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

Noone concluded that there were no signs of animal neglect or mistreatment but did report problems with an antiquated water and power system. While that did not affect the animals' drinking water, occasional breakdowns did hamper the cleaning of the enclosures with water hoses. The system has been upgraded since then.

Various reviews also raised questions about Swett's administrative abilities. For example, there was some commingling of funds; Swett did not always use separate accounts for the sanctuary and his personal expenses.

That scrutiny appears to have improved operations at the facility. Swett has gradually built up his roster of donors from around the country. The typical hand-to-mouth existence for him and Tello has been replaced with health insurance and minimal salaries.

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

The ultimate test of faith in the organization came last year. San Antonio's City Public Service had put a deposit on an adjacent 65-acre ranch to buy it as the site for an 11-acre power substation. Plans called for the utility to sell the remaining acreage to developers.

Swett's neighbors joined him in protesting the substation proposal. When he decided to try to buy the land for the sanctuary, his donors came through, and the San Antonio Area Foundation added a substantial grant. Since then, Swett already has put a number of rescued animals on the property, including an aging longhorn named Cool Hand Luke.

Another of his efforts ended with less success in 2000. Swett serves on the scientific advisory committee for the National Chimp Retirement Task Force and had been pressing for a federal bill to create sanctuaries for chimps used in research laboratories. However, the final research-industry-influenced legislation still allows for chimps who have been retired to sanctuaries to be called back into research labs.

Swett could benefit from the eventual funding of the sanctuary program, but he says the call-back provision makes the bill unsupportable. "They've made sanctuary a revolving door," he says. "Now it's just a bailout for the research facilities."

And as last year closed out, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts had its final say on the strife between Swett and attorney Wise. Swett had filed a complaint about the lawyer with that state bar.

The court found that Wise, acting out of "selfishness and anger" to collect his fee, had tried to get banks to freeze the sanctuary's accounts. That "vengeful attitude" targeted Swett, to the point of Wise trying to mount the effort to bring state regulators against him and to oust him from Primarily Primates.

As punishment for the monkey business, the court suspended Wise from practicing law for six months and ordered him to pass an exam on professional responsibility before he returns.

"This is our final vindication," Swett says. "It doesn't happen very often that lawyers will come down so hard on another lawyer."

To Swett, the court fight was just another crisis -- a huge one -- to be fought on behalf of his apes. "What I didn't realize when I made my promise to Thelma Doelger," he says, "was how difficult the day-to-day of running this place was going to be."

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