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Special Report: Primarily Primates' Original Care Crew Mourns Gigi's Death

December 08, 2006 | Chimpanzees / Animal Rights / Press Releases

Stephen Rene Tello and the Refuge's Traditional Caregivers Concerned About Other Animals at Risk

Gigi had been used in space research at Holloman Air Force Base, and was one of a group known through the international media as the U.S. Air Force chimpanzees.

Gigi was one of the elders. Subjected to severe research testing, Gigi had metal plates in her head where scientists placed electrodes during decompression studies.

When the Air Force divested itself of the apes in 1999, Gigi was welcomed at Primarily Primates. With a 28-year record of care, Primarily Primates is the country's pioneering private refuge for primates. It would be Gigi's home for seven years.

Gigi's personality was forceful, yet she coped with her circumstances by being a relative loner. Gigi ate well, but was always lean.

This October, a group of the sanctuary's detractors took over the sanctuary premises through a receivership that the state's Attorney General agreed to facilitate. On 6 December 2006, an update on the receiver's website (superimposed over the site belonging traditionally to Primarily Primates) said that Gigi had died from a long illness.

Said Stephen Rene Tello, a rehabilitator with the sanctuary's traditional personnel, "At first, I was not shocked in regard to her passing, although Gigi hadn't been ill prior to the October takeover. Over the next five to ten years I expect to see a lot of the air force chimpanzees pass on, as we purposefully offered refuge to older apes who had been exploited for decades in various studies, so many of the Air Force's subjects are forty or older."

But Tello was shocked to learn of December invoice from the cremation company recording Gigi's weight at only 67 pounds.

The vocal detractors who now control the sanctuary's website describe the attention given Gigi in the "last six weeks of her life" as "top-notch" -- perhaps to suggest that Gigi's earlier care at the refuge had been inappropriate.

"In fact," explains Tello, "She lived in a nice group of chimpanzees. They were compatible, with not much in-house fighting."

Continued Tello, "It is terribly disturbing to those of us who cared for Gigi for years to discover that she'd declined so rapidly and so grotesquely only 52 days after we were locked out."

Given Gigi's body's weight as last recorded, and comparing that to her previous state and to comparable chimpanzees' records, Tello stated, "Her face would have been drawn and sunken. Skin would be hanging from her bones. In seven and a half weeks, this ape literally wasted away."

Further problems are also evident. After a cold snap in San Antonio set in, it occurred to the receivership personnel that they'd have to use the heaters. They've reportedly just replaced a boiler heat system for the Air Force chimpanzees, although $1,500 was invested into it last year. The system's gas level, lines, and valves needed special maintenance for which the receiver was unprepared. The traditional caregivers note that the receiver is inexperienced with many of the normal workings of the refuge.

Additionally, Tello said, the inexperienced, temporary staffers are not accustomed to the refuge so some of them now report coming down sick. This was not an issue when the regular staff was there. Volunteers are great, but, for the same reason, an open-door policy allowing strangers in who "just come on by to help" is an unsafe practice.

"If they are exposing the chimpanzees to illnesses," said Tello, "They are further risking the lives of the older or more vulnerable animals."

Tello stressed that the chimpanzees and other sensitive animals require surroundings free from the stress and danger of illness posed by the tours, investigators, flashbulbs, dietary changes, and other various disturbances that have been constant since the receiver was installed in October.

The receivership has now had seven weeks to make its mark on the refuge. Have they improved it?

"They have improved the welfare of many lawyers," said Tello, referring to yet another package of legal submissions from the refuge's detractors this week, meant to further dismantle the refuge.

Known injuries and deaths of nonhuman primates at PPI since the receiver was installed:

* In early December 2006, the chimpanzee Gigi died.

* Also during the first week of December, a member of PPI's traditional staff who is still on the premises reported the death of a squirrel monkey.

* Just after seven chimpanzees were sent out of the refuge in November 2006, a white-handed gibbon died. The gibbon had never been ill prior to the receivership, but became severely ill and began to appear emaciated after it began.

* Uriah, a chimpanzee, sustained a severely torn lip and large bite wound on his head after people assisting the receiver threw fruit into an enclosure -- having been told by the traditional care staff not to do so until precautions were taken.

* Jordan, a ring-tailed lemur who is a former pet, was allowed to enter a group of lemurs in which he was severely injured, and, lying flat on the ground covered in lacerations, received no medical care for two days.

* On or about 10 November 2006, a spider monkey died. After the receiver took over, the monkey, Nicole, was provided with a blanket and hid under it for days. By the time she was discovered she was so sick and emaciated that emergency euthanasia was applied.

