was conceived as a "temporary" solution, to ensure quality care for the chimps who are retired from service in cognitive research studies, until control of the sanctuary – and/or whether PPI can even continue operation – is decided by the courts.

The move nonetheless sparked a rush of high emotion outside the sanctuary Thursday morning – in part, perhaps, because Watt's decision (apparently made several weeks ago) to move the chimps was not communicated to the PPI employees who have stayed on at the sanctuary under Watt's oversight or to PPI's attorneys. Tom Kelley, spokesman for the Texas attorney general's office, which seized temporary control of the sanctuary in October based on allegations of financial mismanagement and animal cruelty (specifically, that living conditions and sanitation at the sanctuary are substandard), said the AG's office has "no obligation" to advise PPI's attorneys about decisions Watt is making and that to do so would do nothing but "allow the other side to micromanage the receiver."

Also on Nov. 16, Assistant Attorney General Ted Ross, who is handling the case against PPI, filed two "emergency" motions in the Travis Co. district court of Judge Guy Herman, where the case is scheduled to go to trial in the spring, alleging that Tello and Priscilla Feral, head of the Connecticut-based group Friends of Animals, which is covering PPI's legal expenses, have sent letters critical of receiver Watt in an attempt to thwart Watt's ability to successfully raise funds from donors in support of PPI. Ross argues that instead Tello and Feral have asked donors to send money to them. Herman has ordered Tello and Feral to appear in court on Nov. 29 for a hearing to determine whether the two have acted in "contempt of court" by withholding PPI's donor list from Herman and, ultimately, from Watt.

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Primarily Primates Inc., Primarily Primates, Inc., Chimp Haven, Stephen Tello, Lee Theisen-Watt, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Texas Attorney General's office, Ted Ross, Guy Herman, Priscilla Feral

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