Famous Long Ago

Legendary "Humanzee" Oliver, his friends, and the bitter fight over animal welfare at a Texas refuge

He used to fly in a 747, smoke cigars, and drink sherry. This is not what he is used to. - Court appointed receiver Lee Theisen-Watt
"He used to fly in a 747, smoke cigars, and drink sherry. This is not what he is used to." - Court appointed receiver Lee Theisen-Watt

Once upon a time, everyone knew Oliver.

The exact date and place of his birth aren't certain – records suggest he was born in 1962, somewhere in the Congo – but by the time he was about 10 years old, he'd become an international celebrity. Stories about those years, especially in the mid- to late Seventies, paint Oliver as a jet-setter – flying around the world, making a string of television appearances, most memorably on The Ed Sullivan Show and extensively on Japan's Nippon TV. There were credulous stories about his favorite pastimes: watching TV while smoking a cigar and drinking sherry, or making, serving, and drinking coffee.

Oliver is a chimpanzee – perhaps the most storied of all the Old World simians to achieve celebrity status. As for so many celebs, it was Oliver's appearance that transformed his life, setting him on a course that would, inevitably, bring on his subsequent downfall. More so than his primate brethren, Oliver appeared – and still does (his legend remains fodder for any number of Web sites) – almost human. His head is smaller and less hairy than that of a typical chimp, his nose smaller and more defined, his ears more pointed. Most dramatically, Oliver walks upright, like a man – knees locked, powerful shoulders straight and broad, arms swinging at his sides – instead of hunched forward and using his hands and arms, like most chimps. It was his bipedal walk, combined with Oliver's other humanoid features, that earned him the dubious honor of being dubbed the "Humanzee" – promoted as the "Missing Link" between man and ape.

He was brought to the U.S. by animal trainers Frank and Janet Burger, who ran a chimp, dog, pony, and pig show that was once a regular feature on The Ed Sullivan Show and at Radio City Music Hall, Janet Burger told the San Antonio Express-News in 1996. But in 1976, when Oliver had reached sexual maturity and became difficult to handle, the Burgers sold him to New York lawyer Michael Miller. Miller began promoting Oliver as a possible chimp-human "hybrid," taking him to Japan and exhibiting him on TV and stage. Before long, Oliver was sold again – and again – to a string of West Coast animal trainers, who variously exhibited him as a freak.

Oliver's celebrity soon ran its course. In 1989, he was sold, one last time, to the infamous research-animal broker Buckshire Corp. of Pennsylvania, where he languished for seven years in a small metal cage, receiving little human or animal interaction. There were dozens of chimps housed at Buckshire, spending years in tiny cages or leased out for dangerous research projects. In 1995, an undercover investigation by the animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals produced a surreptitiously recorded video showing some 40 cruelly housed chimps at Buckshire. Under pressure, Buckshire eventually agreed to retire a dozen chimps who became known as the Buckshire 12. At the time, retiring research animals, and especially chimpanzees, was uncommon, and there were (and remain) few options for housing and caring for chimps or other primates. Chimps are humans' closest biological relatives; they're strong, social, highly intelligent, and in captivity can live nearly 60 years. But providing adequate care is complex and expensive.

It appeared that Oliver and his Buckshire brethren had finally received a reprieve when Wallace Swett, founder of Primarily Primates Inc., the now nearly 30-year-old northwest Bexar Co. animal sanctuary, contacted Buckshire to say that the Leon Springs refuge would be willing to provide permanent retirement for the Buckshire 12. In 1996, the chimps were transported to Texas, and Oliver, then in his 30s, walked upright from his transport cage into a larger enclosure at PPI. "He's been dragged around and exploited for over 20 years, but this is his final retirement," Swett told the Express-News, calling Oliver a "national treasure." "He'll never go into research or on exhibit again."

