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Open Letter to Mary Beth Sweetland of PETA

October 25, 2006 | Animal Rights / Chimpanzees

An Open Letter to Mary Beth Sweetland of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA),

From Stephen R. Tello of Primarily Primates (PPI).

To Mary Beth Sweetland:

An estimated 18 million Americans have alcohol dependency problems. Referring to any of these people as "fall down drunks" shows a lack of medical knowledge and basic humaneness. Primarily Primates, however, has never condoned Wallace Swett's use of alcohol. Wallace Swett stepped down as the President and Executive Director on August 28th, 2006. The Board felt this was a positive change for Primarily Primates and would allow us to forge ahead, reorganize and revitalize the sanctuary. I stepped in as Interim Executive Director and have worked hard over the past two months to begin the process of improving the quality of care our sanctuary's nonhuman residents deserve. Primarily Primates' priority has always been to provide care for unwanted animals, feeling that they deserve compassion and are not disposable. (We feel that way about all kinds of animals, including humans; thus Primarily Primates works through Krissie's Kids, a separate organization that is under our care and raises separate funds to help disabled children.)

Our process of changeover was underway until October 13th. Swett, Primarily Primates and I are being treated as guilty of allegations that have never been demonstrated as true. That has not stopped the media and PETA from repeating them as though they were. Indeed, you and PETA are now into a pattern of recycling old claims that have been made and answered.

Let me be clear: The staff at Primarily Primates cares deeply about primates and all animals. Staff members are there in all types of weather, with little to no benefits. They understand that we are here simply because we attempt to care for animals that the world wants to forget. Including animals PETA has sent to Primarily Primates -- although PETA has not donated a single penny in over a decade or more to help them.

Unlike PETA -- a group that kills animals by the thousands each year and calls that ghoulish sanitation process "euthanasia" -- we put our hearts and souls into saving and preserving life. So references to "hoarding" I believe are better classified as a desire to help and not turn any animal in need away. Primarily Primates in fact places many animals in other sanctuaries and has for years, as you'll note if you review some of our placements with the American Sanctuary Association and the American Zoological Association. We know we can't save them all, but we also believe that we should try to find animals a home before we pull out the syringes to kill them.

Mr. Swett's purchase of animals was as an individual with his personal income. No funds from Primarily Primates were used. We've corrected you on this; you are lying about this issue now. (As for your sanctimonious opinions on whether nonhuman beings should never be bought out of commerce, you might wish to study history: even the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote in justification of buying humans, including himself.)

Concerning the well water at PPI and your claim that it is contaminated: Per Texas law, all employers with well water must provide employees with an alternate source of drinking water. Following the law and providing bottled water does not mean that the well water is contaminated. It's not. Yet this situation has been misrepresented and misreported to the media in order to support more of PETA's claims.

In regards to the tropical birds at Primarily Primates: Unfortunately, self-plucking by birds is fairly common as they are meant to live in flocks and fly -- two experiences they are typically denied when purchased as pets. The isolation and confinement can cause deep-seated frustration, resulting in loud and long screeching, aggressiveness, destructiveness, self-plucking of feathers and self-mutilation. The macaw in your photo and description was abandoned at PPI due to this plucking habit in the first place. This macaw, Apache, was a pet of Nicole, an owner who was unable to spend time with Apache. She had also moved to a new apartment and Apache did not adjust well.

One day when she went in to see him, she saw the feather-plucking behavior and was concerned. She entered his porch-like aviary and Apache attacked her. She was frightened of him ever since but still cared about him. As the feather-plucking got worse, she asked me to take him in because she didn't want to sell him or see him end up in a bad home. She visited Primarily Primates and when she saw the huge enclosure that would be his home, she asked me to take care of him. Nicole committed suicide a few months later, and he never saw her again. The loss of Nicole along with the change to a new environment was still more hardship on a macaw as sensitive as Apache. Fortunately, Primarily Primates was able to facilitate the design of a parrot aviary large enough to care for birds in need of care, and as a result, Apache was able to be introduced to a new companion.

Apache, though, was far from being rehabilitated. His feather plucking continues to this day and as a result, he sunburns badly (as his skin is pink and thin) and during the winter, he gets too cold. His neurotic feather plucking condition places him in high risk of being harmed whether we keep him indoors or outdoors. Introducing Apache to a new companion was what he needed to start a new life; and I had promised Nicole that I would take care of Apache for the rest of his life. Now thanks to PETA's and the Attorney General's ignorance of the reality of this bird's individual circumstances, Apache was removed from Primarily Primates, and whether he is alive or not I do not know.

