Feature Bad Monkey Business

Two chimps are dead and a capuchin monkey is missing. What’s going on at SA’s Primarily Primates?

There’s an old photo of Bobby the chimpanzee in which he’s sitting on the lawn, beside an overturned folding lawn chair and a red, white, and blue plastic go-cart. The photo caption reads: “Bobby with his first hat.” With his feet outstretched before him and his head bent down over a plastic helmet, he looks for all the world like a toddler who has just discovered a new toy.

Today, Bobby is at the center of a complex debate. In late February, he was one of nine chimps retired from Ohio State University’s Chimpanzee Research Center and moved to Primarily Primates, Inc., an animal sanctuary located in San Antonio. Two months later, two of the OSU chimps are dead — 16-year-old Bobby and Kermit, a 35-year-old, 300-pound alpha male. A capuchin monkey, one of three that also retired to PPI from OSU, is either hiding in a tree or missing and presumed dead — depending on who’s telling the story.

Even before the deaths, the move was controversial: Advocates for the chimps, most notably Cognitive Primatologist Sally Boysen, who worked with the chimps for 23 years, questioned whether she or OSU owned the chimps, as well as PPI’s fitness to receive the chimps. Animal-rights activists, including PETA, have alleged that the sanctuary suffers from lack of oversight and funding, resulting in rundown facilities, neglected animals, and sometimes death. Yet, PPI also has its supporters; OSU claims to have had the chimps’ best interests at heart and to have carefully chosen the sanctuary.

Over the years, Boysen’s work at the Chimpanzee Research Center has been internationally recognized. In a recent study, the chimps in her program learned how to “read,” recognizing printed names and words such as “stick” and “sponge” — the tools they use to eat and drink. In another, the chimps showed the ability to learn number sequences and simple addition and subtraction. Boysen’s chimps had also shown a capacity to read a peer’s understanding of a dangerous situation, and to react by protecting or warning the peer.

The Chimp Center also played an important educational role in the community, introducing schoolchildren and other guests to their closest living genetic relative through a monthly open house. “If you spend two minutes with a young chimp, it will change your life,” says Boysen, who hopes her work will help end biomedical and other invasive research performed on primates. “Many people cry, that first experience of looking into the chimp’s face is such a profound experience.

“They see the chimps counting, learning words with a computer, and it blows them away. They realize, ‘Oh my God, I learned that in school, and here’s another species that has the ability to do that.’”

In spite of these successes, OSU decided to close the Chimp Center last year because the center did not have the necessary funding or space to continue its work, according to OSU spokesman Earle Holland.

2002 was the last year the Chimp Center was fully grant-funded. OSU contributed to the program in subsequent years, and in 2005 it underwrote the full cost of the Chimp Center for $200,000. That year, Boysen submitted nine research proposals, but none succeeded in winning funding.

“Non-invasive cognition studies that require the underwriting of a chimpanzee colony are not `funded` as readily as they were a decade ago,” Holland says.

The other issue was that the Chimp Center was designed to house six chimpanzees; when it closed, it housed nine. Overcrowding increases the likelihood of fighting with each other or caretakers, and chimps weigh up to 250 pounds and are five times as strong as humans. It wasn’t possible to reduce the colony’s numbers. “Our colony of nine animals self-selected into two groups that sit together and groom and defend each other,” Holland says. “They are surprisingly interdependent. No expert, including Sally Boysen, would piecemeal the colony. That would do more harm than good.”

In January 2004, Boysen signed a Memorandum of Understanding with OSU: If the Chimp Center did not obtain funding by December 2004, the center would close and the chimps would move to Chimp Haven, a 200-acre chimp sanctuary in Northwest Louisiana.

However, Holland alleges Boysen withdrew her support of Chimp Haven because it would not allow her to continue her research with the chimps. He also says that NIH and Chimp Haven both informed OSU that the sanctuary was expecting 100 chimps from NIH and did not have the space for OSU’s chimps.

“We never told OSU officials that we could not take the the chimpanzees,” wrote Chimp Haven president Linda Brent in an email to the Current, “nor were we informed when they made other arrangements and decided to send the chimpanzees to San Antonio.” She says Chimp Haven would have taken the chimps.