"Neglectful Treatment"

And that was that, or so it appeared – at least publicly – until this year, when troubling allegations that PPI was guilty of animal cruelty exploded into the media, and then into court. In a petition for a temporary restraining order – seeking the ouster of PPI's current management, including Swett and newly appointed director Stephen Tello, and the appointment of a temporary receiver, wildlife rehabilitator Lee Theisen-Watt, to take over running the sanctuary – Texas Assistant Attorney General Ted Ross, of the agency's Charitable Trusts Section, argued that the nonprofit PPI has long mismanaged its donated funds, to the detriment of its large population of primates and other animals. As a result, the state charged, PPI's animals have been living in conditions so substandard that they amount to severe animal cruelty. "PPI confines ... animals ... in substandard caging, and under conditions which are inherently unsafe and which constitute inappropriate, neglectful treatment," Ross wrote in the Oct. 13 complaint, adding that the refuge has failed to provide even "adequate veterinary care." In fact, PPI has never had an on-staff vet – a factor, the state charged, that contributed to the 2004 death of retired Air Force research chimp Betty, who had delivered a stillborn chimp that fall and soon after was put down (with three shotgun rounds to the head) after languishing for several days in her enclosure, lying in her own excrement, swarmed by fire ants.

Oliver's current home
Oliver's current home (photo by Jana Birchum)

The state charges that PPI was chronically understaffed, leading to deplorably filthy conditions – raw sewage collecting in a "cesspool" near several chimp enclosures, and the animals dwelling in cages and sleeping in "night boxes" infested with cockroaches. They'd also been denied an adequate diet, the AG contends, subsisting mainly on Monkey Chow – the equivalent of hard dog biscuits – had little protection from the elements, lived mostly on bare concrete slabs, and been denied any real "enrichment": toys, climbing structures, or other elements to engage their minds.

In an affidavit, Jorge Ortega, vice president of shelter services at the Houston SPCA, recalls visiting PPI in August, where he immediately became concerned about Oliver's living conditions, which he called "cruel." "His enclosure is filthy, too small," and without "meaningful enrichment materials to occupy him" except "an old cardboard paper towel roll," Ortega wrote. The enclosure "has no bowl or bucket for food. Instead, food was thrown onto the dirt floor of the outdoor cage, allowing [it] to become soiled with dirt and excrement. This is unacceptable by any standard."

The allegations led many animal welfare advocates to conclude that the once-famed PPI – the place Swett promised would be a refuge for long abused and abandoned primates like Oliver – had degenerated into a dismal place of confinement, with conditions similar to those in places like Buckshire. In short, the AG alleges that over at least the last decade, PPI has turned into a sanctuary that merely hoards animals – in the manner of a "cat lady" or a puppy mill – a place where the primates have, in fact, become primarily forgotten.

Good Intentions

The current legal battle began last year, with the news that Ohio State University would be retiring nine primates – seven chimps and two capuchin monkeys – to PPI. The OSU chimps were part of the longest running cognitive research study of its kind, under the direction of psychology professor Sally Boysen (herself the focus of yet another animal melodrama with legal repercussions), for which funding had finally dried up. According to court documents, OSU officials originally sought to retire the primates to the newly constructed Chimp Haven in Louisiana, the first federally funded sanctuary for research chimps. But in mid-2005, when OSU was ready to close Boysen's lab and move the chimps, Chimp Haven was not yet ready to accept the group, and OSU turned to PPI. A November 2005 site visit gave PPI a clean bill of health – in a letter to OSU officials, veterinarian Thomas Butler (also a member of the Chimp Haven board of directors) wrote that based on his observations, PPI chimps appeared "both physically and behaviorally healthy." Butler concluded that PPI would need to build larger enclosures for the OSU chimps, but in the interim could provide "adequate temporary housing." So plans were made to send the animals to PPI in early 2006 and to provide PPI with nearly $250,000 for permanent enclosures.

PETA attorney Leana Stormont, who was involved in exposing the allegedly dismal living conditions at PPI, says this was not good news, coming as it did on the heels of Air Force chimp Betty's tragic death. In fact, after a PPI volunteer contacted PETA with "a real laundry list of complaints" about PPI, PETA became so concerned about allegedly deteriorating conditions, Stormont said, that the organization hired a professional videographer in August 2005 to make an official record of life at PPI.

How PETA got access to the normally private sanctuary is unclear; PPI supporters say a disgruntled employee arranged the visit without alerting PPI management, and Tello says the visit was staged to show PPI in the worst possible light. Nonetheless, after seeing the video – of animals in barren enclosures and filthy night boxes – Stormont said PETA was even more troubled: "Then we heard about the OSU chimps, [and] we immediately contacted [the university]," she recalled. "I told them what we'd found [at PPI] and pleaded with them not to send them there." Nevertheless, the OSU chimps arrived at PPI on March 2 of this year, and the same day, one died. According to a necropsy, 16-year-old Kermit died of a heart attack, "probably directly related" to a pre-existing heart condition, a veterinary pathologist concluded, but Stormont blames PPI. The sanctuary wasn't prepared to receive the chimps, she said, which meant Kermit had to be sedated in order to move him into an enclosure. "Eyewitness reports say [Kermit's] head fell forward, and we believe his airway was compromised and that contributed to his death," she said. A month later, a second OSU chimp, 19-year-old Bobby, was found dead in his enclosure, also apparently from complications related to a pre-existing heart condition.

