Blogging About Critters Since 2007

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Primarily Primates Turns on the Charm

As a former donor under the Wally Swett regime, I am still on the mailing list for Primarily Primates. The sanctuary was taken over by the State of Texas due to poor conditions for the animals and questionable use of funds. It was placed in the hands of a receivorship headed by a wildlife activist. This lasted from October 2006 to May 2007. There was a bitter fight in the courts with Priscilla Feral from Friends of Animals fighting to get the sanctuary restored to a "restructured" board. The State of Texas settled and the sanctuary returned to its previous directors, minus Wally Swett.

So, now I receive a letter from Priscilla asking for my renewed financial support of the refuge. While it sounds great, I am still mistrustful and wary. Can anyone validate all the "progress" they are claiming?

Here is the letter I received, with interesting lines in bold.

Dear Friend of Primarily Primates,

What's new at Primarily Primates? A lot of good things.

Today, everywhere you look there's new construction and renovation. Workers, donors, and volunteers have been busy since early May on projects from basic cleaning and lock repair to very exciting ideas for a comprehensive psychological stimulation package for the apes.

New living spaces are nearly completed for seven chimpanzees formerly used in a lab at Ohio State University supported with funding from the school. Shade trees are being planted in their area and also around the gibbons' space, which is being expnded in both length and height. Additional shading is being built in the areas where former Air Force chimpanzees reside. The capuchin monkeys, guenons, macaques, the baboons, and the lemur groups too will get a new, grass-based living space. Squirrel monkeys and lemurs will get new sleeping areas!

It was late April when the Texas Attorney General settled litigation over Primarily Primates, North America's pioneering primate refuge. From last October to May of this year, the site was managed under a receivership based on a number of charges on which the refuge sought and obtained acquittals. The Attorney General, with agreement of the probate judge in Austin, believed that the best interest of the state of Texas, of the refuge, and of the animals who live there would be advanced by enabling Primarily Primates to move ahead with a restructured board. Priscilla Feral, the newly appointed president, will help direct future policy and administration of the sanctuary. Stephen Tello, who has worked with the animals since 1986, was named as the sanctuary's new executive director.

My understanding is that Priscilla Feral and Stephen Tello were already involved with Primarily Primates before the seizure by the State of Texas. In fact, I thought Stephen Tello worked with Wally Swett. Why wasn't a renovation of the refuge happening before? And, as far as the State of Texas acting in the best interest of the animals, please, with all due respect, it is Texas. I think it just didn't want to be bothered with contentious animal advocates so it settled and dropped all charges.

The first priorities for Priscilla and Stephen are to assure the health and safety of the animals and workers, and to move forward on construction tasks interrupted by earlier litigation. Caregivers who know the animals, plus new hires and Dr. Valerie Kirk, Primarily Primates' staff veterinarian, were in place within the first week of May. Within a few weeks, all the living spaces were clean and the animals were enjoying the warmth and fresh air of summer. The goal is to ensure that the sanctuary is consistently tidy, well-run, communicative and a place advocates can be proud to support.

Before the receivorship, the sanctuary relied on about 18,000 donors to generate the funds needed to run a large sanctuary. In this respect, nothing has changed. Primarily Primates still depends on loyal donors, especially now, as we embark on improvements and new construction.

Why don't Patricia and Stephen explained what happened with the donations during the Swett regime instead of just ignoring it?

Under control of the receivorship, the sanctuary's website was unfortunately used to disparage the refuge – alas, exactly the wrong way to keep public support for a charity. The site is now run by the professional staff at Friends of Animals and is updated with new and exciting information and videos showing all the work in progress.

I never visited the sanctuary, but I watched videos taken right after the receivership came in. The videos were devastating. Those people were shocked at the condition of the sanctuary and they wanted to draw attention to it.

New septic systems are being installed for more efficient waste water treatment, new pressure washing systems are being put into place and a walk-in refrigerator will keep produce cool and fresh for primates, birds, foxes, and other refuge animals. Soon a major effort will begin that will expand exercise and recreational equipment for the apes and monkeys.

All in all, the refuge has more than thirty projects now underway and planned for the years ahead. A sleeping area is being designed for the leopard, as well as new housing for Arrell the African Lion. The mountain lions will have new areas to dine and sleep.

Arrell lost a ton of weight under the Swett regime. We saw a picture of him. Where were Feral and Tello then?

The refuge will relocate and redesign marmoset and tamarin housing, and build new spaces for the kinkajous – nocturnal mammals of South America who love fruit.

Etc. Etc.

I just hate it when issues are swept under the rug and, after feeling sorry for Wally for all these years (donations fell due to 9/11, etc), I don't know who to believe.


Derek said...

You're right on the nose about Stephen. I'm a former employee. My brother and I worked at Primarily Primates in the '90s. Not only did Stephen work with Wally, he was his live-in boyfriend, roughly 20 years his junior.

Outside of working for Wally, I don't believe that Stephen has any professional training or experience with animals. In fact, Stephen and Wally had a falling out a few years back and Stephen left PPI. Did he go into wildlife care elsewhere? Nope. Turns out he started his own business providing massages. I found an archived copy of his webpage ( on the Internet Archive. Since I started talking about the page a few months back, it appears that someone has blocked access to the archived page. But I had already saved a local copy of it and would be happy to share it with anyone who wants a copy.

I can't say I know as much about Priscilla, but I do know that she was on the board for quite some time.

I managed the website during the receivership and paid a visit to PPI in January of 2007. The trees were overgrown, the shelters were cracking and poorly maintained. I saw an impromptu repair that I had made with baling wire at Christmas of 1992 still being used on a capuchin enclosure. (I bet they fix it correctly if they read the comments on your blog.)

Like you, I find it hard to believe that management could have changed their ways too dramatically. I won't give a cent to PPI for as long as Tello is there.

Anonymous said...

Derek. Please get in touch with me about the info on Stephen and Wally. I want to help.

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