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.
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.

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.

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.

"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.

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.

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.

"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.

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.

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.

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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