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With three more chimps dead, PETA’s lawsuit against Primarily Primates moves forward

Three more chimpanzees have died at Primarily Primates, Inc., an animal sanctuary located in the Hill Country.

The sanctuary has been the subject of controversy since February, when Primarily Primates accepted nine chimpanzees and three capuchin monkeys from Ohio State University’s now-defunct primate research center. By April, two of the chimpanzees — 16-year-old Bobby, and Kermit, a 35-year-old, 300-pound alpha male — were dead, and a capuchin monkey had gone missing. `See “Bad Monkey Business,” May 10-16, 2006.`

Arthur is one of three chimps who have died recently in the care of Primarily Primates.

PPI said the deaths were unavoidable; pathology reports showed that both chimps died from preexisting heart conditions. While the Jane Goodall Institute and OSU have stood by the sanctuary, some advocates for the chimps — including former employees and Dr. Sarah Boysen, the cognitive primatologist who worked with the chimps for 23 years — argue that the chimps died due to neglect and the sanctuary’s insufficient funding and oversight.

In light of these allegations, People for Ethical Treatment of Animals launched a lawsuit against PPI in early May, listing the seven remaining chimps as plaintiffs, and asking the court to appoint two former OSU caretakers and a veterinarian primatologist to act as trustees for the chimps to ensure that the $236,483 OSU gave PPI for the chimps’ care is spent appropriately. The presiding judge, Michael Peden, asked PETA and PPI to find a mutually acceptable third party to inspect PPI. That proved to be difficult, and the court has had to appoint its own inspector to report findings at a June 22 hearing.

Not a moment too soon, says PETA. “We clearly have a concern for all the animals at the sanctuary,” says Micki Gaylor, PETA’s lawyer. “We think the reports that other animals are dying clearly point to the fact that we have reason to be concerned.”

Primarily Primates founder Wally Swett says that while the pathology reports have not come back on the chimps who died most recently, none of whom were from OSU, postmortem examinations show that Lynn died of osteomyelitis, a bone infection; Arthur of a neurological disorder; and Marty of acute peritonitis, inflammation of the stomach lining. The chimps were all in their mid-30s. Swett says the average life span of male chimps in captivity is 27, and for females 35.

“Chimps have been known to live to 50, but, even though that is quoted a lot, it’s very rare,” Swett says. “Chimps that have been used in research are so much more susceptible to disease than those that have not, because of the stress and isolation they’ve endured.”

Swett points out that when Lynn came to the sanctuary from the Coulston Foundation — a primate testing lab in New Mexico — she was paralyzed on one side of her body and suffering from artificially induced arthritis — yet she lived at the sanctuary for eight years.

“Chimpanzees are remarkably fragile, even though they are big and magnificent,” he adds. “They don’t bounce right back; they are more like humans.”

That’s what PETA’s lawyers will argue as they try to convince the court that the OSU chimps have a vested interest in their own care.

“The suit alleges a trust between OSU and Primarily Primates,” says Gaylor. “Texas law recognizes a trust set up on behalf of the animals, which means that the state will legally recognize the interest of the animals as beneficiaries.”

“There is no trust on behalf of the animals,” says Swett. According to PPI’s contract with OSU, the sanctuary received $251,427 to build new chimp enclosures, which Swett says are already under construction. PPI was also promised a one-time $72,000 endowment for the chimps’ ongoing care, which it has yet to receive.

Primarily Primates attorney Erick Turton says PETA’s suit, which looks only at the care of the OSU chimps, not at that of all the animals, is not about Primarily Primates. He asserts that it is a test case, meant to diminish animal-ownership rights and set a precedent declaring human rights for great apes. “Let’s say that they do get a precedent saying animals have standing to bring a lawsuit,” Turton says. “Does that mean that chimps at the zoo can sue for false imprisonment? That would be opening a Pandora’s box. It’s not going to happen.”

But for many people, the lawsuit is very much about the animals at Primarily Primates.

Derrick Johnson, who worked at Primarily Primates in the ’90s, remembers Arthur as “a really sweet guy” who would respond to a gift of Werther’s candies in American sign language, spelling out “good food” with his digits.

Johnson alleges that during his tenure animals were not given proper enrichment, diet, or veterinary care. Johnson has provided PETA with testimony, but he is not a formal witness and describes the alliance as uneasy. “PETA’s mission is to protect animals, but how far they will go for victory, I don’t know,” he says. “It would be a tragedy if the animals were euthanized because Wally wasn’t there, but it’s unacceptable to let things continue on because they seem to be declining.”

Gaylor asserts that PETA’s only goal is to put trustees in place if the examiner come back with negative findings. “Our interest is to see what we can do to support the animals where they are,” he says. “If that can’t be done, we will pursue relocating the chimps to an appropriate facility.”

Swett warns against what he calls the testimony of disgruntled ex-employees.

“There are three things our animals never lack,” he says. “Heat in the winter, good food, and vet attention.”

Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, says she has worked with Swett for more than 20 years, and regularly consults with him on international primate projects. She visited PPI on May 16, and her impression was “really good.

“To think of the `chimps` going from single-cell lockups to being socialized and outside, in what I like to call a full array of interior landscape,” she says, “is really rewarding. Wally Swett is a capable and talented person.”

Feral believes PETA is disingenuously “cutting its teeth on PPI for the sake of a landmark suit,” and that while the suit may be dropped, the negative publicity has done irreparable harm to PPI’s funding.

“They are determined to drive this remarkable sanctuary out of business,” she says. “If PETA thinks something should be happening there that isn’t, it doesn’t help to hurt it financially; they should be making contributions to Primarily Primates.”

Swett is confident the court-appointed inspector will not find anything significantly amiss at Primarily Primates. “I’m sure it will not be a 100-percent inspection,” he admits. “He will find something that needs improvement, otherwise he’s not earning his money, but this isn’t about Primarily Primates.”

Ultimately, Swett is hoping the chimpanzee’s suit will be dismissed. “I think more rights should be given to animals, don’t get me wrong,” he says, “but if they want a test case, they should go find one where a chimp is being really abused, not one based on grudges against me — not Primarily Primates, but me personally.

“More than half my life has been dedicated to the cause of helping animals,” he adds, “so this sort of thing is disheartening and disappointing.”

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