Holland says OSU sought other options, and after exploring “a half a dozen or so” sanctuaries, settled on Primarily Primates, Inc.

Boysen alleges that she was left out of planning discussions regarding PPI.

Holland says that in September 2004, Boysen informed OSU’s senior leadership that she “never considered the meetings `discussing funding and the fate of the chimps` fruitful.” “She wasn’t a party to discussions with PPI because she took herself out of the discussion,” says Holland. “She was intentionally excluded towards the end, because we were confident she would not support moving the animals in any way to anywhere.”

In the end, Boysen tried to halt the move with a temporary restraining order, which held that OSU had not fulfilled its original MOU with Chimp Haven, and that the chimps were her intellectual property, but the judge did not uphold the TRO.

On the day the chimps were removed, Boysen chained herself to the university’s gate, surrounded by supporters. Many were weeping. She now equates losing Bobby and Kermit with losing two sons. “It’s not ‘as if’ I’ve lost two children,” she says, “I have lost two children.”

Wallace Swett founded Primarily Primates in 1978. The sanctuary, which occupies 75 acres near Boerne, provides a home for more than 70 chimpanzees and other animals, including wallabies, horses, bears, and 450 other primates, who have been retired from research facilities, zoos, and circuses.

Along with its chief veterinarian, William Yonushonis, OSU paid Tom Butler, a retired San Antonio veterinarian with 40 years of primate experience, to review the fitness of PPI’s facilities.

Butler says he has known Swett for 20 years, and has visited the sanctuary many times during that period. In his last visit, six months ago, he was comfortable with what he saw. “The chimps are in good health; they have plenty of enrichment and large caging,” he says.

“Enrichment,” in this case, refers to just about every aspect of the chimps’ care. At PPI, Butler asserts, the caging is large enough for exercise and includes climbing structures, objects for play, and heated night-boxes. The chimps are housed together, so they can socialize, play, and groom, and are fed a combination of monkey chow, fruit, and vegetables. “Primarily Primates is doing as good a job as any sanctuary would do,” Butler adds.

Primarily Primates, Inc., located near Boerne, is a sanctuary that provides lifetime care for chimps and other animals. It recently has come under fire from animal-rights activists, who allege it is unfit to care for animals.

So why are two chimps dead? According to the veterinarian’s pathology report, prepared by Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research, Kermit died of a heart attack. Apparently, he had a pre-existing heart condition, which had not been diagnosed before the move but may have been exacerbated by the stress of the move, and the tranquilizers caretakers gave him to facilitate the move.

At press time, the cause of Bobby’s death was still unknown, but Holland says that while two deaths in a month is upsetting, it may not be a sign of neglect: In 2005, the OSU Chimp Center lost two chimps within a month of each other. One succumbed to diabetes, and another to a systemic blood infection caused by a cut sustained during a fight with another chimp. “Those were explainable causes of death,” says Holland. “These are not our animals now, so we just don’t know, but a lot of people are interested in knowing what Bobby’s pathology is going to be.”

Even without the pathology, some animal-rights activists and chimp advocates are convinced there is ample cause for alarm.

PETA has accused PPI of not having adequate veterinarian care, not protecting the animals from the elements, and not providing enough enrichment (PETA did not return multiple calls from the Current requesting an interview).

Supporting PETA’s arguments is Terry Minchew, a local sanctuary volunteer who has been friends with Swett for 20 years, and lived and worked at PPI for a year.

In 2004, Minchew says, she and Swett made arrangements for her to move to PPI with her own primates — capuchins, macaques, and cervits — and work as a full-time volunteer building an intern and volunteer program. “Naively, I thought that my being here could help bring about some positive changes,” she writes in an affidavit she prepared for PETA. “Sadly, I found that wasn’t the case.”

In the six-page letter, Minchew details the suffering and neglect of animals, which she blames on the “inactivity and incompetence of Wallace Swett.”

Among many issues, Minchew alleges that the sanctuary did not have a program of ongoing veterinarian care. Animals were cared for on an emergency basis, and usually had to leave the premises to receive care. The staff was not trained to sedate the animals, so they isolated the animals for transfer to the vet by spraying them down with a high-pressure hose.

On several occasions, she says, the staff had to threaten to quit in order to convince Swett to allow animals to see a vet at all. Several animals died because Swett either refused to take them to the vet or delayed the trip for too long, Minchew says.