Tello and longtime PPI supporter Priscilla Feral, founder of the animal advocacy group Friends of Animals, which is footing PPI's legal bills, argue that the chimp deaths, while lamentable, are not PPI's fault. Indeed, it seems likely that stress connected to the long-distance move could at least be a factor in the chimps' deaths. But PETA immediately sought to file a lawsuit on behalf of the remaining OSU primates – named individually as plaintiffs – in Bexar Co. district court. Judge Michael Peden appointed a fact-finder, veterinarian Todd Bowsher, to assess the situation at PPI. In his June 15 report, Bowsher noted that the OSU chimps "appear in good health," but was concerned "with the facility and how it may affect the [OSU] chimps in the long run." Bowsher's concerns included many of the same complaints detailed in the AG's suit – including that the inside holding areas were "dark" and "very small," that in one the "bars, walls, door frames, etc. [were] covered in roaches," and that an "open cesspool proved that a large amount of fecal material made it to the ground water." One OSU chimp was housed alone in a bare concrete enclosure without heat, air conditioning, or outdoor access. "It is my opinion, and mine alone," Bowsher concluded, "that ... [PPI] cannot completely meet the health and psychological needs" of the OSU chimps. Bowsher's assessment was the last the Bexar Co. court would hear on the matter. In August, Peden dismissed the case, ruling that the chimps did not have standing to file suit. By then, Stormont said, there were at least two more "seriously sick" OSU chimps. "What we were most afraid of," she said, was that more chimps would die. The OSU chimps, she said, "desperately needed to be moved."

PETA's complaints about the OSU chimps prompted the AG to file its suit, in an Austin probate court. In October Austin Judge Guy Herman agreed to wrest control of the sanctuary from Swett, Tello, and the PPI board of directors, and to appoint Theisen-Watt, who has been tasked with facility remediation.

Wildlife rehabilitator Lee Theisen-Watt was appointed by the court in October to take over running the sanctuary.
Wildlife rehabilitator Lee Theisen-Watt was appointed by the court in October to take over running the sanctuary. (photo by Jana Birchum)

Herman's ruling sparked a conflagration of personal attacks and counterattacks in the small but volatile world of animal advocates. Those who defend PPI charge that the court-ordered takeover is simply an attempt by foes of Swett – namely PETA, with whom Swett has feuded for years – to seize control of the entire population of exotic primates and other animals, and of PPI's prime 75-acre parcel of Texas Hill Country. Theisen-Watt and others in the sanctuary, zoo, animal-rights, and animal-law community, respond that PPI, once considered a model sanctuary, hasn't kept up with evolving standards of animal care, especially those required for the highly intelligent primates, and has simply taken in many more animals that it can adequately house. "The facility is overwhelmed by the sheer number of animals," Theisen-Watt testified in court. "It is the classic 'cat lady' syndrome – [caretakers] become overwhelmed by good intentions to the detriment of the animals in [their] care. [It is] just a good intention gone very, very bad."

The current situation doesn't surprise Lynn Cuny, founder and director of the Kendalia, Texas, sanctuary, Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation. Cuny first heard of problems at PPI as early as 1992, when several PPI employees reported serious concerns about the welfare of the animals. The primate enclosures reportedly weren't well maintained, she said, so it was nearly impossible to tend to individual animals or do any hands-on cage cleaning. She was also told that the animals were housed in enclosures with bare concrete slabs, bereft of materials used to build nests or to keep warm, and that the night boxes weren't cleaned, producing accumulations of excrement prone to insect and rodent infestation. "The first complaints ... via volunteers, started coming in around 1992, [but] they were never heeded by the large animal protection [organizations]," Cuny recently recalled. "I remember it very clearly, and I encouraged the people making the complaints to go forward and to get someone with legal authority involved." But no one ever did get involved, she said. "They went to various existing national organizations and I know they went to the [AG]," but nothing was done.

