First, The Rule of Tail. Monkeys have tails, apes do not. So, we’ll have none of that “monkey trouble” or “monkey in the middle” wordplay here. The battle over the custody of seven chimps at the Primarily Primates, Inc. sanctuary in Northwest Bexar County was one of the most passionate courtroom dramas of the year, and one of the darkest.
The trouble began in February when, after nine failed funding proposals, Ohio State University announced the closure of their $200,000-a-year Chimpanzee Research Center, and with it, the “retirement” of three capuchin monkeys (tailed) and nine chimps (tail-less): Kermit, Bobby, Sarah, Keeli, Ivy, Sheba, Darrell, Emma, and Harper.
The closing itself wasn’t particularly controversial — NASA, the Air Force, and the National Institutes of Health were in the midst of their own chimpanzee research downsizing — but the transfer was. According to OSU’s original 2004 plan, the primates were destined for a 200-acre, federally funded sanctuary in Louisiana, but OSU officials claimed they were afraid of over-crowding, and instead struck a $236,000 new-enclosure deal with Wally Swett, founder of the 70-acre Primarily Primates sanctuary.
When the van came to take them to the San Antonio facility, it was met with an animal-rights protest featuring the chimps’ handler Sally Boysen chained to the fence.
The first OSU chimp to die, a 35-year-old, 300-pound alpha male named Kermit, suffered tranquilizer-related heart failure during the journey. Less than two months later, Bobby, a 16-year-old, was found in his enclosure, dead of cardiac necrosis. A capuchin monkey was presumed lost or dead.
In early May, People for the Ethical Treament of Animals filed a lawsuit against Primarily Primates, listing the seven remaining chimps as plaintiffs; an unconventional move, but a Travis County judge accepted it.
Six months, a scathing examination of facilities, and three Air Force chimp deaths later, the court placed Primarily Primates under the wildlife rehabilitator Lee Theisen-Watt, and Attorney General Greg Abbott seized the facility. Swett resigned as director, and although some primate organizations, such as the Jane Goodall Institute and Friends of Animals still support Primarily Primates, the negative publicity has spooked many of their funders and the sanctuary is battling to stay open.
On November 16, the remaining seven OSU chimps were given new homes at the PETA-approved Chimp Haven in Louisiana, where they were supposed to be in the first place.