PETA would have people believe that all the animals live in poorly designed enclosures. But as you already know, many of the animal enclosures have ropes, climbing structures, trees, and toys; in numerous natural spaces, whole trees grow within an enclosure. Some of Primarily Primates' enclosures are so big that some highly funded zoo exhibits cannot compete with them. And two chimpanzee areas were undergoing enhancements just as PETA charged onto the premises.

Already PETA has moved some animals without the consultation or agreement of those who know them and their special needs. You have just rounded up horses and shipped them out.

You have not told the public what you are doing and whom you are moving; reports simply appear on the news. Many of the primates require diets which rehabilitators use in order to balance the microflora in their digestive systems. Abrupt changes can put their health at severe risk.

PPI has always tried to help animals to our maximum abilities. Early on, we refused to continue accepting animals from PETA because your organization merely used PPI as a dumping ground for nonhuman beings and turned away from the animals while continuing to fundraise off their stories and photos. So now, it seems, you want to break the sanctuary. By pulling animals out of Primarily Primates, you appear to be trying to liquidate the assets of Primarily Primates. Primarily Primates currently owns over 80 acres of real estate in the Texas Hill country. As reported by PETA, yes, the areas around Primarily Primates are becoming more and more populated. The media and other interested parties might do well to follow the money: is PETA's true intent simply to end the work of Primarily Primates, destroy and kill, move the high-value animals to institutions, and liquidate what amounts to be 2 to 3 million dollars in land and equipment assets of Primarily Primates? What financial arrangements have PETA worked with all parties -- lawyers, paralegals, government, temporary employees etc. -- since descending on PPI?

Do you plan to make a public accounting of them?

Very truly yours,

Stephen R. Tello

Interim Executive Director
Primarily Primates


I haven't been asked to pitch in my two cents here, but I did want to share a few observations as an outsider looking in: To clarify from the outset--I haven't been to PPI recently, so I only know about this as an outside observer. I put in a call to PPI to try to reach Wally today and have not had a reply (I left a message on the machine). I have also placed a call to PeTA to speak to them about what has happened, but they haven't yet returned the call (and I didn't expect that either of them would drop what they were doing to speak with me--I'm only pointing out that I have made an attempt to contact them). What I do know is that Wallace Swett is one of the founders of an incredibly important sanctuary in Primarily Primates. Many years before it was popular to care about primates, Wally cared. And no matter what may or may not have recently happened at PPI, the details of which very few people really know, we should all remember that. We should also all remember that for many, many years he didn't take a penny in salary; Wally spent 30 years working for _animals_ not large salaries or publicity. No matter what has happened, that deserves more respect then it seems to be receiving at the moment. I meet Stephen Tello years ago at an IPPL meeting and found him to be a talented, intelligent man who clearly cared about primates and had a high level of knowledge and experience. I doubt very much that has changed over time. Now, I am not excusing any neglect. Period. I have no earthly idea what has happened at PPI. But I do know that there are very few sanctuaries in the United States in which something less-than-stellar isn't going on. There are all kinds of backstories and seedy little tales to tell about nearly everyone in this arena of work. If all of the dirty laundry of every one of these people were exposed, well, it wouldn't be pretty. I know very little about Lee Theisen-Watt. She has been described as a "wildlife rehabilitator" by the local newspaper. I was told that she had a relationship with Chris Byrne over at Black Beauty before his tragic death. He had a wonderful reputation and so did BBR under his charge. So, if she was connected to him, she learned from someone who knew his stuff. And I was also told that she once hand-raised a monkey at BBR. Before the press reports, I had never heard of her and I have more than 15 years experience working in primate advocacy. Now, I am not suggesting that she isn't qualified. She may well be. I certainly don't pretend to know everyone who works with primates. However, the number of people in this field that have the necessary experience and talent to manage a sanctuary of the size of PPI--well, there are a mere handful I can think of in the United States and she wouldn't be on my short list. These sorts of people are well known because they have worked in the field for many years and have the many talents necessary for the work which have nothing to do with wildlife experience. What I mean by that is that it takes more than a love of primates or wildlife to run a sanctuary. That, to be blunt, is why there are so few people who do it well. Its not easy and it is a highly skilled job, usually for little pay. The truly scary thing to me is the lack of information about the welfare of the animals. I understand that some animals have gone to Lynn Cuny. Lynn has a wonderful facility and she is a compassionate and caring person. I would not (and do not) worry about the animals that have gone to her. But what about the others? Where are they going? Why have they been sent away? What has happened to the OSU chimpanzees? - Hope Walker Former Executive Director The Primate Conservation & Welfare Society [Blog editors' note: A key question is whether they ought to have been removed at all, no matter to a compassionate party or otherwise; apply the standards that would apply to a child (for they are in a similar dependent position): We normally hear that a stable home is in the best interest of a child, and why not for these refugees from testing and industry? At this time, we need all the sanctuaries we have; what a shame for the movement if one is lost rather than the subject of an outpouring of support. Thanks for writing in.]