Cuny said she'd hear similar complaints "on and off," yet "I don't think anyone [got] involved in trying to clean up the place." Cuny said she tried on several occasions to talk to Swett about helping out – bringing in produce, for example, to supplement the primates' diet, but her efforts were rebuffed. After a while she just gave up. Stormont says PETA also had been aware of complaints since 1992, when they first heard from "former employees, volunteers, and donors" that animals were suffering at PPI. "I remember one letter talking about a monkey with such severe self-mutilation that his leg was just hanging there by a few tendons," she recalled. PETA sent letters to the PPI board of directors, without response.

Indeed, it appears that no one – not the state, not PETA, not Jane Goodall (who visited the facility in recent years) nor her foundation, among others – did anything. Why the allegations went unpursued isn't clear, and there are likely several reasons. But perhaps the most significant is the overall miserable state of animal-welfare law. Laws governing animal welfare are few, and those on the books are rife with loopholes and enforcement problems. There are, for example, no state or federal laws that ban the personal ownership of exotic or wild animals, nor are there any laws – with the exception of the federal Animal Welfare Act – providing strict parameters for animal treatment, or any workable enforcement scheme to ensure that captive animals live in safe, humane conditions. The provisions of the AWA are mostly conceptual, with compliance mostly voluntary.

Given the considerable challenges, before this crisis no one really pushed to ensure that the animals at PPI – a total of nearly 500 primates (including chimps, hundreds of monkeys, several baboons, and an orangutan) and several hundred other animals (an African lion and other big cats, fowl, rodents, horses, and dogs, among others) – weren't being abused or neglected. Many animal welfare advocates now express relief that the AG's office has finally intervened and that PPI is in receivership.

Yet it's hard to know whom or what to believe since, even in the face of years of complaints, nothing had previously been done. If the current actions against PPI aren't personal, or political, and things were truly so bad and so wrong at PPI, asks Feral, why wouldn't someone have done something before now – or, at least, have offered to help? "If you care about the animals, why wouldn't you want [to do] that?"

Animal People

The human world of animal rights and animal welfare is extremely small and ingrown. Everyone involved, it seems – those running sanctuaries, lawyers who bring animal-welfare cases, zoo curators, lab animal caretakers and veterinarians, animal-rights activists – knows everyone else, and has a firm opinion about everyone else's business.

That includes Primarily Primates founder Wally Swett. "Wally is a great guy – for those people who know him, you can absolutely respect ... how innately brilliant he is with primates," says Tello, who met Swett shortly before going to work at PPI in 1986, first as a volunteer, later as a caretaker, fundraiser, and curator, before being tapped this summer to replace Swett as the sanctuary's leader. But while "he's great with primates," Tello says, Swett "has no social skills with people." In recent years Swett's manners have gotten worse, say Tello and Feral, and his involvement with the sanctuary has waned because of deepening alcoholism. "He was really devoted to the task of running a sanctuary," says Feral. "Wally is no longer helpful because of his substance-abuse problem." Swett denies he's an alcoholic. (Swett has been banned from the sanctuary since Theisen-Watt took over in October, and through PPI's San Antonio lawyer Eric Turton, declined to be interviewed for this story.)

After Theisen-Watt relocated a group of dogs to Houston, PPI's staff and volunteers demolished the cramped and dark kennel. The area will now be used as a kitchen and laundry room.
After Theisen-Watt relocated a group of dogs to Houston, PPI's staff and volunteers demolished the cramped and dark kennel. The area will now be used as a kitchen and laundry room. (photo by Jana Birchum)

Yet Tello and Feral say that for nearly 30 years Swett devoted himself to saving discarded animals, and was one of the bravest pioneers in the effort to provide shelter and relief for primates abused for research, discarded as pets, or grown too intractable for entertainment. Tello sees in Swett the cumulative effect of sacrificing his life to the cause. "I see what happens when you work for 30 years, 24/7, for little money and with no retirement," says Tello. "He's given everything ... and the stress of decisions and the responsibilities ... in and of itself, takes a toll."

