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

Among the air force chimps, Betty provided a more pleasant surprise. A few months after her arrival, the thirtysomething ape gave birth to a male named Deeter. Her deformed breast, apparently the result of self-mutilation (a common condition afflicting research chimps), prevented her from nursing the baby.

"He was no bigger than a baked potato," Swett says, "and he was just hanging there, getting weaker and weaker." Swett decided to raise him through infancy in his own house on the edge of the sanctuary grounds.

"For the past year, I've been playing Mommy," says Swett. He persuaded Coulston to part with toddler Jewel so Deeter would have a companion. Still, the two have wreaked havoc on his house, as the chimps quickly "ape" his actions in unplugging appliances and opening drawers and cabinets and the refrigerator.

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

He's had to come up with new ways to keep them out of trouble. But this man has been improvising with animals ever since his own youth.

"Wally was one of those boys who finds the abandoned nest of baby squirrels," says associate Stephen Tello. Swett grew up in East Weymouth, Massachusetts, and spent summers at his grandmother's farm in New Hampshire.

He worked at a wildlife rescue center and at a small nature museum as a "rehabber," taking care of former pets and helping injured wild animals to return to the wild. His first experience with primates came when he was involved in the rescue of some individually raised squirrel monkeys scheduled for euthanasia.

Swett aided in the efforts to socialize them as a family, an approach he learned by trial and error. Over the years he's built a reputation for helping primates raised in solitary cages to adapt to group living. "You go very slowly and take it a step at a time," he says. "You have to know your species and your individual and get a sense of what they've been through in the past."

By 1978 he set out with a small group of friends to found an animal sanctuary that would focus on primates. "Back then you could find ads for monkeys in the back of comic books," says Tello. There were few places then, however, that would take care of the pet monkeys that inevitably turned on their owners or bit someone.

Using a kind of map-and-dartboard method, Swett chose Texas as the sanctuary location, with its warm climate and relatively cheap land. He loaded up his Chevy van with animals, including chickens and three small monkeys, for the madcap trek. Swett had to drive straight through on his journey south, taking quick naps on the front seat of the van and stopping occasionally to take the animals out for pit stops and exercise.

"Talk about Jed Clampett," says Tello.

When the trip ended, the trouble began. Swett thought he had lined up a job at the San Antonio Zoo to help finance the operation. He found out the job had fallen through. He scrounged up odd jobs to make ends meet, including picking up scrap metal at a junkyard, scrubbing fire-damaged tile grout in a school restroom with a toothbrush, and milking goats on a farm in Poteet.

In 1981 the ambitious effort appeared to be at an end. Swett had been renting a small home in San Antonio, keeping some of the animals in its greenhouse. The lease was up. He was down to his last sacks of monkey chow.

The phone rang. He remembers the "creaky little voice" at the other end. Thelma Doelger of Healdsburg, California, had heard about Primarily Primates and was extending an offer to help. Swett suggested some food staples for the animals. But Doelger insisted on more. And as the widow of the developer of the Bay Area's Daly City (of "ticky tacky" houses fame), she was in a position to deliver. She did.

Her proposal was to endow the sanctuary with enough money to buy a permanent space for the monkeys the group had accumulated. As Swett describes it, however, Doelger did attach a rather extreme condition: "She said she would donate the money for the land only if I would make a promise to stay with it for the rest of my life." He didn't hesitate, he says, "although I realized even then what 'forever' meant."

Her initial $100,000 bought the ten-acre plot that forms the nucleus of the current sanctuary, and it funded construction of three animal enclosures. The sanctuary officially incorporated as a nonprofit organization in Texas in 1981.

Swett began to accumulate a roster of animals whose résumés read like a catalog of human folly: Mia, a stump-tailed macaque brought to America from Vietnam, blinded by BBs and pellets lodged in her brain; Cheeta the chimp who had been displayed at a horse track in Panama during the Noriega regime; Borris, a chimp from the Moscow Bim Bom Circus; and Koko, a chimp who had been kept chained in a basement with a TV set for entertainment.

As the population expanded, so did the expenses. Swett estimates that it costs up to $15 daily for food and proper care of a chimp. Doelger's largesse had played out near the end of 1986. Swett claims that the bank account had dwindled to $38 by Christmas Eve. Then came another call. It was television personality Bob Barker, a longtime animal rights stalwart. "I want to make a onetime memorial contribution in honor of my wife," Swett recalls him saying.

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