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

"Two weeks later, we received a check for a quarter of a million dollars."

The next year the sanctuary sported the new Dorothy Jo Barker Chimpanzee Complex and several smaller enclosures for other primates. And Swett landed more veterans of the silver screen.

Hollywood had helped spread the message of animal abuses with the film Project X, about the triumphant escape of a chimp named Willie from a cruel experimental lab. But in 1987 the chimps used in the film were about to meet the fate that Willie had escaped. Don Barnes of San Antonio, an animal rights activist and former primate researcher at Brooks Air Force Base, intervened and got the chimps transferred to Primarily Primates.

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

Swett also gained international media attention in 1992, when he told the press that cruel showbiz trainers had inflicted abuse upon his new scarred ward: orangutan Clyde, who had starred as Clint Eastwood's sidekick in Every Which Way But Loose.

It was a tragic story. Clyde had been found near death in a roadside animal "safari" and rescued by the Dallas Zoo before heading to Primarily Primates. The only problem was that a check of records showed it wasn't even Clyde. Instead, this was Punkin, the sanctuary's biggest celebrity. He'd appeared in the forgettable TV show Going Bananas.

Famous or not, the animals kept arriving. Barnes says, "Wally is as good as anyone in the country with chimps." Swett's reputation was increasing around the country -- but so were the problems.

"I think he had a hard time saying no, and he had a tendency to take on more animals than he could handle," says a fellow animal activist who asked not to be named. "He really had to scratch to keep things going."

And the biggest difficulties were not with the animals and monkey cages. They were waiting in courts of law.

Swett's legal woes stretch back almost to the start of the original organization. His co-founders contested the move to Texas -- and even who was supposed to be heading the group.

He says the sanctuary essentially was split between Texas and New England. Another of the founders, Muriel Mackey, retained custody of about three dozen monkeys on her property. Swett says the plan in the early '80s was for her to move southwest eventually and join his then-fledgling operation near San Antonio, but that she changed her mind after a stroke.

Volunteers who had been caring for her monkeys disputed Swett's version. After he took control of those animals, the monkey fight escalated until the others sued him in a Massachusetts court.

Swett hired Boston-area lawyer Steven Wise, a Harvard Law School lecturer and one of the few lawyers in the country who specialize in animal rights. The colorful attorney is known around New England as "Flea Bailey" for his legal crusades on behalf of animals. He even earned the distinction of being called an animal rights "wacko" by Rush Limbaugh.

Wise has gone to court on behalf of Saint Bernard dogs facing death sentences, aquarium dolphins destined for the navy, and African gray parrots that disappeared on a transatlantic flight. Chimpanzees are a particularly cherished cause for Wise. He recently published Rattling the Cage, a book that argues that apes should have legal privileges and not be subject to experiments.

The battle over control and funding for Primarily Primates, a war that included allegations of sexual harassment and mismanagement of funds against Swett, dragged on in court until 1993, when it finally was decided in Swett's favor.

His Texas sanctuary was awarded more than $400,000 in disputed funds. But that resolution was just the beginning of another set of troubles for Swett. Wise, whose attorney fees had been mounting, went to collect his share of the settlement. His bill to Primarily Primates had run over $60,000, with the meter for interest continuing to tick.

Swett claims that when he asked Wise for an audit of the charges, his attorney turned on him. Wise, unable to collect his full bill in Texas, continued to sue Primarily Primates in Massachusetts. Eventually Swett settled with Wise for $87,000. That hardly ended the legal strife.

Swett, despite a reputation for helping primates coexist, wasn't faring as well with some of the people he'd worked with.

Two volunteers at Primarily Primates claimed that Punkin and some of the other animals were being mistreated and that the sanctuary was being mismanaged. Encouraged by attorney Wise, one of the volunteers, who had been ousted from the sanctuary board in the 1993 board election, sent formal complaints to Texas Assistant Attorney General John Vinson in San Antonio.

Vinson's office sued Primarily Primates, initially seeking to remove Swett from the management of the sanctuary. The state eventually accepted a legal restructuring in an out-of-court settlement that left Swett at the helm. More members were added to the sanctuary's supervisory board.

During the controversy, several animal rights activists came to Swett's defense. One of them was Lynn Cuny of Wildlife Rescue, whose sanctuary had come under similar accusations and was later vindicated. She arranged to have Primarily Primates inspected by a Dallas zookeeper and prominent primatologist Carol Noone.

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