It wasn't always such a burden. Back in 1978, Swett and two friends decided to open a sanctuary, driving from New England to Texas with monkeys and other animals they'd rescued from disillusioned pet owners. They eventually landed outside San Antonio, in a rolling expanse of beautiful Hill Country; through dogged fundraising, 10 acres eventually became 75, and the monkeys were joined by nearly 800 other animals. Swett's nonprofit PPI was the first private sanctuary in the country to accept chimpanzees used in lab research. It had been widely presumed that research chimps could not be rehabilitated sufficiently to cope in a natural setting or among social groups akin to those they would form in the wild. Swett, it seemed, proved the doubters wrong.

Over time, PPI became a go-to facility for researchers wanting to retire their animals or animal welfare groups looking to place rescued animals, particularly primates. They accepted refugees from the NYU School of Medicine-affiliated Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates lab. Okko, the chimp who starred alongside Matthew Broderick in the movie Project X, and Punkin, the orangutan featured in the short-lived Hanna-Barbera show Going Bananas, found a permanent home at PPI. Thirty Air Force chimps, once part of the long-running research into the effects of space travel on humans, made it to PPI, and, of course, the Buckshire 12 were also given refuge – including their most famous member, Oliver.

Swett's PPI was also on the very short list of sites identified by federal lawmakers looking to retire the 17 monkeys who'd had nerves in their limbs severed for research at the Institute of Behavioral Research in Silver Spring, Md. Exposing the horrors of the Silver Spring monkey experiment established PETA's activist reputation, after evidence of mistreatment collected by cofounder Alex Pacheco in 1981 ended in a police-led nighttime raid on the facility where the monkeys were housed in filthy conditions; the IBR researcher, Dr. Edward Taub, was eventually charged and convicted of animal cruelty. (The convictions were later overturned.) According to Tello and Feral, at that time PPI had a good relationship with PETA – good enough that PETA actually placed several rescued monkeys at Swett's sanctuary. Tello says PETA even touted PPI as a "model" facility.

While specifics about the deteriorating relationship between PPI and PETA are hard to confirm, Tello and Feral suggest Swett's failure to reflexively defer to PETA's priorities led to a deepening rift. Tello says Swett agreed to take in several PETA-rescued monkeys in exchange for financial support – specifically, for PETA's promise to help set up and fund an on-site medical and rehab clinic for the primates. PETA "was doing a ton of publicity" to tout the rescuing of the monkeys in question, Tello said, "and eventually we said, 'Can you help us with the clinic now?' And they weren't going to donate any money." Swett was angered and let PETA know it, Tello said – and that was the end of amicable relations between the two groups.

Stormont says she isn't privy to the details of any past dealings with PPI, but that if PETA sent animals there it would've been long ago. "My understanding is that if that ever happened it would've been at a time when a lot of people had the belief that [PPI] was a good sanctuary."

Those days, she says, are long gone.

Just Say No?

For Tello, the dismissal of the OSU chimp lawsuit was a relief because he believes all the allegations were trumped up or misleading – for example, he said, the chimp housed alone was overaggressive, a fact OSU failed to mention in the chimp profiles provided to PPI. He calls the lawsuit nothing more than a "desperate" and "last-minute" attempt by the "OSU care staff" and by professor Boysen, who wanted "to keep the chimps at OSU" and not have them retired at all.

More than 70 chimps live at Primarily Primates in Bexar County.
More than 70 chimps live at Primarily Primates in Bexar County. (photo by Jana Birchum)

Tello and Feral thought the controversy was over and Tello could return to running the sanctuary; Tello says he was in the process of making physical improvements to the enclosures, and Feral says FOA was "in the process of a merger with PPI, so that they could get the ongoing financial support and the administrative support that they needed." Tello thought things were going well until Oct. 13, when the AG's office filed suit, Tello and Swett were ousted, and Theisen-Watt was appointed receiver.

As it stands now, PPI and its animals are in legal limbo. Theisen-Watt will remain receiver at least until January (when PPI's attorneys hope for a favorable response from the 3rd Court of Appeals), though it's more likely that she'll remain at the sanctuary until later in the year, when the suit against PPI goes to trial. On Oct. 20, Herman granted a second emergency request, allowing Theisen-Watt to move animals away from PPI or, if necessary, to euthanize any sickly animals. That enraged PPI supporters, including Feral and Tello, who claimed in an open letter to FOA supporters that the PPI takeover was orchestrated by PETA, which "plans to kill [PPI's] animals rather than providing for their long term care."