Here is a link to some photos of Ms. Watt in 2002 with a siamang which she apparently hand-raised for Black Beauty Ranch. Photos Here The 'binkie' in the siamang's mouth set off every ounce of my "pet monkey" radar. What self respecting sanctuary person would ever take a monkey into a classrooom like that? We're not just talking about the cake. We're talking about the potential for someone to be hurt and/or for the monkey to get very sick from being around a bunch of teens and young adults with god-knows how many different cold viruses... Hope Walker hope.walker(AT)

Attorney General Greg Abbott is before the voters next week, folks. His office is a disgrace. Make some noise and make a difference! Contact your representatives and request an investigation of how this case was handled. Lee Theisen-Watt had to lie about having a BS degree to even seem plausible as an expert. The animals are the biggest victims, and I pray she is held accountable. I think she and PETA should be... It also just dumbfounds me that Attorney General Greg Abbott would proceed with this case with out a background check on the credentials of Theisen-Watt. He did after all give her complete control in the welfare of these poor animals. I applaud the PPI caretakers who have stuck this out and continue to fight and care for these animals. They are heroes in my book. Gabby

In response to G. Ruiz: I watched Lee Theisen-Watt in court today in Austin, Texas. When Watt was appointed as a Receiver she filled out an affadavit saying the re'sume' she presented was true, and she had a Bachelor of Science degree. However, earlier when she was cross examined, she admitted she had no degree, and made a mistake in her affadavit . The excuse she offered -- she didn't type her re'sume'. Watt admitted that about 200 domestic animals she described as chickens, turkeys, guinea pigs, geese, pot-bellied pigs, horses, goats, ponies, dogs and pigeons were sent this week to the Houston SPCA. She wouldn't say how many other animals would be removed, but added, "The population is not at a carrying capacity." According to the testimony from one caregiver, Watt said if any animals couldn't be placed in other homes, they'd be killed. She also told the caregiver she killed over 200 dogs after Hurricane Katrina. Watt added that she had 20 years experience with "domestics,"has participated on Boards, in presentations to zoos,and has taken many classes and training sessions on capture and care. Watt also claims to have been published and to have been a surrogate mother for 2 species of primates. The court case continues on Monday, October 30, 2006. Priscilla Feral Friends of Animals

Obviously we aren't the only ones who are confused and looking for clarifications and answers. We have been financial supporters of PPI since its inception. We want PPI to continue. We want the animals who have lived there to stay there, and for PPI to grow far into the future. We have planned for monies to go to PPI when we die. Neither of us want to be subjected to horror stories certainly but we have a right to know what's happened and what will be happening. We've learned more at this blog spot than the total of information from numerous other sources. Thank you all. We are glad someone who's out there in Texas is posting here.

Like Toni & Walt Medford, I have learned more about the PPI story here than through any other source, including PETA's own website. My thanks to Stephen Tello, Maurice Guerrero and all who have taken the time to post. PETA's website with its splashy headlines, photographic "evidence" and unsupported accusations is less convincing to me than the detailed, signed statements made here. PETA's site makes much about the PPI nonhuman residents for whom it has found new homes. But, as far as I can tell, PETA fails to mention the probable fate of the many individuals sent to the SPCA if homes are not found. Can it be because the death toll will easily outweigh any good that may come of PETA's actions? And, because the flow of contributions for this action would slow and stop if the full story were told? On a personal note, this is distressing because I have always believed PETA to be "the good guys". Now PETA seems like a bully and more interested in collecting contributions than helping animals.

Just curious! I understand that there is a lot a stake financially, land and other assets. Should the land be sold, who will get the money? Should any big legacies come in who will get the proceeds? Is there currently a separate fund fot PP? Why does PETA's name keeep coming up in reports from the site?

First I want to apologize to the caregivers. My son, Jeff, asked me not to refer to them as "the kids". I am truly sorry, that is the love of a mother in me. I heard that PPI won an appeal yesterday keeping PETA from removing anymore animals. Congrads! I know that gives the caregivers hope.

When is the PPI website going to be updated with the truth?


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