But the Battle Heats Up
by Lisa Sandberg
Seven chimpanzees at the center of a custody battle were spirited away Thursday to a Louisiana sanctuary where their new caregiver said they'd be given "acres to roam."
Sarah, Sheba, Darrel, Keeli, Ivy, Harper and Emma departed Thursday afternoon under sheriff escort in a custom-made trailer for chimps, said their court-appointed receiver and caregiver, Lee Theisen-Watt. Caretakers talk about the chimpanzees in their care
The apes were bound for Chimp Haven, a sprawling sanctuary with natural enclosures in Shreveport. They had been housed at Primarily Primates Inc., an animal refuge in Northwest Bexar County, since early March, but cramped conditions there prompted a group of animal activists to file a civil suit seeking they be sent elsewhere.
Theisen-Watt said she was ecstatic. "They'll have open grass and big trees and acres to roam. They will be enjoying it all tomorrow," she said Thursday.
Their removal only fueled the acrimony between two camps that have taken the battle over the chimps, and the fate over the 850-animal sanctuary, to court.
As the animals were being sedated, Wally Swett, who founded Primarily Primates 28 years ago but lost all control last month when PPI was placed under court supervision, reportedly pulled a rifle on one of the volunteers involved in the takeover.
Bexar County Sheriff Lt. Debbie Donais called the incident "a big misunderstanding," and said Swett may have been confused.
"It seems he was protecting the property but not maliciously," she said, adding no one was cited but Swett was warned rifles can be dangerous.
Later, Swett called Chimp Haven "the worse place they could go to" and vowed Thursday to continue the costly legal fight to win back the seven chimps. The chimps arrived at PPI from Ohio State University, where they were used in cognitive behavioral studies.
Swett, 55, has been accused in court of warehousing everything from chimps and monkeys to panthers and chickens in crowded and filthy conditions. Swett served as the facility's executive director until he resigned in August amid the court battle over the chimps. He was replaced by Stephen Tello, a longtime board member. Both Swett and Tello served on the board at the time Theisen-Watt took over on Oct. 13. This is where it gets messy.
While the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has backed the takeover, and sent in volunteers to help with the reorganization, another animal rights group, Friends of Animals, is backing Swett and Tello — and footing their legal fees.
Friends of Animals President Priscilla Feral, a longtime friend of Swett and Tello, called the takeover an attempt by the other side "to kill as many animals as possible." Feral cited the request by Theisen-Watt for court permission to euthanize animals deemed too sick or too injured to be rehabilitated.
Theisen-Watt said she wanted the authority in the event an emergency occurred; she said she has not had to order any euthanasia since she assumed control.
Earlier this year, attorneys for PETA filed suit in Bexar County to have the seven chimps removed from PPI. The chimps, which were named as plaintiffs, were housed in small enclosures with concrete floors, no bedding, and little or no enrichment, according to the suit. Two Ohio State University chimps that arrived with them died within the first two months.
For the past eight months, two of the surviving young chimps, Harper and Emma, had no access to the outdoors, the lawsuit alleged. Darrell has been housed alone in a windowless building with no outdoor access. Those were the conditions the primates were removed from Thursday — conditions Swett said would have been rectified if PPI had not found itself in a costly legal fight.
Now, Swett's biggest battle won't be the return of his seven chimps. Sometime next year, a Travis County jury is expected to decide whether his animal sanctuary is returned to him and Tello or whether it should be run by a new board.