The suspicion is not necessarily outrageous, in light of past statements made by PETA officials describing euthanasia as often preferable to life in a cage, and more recent actions by PETA-identified activists. Last year, two organization employees were indicted on 31 animal cruelty charges related to acquiring dogs and cats at no-kill facilities in North Carolina, by telling employees they would find homes for the animals, which they instead euthanized and dumped. At PPI, Feral charged, PETA has similar intentions: PETA "wants to liquidate the place and send the animals to animal heaven."

That's preposterous, says Stormont, noting that in this instance PETA has joined forces with many groups it typically wouldn't even talk to, like zoos and animal research labs. "This is a pretty broad coalition of people" who have come together to try to help PPI's animals, she said. "For PETA to be sitting next to [these partners in court shows] you don't have to be into animal rights to know it is wrong to deprive animals of care, health, diet, and proper social interaction." (And, notably, Theisen-Watt is not a PETA member.) In November, Tello and Feral were held in contempt of court for using the PPI donor list, which was supposed to be turned over to Theisen-Watt, to send out letters imploring donors to stop making direct contributions to PPI – instead, the pair asked donors to send money to Friends of Animals. (Herman has ordered Tello and Feral to turn over both the donor list and whatever money was raised through the illegal solicitation.)

PPI supporters have even referred to Theisen-Watt as "Lethal Lee." Such attacks are not unusual, says San Francisco attorney Bruce Wagman, a prominent animal welfare attorney. Wagman is familiar with the history of PPI and says it's clear to him that "what's gone on [at PPI] is a hoarding situation," he says. "No question, hands down." Indeed, the current situation at PPI may have most directly been caused by Swett's inability turn away any animals in need of shelter. "I understand the desire to keep animals, I understand that very well and it's very difficult [to say,] 'No, I'm sorry, we can't take [the animal],'" says Lynn Cuny. "[But] any time I hear of any nonprofit organization who is constantly accepting new clients ... and I know we are all confined by our [budgets], and you see someone out there constantly saying, 'yes,' [then I know] they're either being put down when they come in, sold out the back door, or are being stockpiled."

At PPI, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that animals were in fact being stockpiled. By the time Theisen-Watt took over, PPI had just two caregivers for more than 70 chimps; the industry standard, she says, is typically 1-to-5 or, at most, 1-to-8. Inevitably, caregivers just can't keep up. "[You] can only do so much in a day no matter how hard or fast you work," says Lorraine Smith, curator of mammals at the North Carolina Zoo, one of the experts Stormont asked to review primate care at PPI. With such a small staff, it isn't surprising that the PPI animals were just subsisting. Theisen-Watt was visibly distressed as she testified in court about conditions at PPI while holding up pictures of several night enclosures – close-ups of rotting wood and degraded concrete, littered with excrement and roach egg casings. Tello argues – as have PPI's attorneys – that the pictures might've been doctored by PETA to make things look worse than they really are. Wagman says that argument is "offensive," but not uncommon in hoarding cases. "The key fact of a hoarder is that they have more animals than they can take care of," but continue to deny responsibility for substandard conditions or care. That's "the classic hoarder psyche," he said.

Theisen-Watt testified that in her judgment, Swett was nonchalant when she questioned him about Oliver's living conditions and suggested the chimp be moved to a different space. "I said, [Oliver's living] conditions are deplorable, to which [Swett] responded, 'But he's used to it.' I think I used the words, '[It's a] horrible and disgusting place where [Oliver] lives,'" she told the court. "And Swett responded, 'but it's ... what he knows.'"

Best Interest

It's a bright and cold December morning, nearly two months after Theisen-Watt took over running PPI – a job for which she's accepted no pay, even though, by court order, she could get $50 an hour. So far, she says, things are coming along and conditions are improving. There's now a full-time vet on the premises, and today Theisen-Watt is working on several emergency grant requests, seeking about $20,000 to implement a "big plan" to connect, through a series of tunnels, many of the smaller corn crib cages that house monkeys, an effort that will open up the living space and provide more opportunities for enrichment. She and her newly augmented staff and a bevy of volunteers have already done a monumental amount of work. The primate cages are filled with hay and toys, and the chimps have been given blankets for warmth; they're getting fresh produce every day (some donated by Whole Foods); and state environmentalists have been called in to make recommendations on mitigating the sewage problem. "We are trying to make changes and we are, and it's amazing because, day-to-day, the demands are so hard."

