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

Just beyond the entrance are several cages filled with baboons and assorted monkeys. The sanctuary still has the feel of a backyard menagerie or small-town zoo, with its simple Hill Country landscaping, its modest cages and enclosures, the Egyptian geese strutting down the paths, and the friendly skunk family living under one of the buildings.

In fact, most animal protection facilities are sanctuaries in name only. That is, they offer safe harbor to an animal -- not idyllic freedom in a setting that resembles the animal's natural habitat. "It's not exactly Born Free," one animal activist admits.

In the crowded office, Swett's longtime partner and chief fund-raiser, Stephen Tello, arrives. He carries two baby chimps, a male and female, swaddled in diapers. They're to be turned over for the day to their baby-sitter, Rose, the teenage daughter of staff member Laura Joann. Tello, a burly, pleasant-faced man with a long ponytail, sets the chimps on the floor. Deeter, the male, sits shyly at his feet. Jewel, the little female, ambles up to a stranger for a once-over. She clasps the visitor's leg and plants a kiss on her ankle, then grabs a hand and places it on her neck, apparently ready to be caressed.

Felines and chimps coexist peacefully in this animal kingdom.
John Anderson
Felines and chimps coexist peacefully in this animal kingdom.
Space has increased substantially since the first ten-acre purchase in 1981.
John Anderson
Space has increased substantially since the first ten-acre purchase in 1981.

"It's very cruel to raise chimps as though they were human," Swett sternly cautions the visitor. "You put them between two worlds, and they don't belong to either one. And when they get too big and strong to handle, people get rid of them, without providing for their future. They expect nonprofit organizations to clean up after their mistakes."

Swett, slender and fit at 50, begins a tour by greeting his animals like they were family. He talks to the troupe of Hanuman langurs, considered sacred in India, that were used at the University of California at Berkeley for maternal deprivation studies. When the transport cage was opened for their arrival in the enclosure, the elderly male of the group exited first, then gave reassuring hugs to each of the younger monkeys as they entered their new home.

Various spider monkeys and capuchins grimace and hoot in recognition when they see Swett. "Jump, Amos," he tells a tiny aged capuchin, who obligingly flits from bar to bar in his cage.

In another cage housing several chimps, one stands out like a senior citizen in a pack of Boy Scouts. Oliver, the supposed "missing link," was captured as a baby in the Congo and bought by American trainers whose animal acts were frequently featured on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Other performing chimps avoided him. Without coaching, Oliver walked standing straight up rather than in the knuckles-to-the-ground style of chimps. Adopted by his trainers, he helped out with chores and even pitched hay and helped feed the rest of the animals. He'd have a morning cup of java and an evening glass of whiskey, sitting in an easy chair and watching TV.

When his human behavior extended to making a pass at his female trainer, he was sold and began a long downhill slide from carnival attraction to subject of lab experiments. A Pennsylvania-based research lab began phasing out its chimp contingent in 1995 and passed him along to Primarily Primates.

Swett, haunted by questions about Oliver's genetic makeup, had him tested. The results: He is 100 percent chimp. He still walks upright, but with an old-age hitch. Inside his cage, he makes some startling expressions, raising and lowering his brows like Groucho Marx and making a toothless codger's grin that brings to mind Walter Brennan in The Real McCoys. A Japanese TV crew recently arrived to film a kind of detective story featuring the unusual chimp.

Swett moves along to the ex-space-program chimps, lodged in four large indoor-outdoor enclosures on the edge of a small lake. Penny and Gigi, two of the oldest, had been put in trash bags and dropped from heights to adjust to rapid descents.

Penny, says Swett, also had been used in rapid deceleration experiments; out of eight chimps involved in those tests, she was one of only two survivors. Gigi still has a metal plate in her head, which had been used for the insertion of electrodes during flight simulations.

The air force ended space-related chimp tests in the '80s, leasing those animals to the Coulston Foundation, which operates a biomedical research lab in Alamogordo, New Mexico, where chimps have been subjected to AIDS, hepatitis and hantavirus experiments. Coulston, long the anathema of animal rights activists, has been hit with federal fines twice for mistreating primates.

Swett got custody of 31 of the 141 chimps declared military surplus in 1997, although the remainder of the colony initially was awarded to Coulston. Possible effects of those experiences soon become apparent during the tour.

Naomi reaches a hand through the cage to greet Swett, but when a visiting writer gets close, she unleashes a load of warm spit that splats on the visitor's notebook. Another female, Sierra, follows with a fusillade of her own saliva.

Many of the chimps, says Swett, tend to spit or throw loads of monkey excrement at strangers or people they don't like -- especially people carrying notebooks, which reminds them of their lab days. They tend to be excellent shots, says Swett, since that was their only means of retaliation against earlier lab experimenters and handlers.

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