The Great EscApe

In two decades, Wally Swett's sanctuary has become a place of peace for primates - it's the humans that have him going bananas

"Can you hold on a minute?" snaps Wally Swett. "We've got a baboon emergency in Blanco." It can be difficult pinning down the temperamental director of Primarily Primates Inc. for an interview, as some sort of simian crisis always seems to be popping up.

Swett has become the man to call when that once cuddly pet baboon, now a 100-pound bully, decides to take over a household, or when an owner's pet spider monkey turns into a vicious escape artist, terrorizing the neighborhood.

He's got monkeys and apes that have run amok -- like the unmanageable baboon that the caller from Blanco is hoping Swett will take off her hands. "Trying to keep a baboon should be a no-brainer," sighs Swett. "People should realize how big and strong they get. Don't they watch National Geographic specials?" One of Swett's charges, in fact, is a rather savage-looking baboon that was given to a dentist as a joke gift years earlier.

Tello and the monkeys: Sanctuary doesn't mean free-roaming primates.
John Anderson
Tello and the monkeys: Sanctuary doesn't mean free-roaming primates.

And increasingly Swett's place is the last stop for researchers looking to unload chimps who've outgrown their usefulness as test subjects for diseases, drugs or psychological disorders.

His animal sanctuary north of San Antonio shows the obvious: The animal sanctuary business is booming these days.

He shelters refugees from the exotic pet trade and cheap roadside attractions that tend to go belly up. Texans seem particularly inclined to purchase as pets or business mascots the kinds of animals most sensible people would prefer to experience from a distance in the wild or in a zoo.

The supply of unwanted primates in Texas and elsewhere also has ballooned from a plethora of aging showbiz castoffs and an overpopulation in animal research institutions. There are so many apes housed in U.S. labs now that Congress recently passed a bill establishing the groundwork for building a network of sanctuaries for surplus chimps used in government research.

On a recent morning, the 50-year-old director appears to be a bit harried and irritable. And that could be his regular modus operandi when it comes to people. It has been more than two decades since the New England transplant loaded up an aging van with a variety of critters and three monkeys and stopped to stake his claim to a modest Hill Country spread.

Since then, his chief threats have hardly come from the animal kingdom. People -- not primates -- have been the major problems. Swett was hit with lawsuits in a battle over a foundation's funding. He's fought legal action by disgruntled employees, allegations of mismanagement and even a utility's plan to put a power station on the sanctuary border, as so-called civilization marches ever closer to the apes. One of his victories only fueled another extended court fray with his former attorney.

Even now Swett has his share of critics who question if he's overwhelmed by what he has created. Meanwhile, he's built his sanctuary into what is touted as the country's oldest and largest ape refuge, home to more than 500 primates.

"When well-meaning people call me up with the impulse to start a sanctuary," says the beleaguered director, "I have to tell them that every day in this business involves some kind of stress and pain. If you really feel the mission, you have to give up your life to it."

By coincidence, there are three major sanctuaries in the Hill Country: Wildlife Orphanage, Wildlife Rescue and Swett's Primarily Primates. All were founded around 20 years ago, within about a 20-mile radius of the town of Boerne. The three are full to overflowing with a variety of creatures, but each has carved out a specialty of sorts, with Wildlife Rescue known for its rehabilitation of wild birds and Wildlife Orphanage best known for its big cats.

Primarily Primates is tucked away in a once rural enclave west of tiny Leon Springs, where big ranches are steadily being displaced by small ranchettes and tidy subdivisions. Just down the road is an army reserve base and an equally well fenced chiropractic retreat called the Concept-Therapy Institute.

Primarily Primates does not advertise its presence, making it somewhat difficult to find. Like most sanctuaries, it's not open to the public, although it has more than its share of potential star attractions.

For a while, its most famous resident was Oliver, the "missing link." This chimp was once thought to be something more because of his ability to walk upright and make eerily human faces -- and his penchant for mixed drinks.

Then there was the big orangutan first thought to be Clyde, the star sidekick in two Clint Eastwood movies, but who proved to be a smaller banana. His biggest role was in a children's TV show. The sanctuary still houses the stars and extras of Project X, the 1986 movie starring Matthew Broderick that featured chimps escaping cruel lab experiments.

These days, though, the sanctuary's best-known denizens are probably the "air force chimps," the apes and their descendants from NASA's space program.

During the drive up a gravel road to the well-hidden entrance of Primarily Primates, it's apparent that any unwanted intruders would probably be deterred by the hooting and howling and bar-rattling frenzy that periodically emanates from various corners of the grounds.

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