In all, Theisen-Watt says, walking past a cage of spider monkeys and macaques and toward a larger enclosure of chimps, she and the staff are trying to "undo years" of neglect. "Other sanctuaries have left PPI in the dust, so we're cleaning that up." Pointing at a chimp enclosure, Theisen-Watt describes the cage itself as a perfect example of PPI mismanagement; the chimps were caged without a means of allowing caregiver access to clean or to provide medical attention. "Poor management has painted these chimps into a corner," she says. "These animals have been locked in here and nobody has been in or out for years."

Theisen-Watt continues the tour, stopping in front of a small and short metal enclosure, not much larger than a closet, connected to a small, dark night box. There is hay on the ground now, and a couple of toys; this, she says, is where Oliver has lived for most of the time he's been at PPI. Looking at the small space, Theisen-Watt's eyes light up, fiery, and she recalls with disbelief Swett's excuse for keeping Oliver isolated in the cramped, barren space. "He used to fly in a 747, smoke cigars, and drink sherry," she says, her voice rising. "This is not what he is used to." Walking inside Oliver's night box, where he's resting, wrapped in a pink-and-white blanket that has become his favorite, Theisen-Watt strokes his shoulder and says she hopes Oliver will soon be moved to a larger enclosure, along with pair of female chimps, an elderly mother, and her daughter. For now, though, it's only a plan; with nearly 500 animals, PPI is still too crowded.

Although Theisen-Watt has relocated more than 250 animals – a group of domestic animals to the Houston SPCA, which agreed to find them homes; several elderly monkeys to Cuny's sanctuary; and a pair of baboons to a sanctuary outside Dallas – her ability to effectively manage the population at PPI has been hindered by a stay granted PPI by the 3rd Court, which, as of Nov. 3, precludes Theisen-Watt from finding permanent homes for any animals without first giving former PPI management a chance to challenge any transfer. Theisen-Watt can arrange for temporary relocations, but cost and complexity of care is so great that sanctuary or zoo operators hesitate to accept temporary placements. Nonetheless, last month Chimp Haven agreed to take the seven remaining OSU chimps to Louisiana, if only temporarily. The day the chimps were moved, all hell broke loose. Tello showed up, and Swett emerged from his house, reportedly brandishing a rifle; he did not want any animals to leave, witnesses said. Calm was eventually restored, and Swett was warned by police but not cited. He vowed to have the chimps returned to PPI.

Theisen-Watt remains focused. The chimps "are so patient, so forgiving," she says. And with a little help, she hopes that patience – the kind that Oliver, the "national treasure" has exhibited for nearly 44 years, as he's been shuttled between owners, kept in a cage and forgotten – will ultimately be repaid. Theisen-Watt says that the ideal outcome would be to thin the PPI population and to keep the sanctuary open as a refuge for its older inhabitants and those who won't find homes in other places. Frankly, says Theisen-Watt, there just aren't that many places for these animals to go – and that's unlikely to change, so long as the law allows for the nearly unfettered private ownership of wild and exotic animals. For the sake of the animals, she says, PPI must be rehabilitated. "One would hope" that will happen, she says, "because it's in the best interest of the animals."

Want to Help?

The Primarily Primates refuge remains in need of financial and in-kind donations that will improve the lives of the animals. For specific needs and more information on donations, see www.primarilyprimates.org/donate.htm. For a donation wish list, see www.primarilyprimates.org/wishlist.htm.

The appeal of the temporary receivership by Primarily Primates (and Friends of Animals) is before the 3rd Court of Appeals, and pending that ruling, the trial concerning the permanent status of the refuge will be heard by Austin Judge Guy Herman early next year.

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Primarily Primates: AG Folds on Apes
Lawyers representing warring factions in bitter dispute over operation of Hill Country primate sanctuary square off over conditions of settlement between attorney general and sanctuary's board and management

Jordan Smith, May 4, 2007

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'Chrome Underground' Goes Classic Car Hunting
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Motoreum's Yusuf & Antonio talk about the biz and their reality TV debut

May 22, 2014

Eighth Inmate of the Year Set to Die
Eighth Inmate of the Year Set to Die
Eighth inmate of the year set to die

May 9, 2014


animal welfare, Oliver the Chimp, Buckshire Corp., People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Primarily Primates, Wallace Swett, Lee Theisen-Watt, Guy Herman, Leana Stormont, Stephen Tello, Lynn Cuny

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