Minchew says that PPI has no emergency training or procedures for its staff. Further, cage enclosures are not secure, and staff often work alone. Although there are radios, the staff does not use them. “I bought a cell phone for myself and two of the care staff, since I lived there,” she told the Current. “But if anything happened, it would be hours before anyone knew.”

There were instances of abuse, says Minchew, among them a baby capuchin who slowly starved to death because Swett would not allow it to be removed from its mother, who would only pummel it; Swett insisted on caging a pair of incompatible macaques together, surgically removing their canine teeth and spraying them with water while they fought, rather than separating them. Minchew also contradicts Butler, saying that the chimps received only monkey chow — Swett refused donations of food, she says, because “care staff didn’t have time to fool with it” — and were insufficiently housed in the winter.

If Minchew regrets personally attacking Swett, she also feels it’s necessary.

“Having seen sick animals has made he and I enemies, and I hate that,” she says. “He feels betrayed, but I have to choose between friendship and concern for the animals.”

Minchew admits her allegations are hard to prove. “On a tour, you won’t see sick animals, you won’t see that they’ve been sick for two weeks and a vet hasn’t seen them. Until you are there and you live it, you won’t know what’s going on.”

The allegations are hard to prove, especially with all the contradicting reports. For example, Minchew and Boysen report that one of OSU’s capuchin monkeys, who escaped on arrival at PPI, is missing and believed dead. However, Holland has reported that the capuchin was released by vandals, along with some other monkeys, and that it is not missing, but hiding in the tree over its cage.

The one person who could shed some light on that situation is Wallace Swett, but he has not returned calls from the Current. However, Swett did publish two letters on OSU’s website, denouncing his attackers.

Among the many allegations lodged against PPI by chimp advocates and PETA is one that the sanctuary’s funding, as reported on Guidestar.com, has dropped substantially — from $1,727, 618 in 1998 to $606, 762 in 2004 — such that it cannot afford to care for its growing population.

Swett’s letter acknowledges that because of the CHIMP act (which he says directs funding toward NIH chimps), 9/11, and Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, “less support and attention is coming to Primarily Primates.” However, Primarily Primates continues to receive support from 18,000 donors, as well as from the occasional will or foundation grant, and its “income is expected to exceed one million dollars.” (It’s not clear if that includes the $251,427 OSU gave PPI to build new enclosures for its chimps or the one-time $72,000 endowment the university has provided for the chimps’ care).

Furthermore, Swett writes, in 2005 the foundation spent $22,000 on fruit and produce for monkeys and apes, and more than that was donated.

Swett also addresses concerns that PPI is not unregulated. PPI is not required to have USDA inspections, under the Animal Welfare Act, because it does not breed or allow public access to its animals, says Swett. Despite that, he adds, USDA field inspectors regularly visit the sanctuary — in fact, one visited “just this past week” — and the site has also received visits from the Jane Goodall Institute. “None of these visits,” Swett writes, “resulted in concerns for the care and housing Primarily Primates provides.”

Even with controversy swirling, Holland says OSU stands by Primarily Primates. “At some point, there is a division between OSU and its concerns,” he says. “PPI is not a campus of OSU, so there’s a limit to what we can and should get involved in. Quite frankly, we did due diligence initially, and we are still satisfied that decision was right.”

Whether allegations against PPI are true, if OSU will not investigate, who will? And who can, if Swett is not required to allow anyone access to the sanctuary?

Minchew is hopeful that, in the absence of action from PPI’s board, which has not responded to her allegations and has been conspicuously absent from the debate (the Current could not locate numbers for any board members but one, who did not respond to calls requesting an interview), PETA will bring cruelty charges against PPI. However, PETA has reportedly filed a court case in the names of the OSU chimps, asking for a court-appointed guardian. On May 4, the presiding judge ordered PETA and Primarily Primates to find a mutually acceptable third-party inspector to visit PPI and report its findings to the court.

Boysen has declined to contribute to PETA’s lawsuit. “That’s not how you get things done,” she said. “If the plaintiffs are the chimps, the judge is just going to throw it out. In the end, they are undermining our efforts to do the right thing. They want Primarily Primates to build a shelter for the chimps, but we don’t want them there. How does that help?”

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