* Scoot, a howler monkey, is currently ill and losing weight, a condition that could have been precipitated by stress. Sometimes days pass before the temporary staff changes hay, and this monkey has been observed by one of the traditional caregivers seeking food in waste-coated hay.

* A cotton-top tamarin was stolen, but later returned. Chiquita, the marmoset who was living with Gizmo, is missing this week, and could only have been removed by a keyholder. Only one of the two is gone, evidence of deliberate selection and removal.

Certain other rescued primates who may be at special risk:

* Two spider monkeys, Magic and Noel, were in critical health when the receiver took over. Noel suffers from an illness much like Parkinson's disease, and the traditional staff is concerned about their current status.

* The deceased gibbon (see above section) lived with a group. What about the safety of the other gibbons? Why did this gibbon waste away and what was the cause? Where is the necropsy report?

* Where are Gigi's necropsy reports? When will official reports be submitted to the court and the Attorney General, who is responsible for this receivership? Was this contagious? What of protecting the other chimpanzees?

* A macaque was slated for essential surgery to remove a facial tumor, but has been moved out. The traditional staff is concerned about the monkey's current status.

* Howler monkeys are so sensitive to disruption that the mere sound of a car horn can suppress their appetites for days. The traditional staff is concerned about the surviving howler monkeys.

* A deaf baboon has been moved out. The baboon will be vulnerable in group situations; the traditional staff is concerned about the baboon's current status.

* Several chimpanzees who arrived in San Antonio earlier this year have been moved, purportedly on a temporary basis, to Chimp Haven of Louisiana, which is touted as a glorious sanctuary, but which is funded by -- and by law serves as a holding area for -- the National Institutes of Health. One of the chimpanzees in this situation, named Darrell, poses potential safety risks. In 2004, this individual severely injured another, who subsequently died from resultant infections. A (human) student assisting in treating a wounded chimpanzee in this same series of events was injured so badly that multiple surgeries were required. Chimp Haven is sending out rosy reports about the chimpanzees, and particularly in light of this glossy reporting, the traditional staff of PPI has concerns for the safety of humans, Darrell, and other apes.

* The receiver is attempting to remove a chimpanzee named Oliver, using trouble over a water pipe as justification. New pipe could be run around the cage without moving Oliver, requiring only temporary water shut-off for a short period when joining the new pipe. Moreover, Oliver's current enclosure connects with other living space, and new construction was nearing completion when the receivership was imposed. Thus, there is no excuse for the attempt to remove Oliver. This individual is elderly; sedation would be dangerous and possibly fatal. The traditional staff is extremely concerned about Oliver's future given his physical vulnerability and also the likelihood that this individual could be re-exploited for media purposes.

* Hank and Maggie, baboons who were formerly pets, were very close and lived together at Primarily Primates. Hank does not like to be gawked at. When unfamiliar people appeared at the refuge, Hank would nudge Maggie into a little sleeping house within their enclosure. Maggie would customarily stay there until the people would leave. When people left, if one watched from a distance, one could see Hank beckoning Maggie back out. This endearing scene was repeated many times over the years; Hank was devoted to Maggie. After Primarily Primates was taken over in October, the receiver claimed that their caring interactions constituted abusive conduct that could only be remedied by moving these baboons. So they were sent away. The traditional caregivers have imagined the stress that these two individuals have endured, during a move and handling and a new situation in which everyone would be unfamiliar to them.

* Some veterinary bills, as well as bills for a lab-work company and a cremation company, have been reportedly left in arrears after September 2006. This means all animals at the refuge are at risk. It appears that most of the money being raised by the people in the physical position to care for the refuge's residents is going to law firms.


The large number of deceased and distressed animals at Primarily Primates (PPI) since 13 October 2006 speaks volumes about the receivership that was imposed on the sanctuary on that date.

The winter is setting in now, and there are a number of vulnerable primates and other animals at Primarily Primates. What will it take for people to defend this sanctuary from the people who are dismantling it and sending its residents away -- or to the crematorium in droves?

More on Primarily Primates.....


I find this entire thing from beginning to present extremely disturbing to say the least !! I have noticed in these updates that the issue of WHAT CAN THE PUBLIC DO TO VOICE THIER CONCERNS ? is not being addressed. Why ? There is power in numbers. Also, why is the HSUS still not involved ? What is being done in the courts to reverse what has happened so that the sanctuary can get their sanctuary back ? [Blog editors' note: The HSUS has never, to our knowledge, come out in this case and supported the future of this sanctuary. The HSUS did, however, support the CHIMP Act which was signed into law in 2000 and which gave rise to the system of cost-savings for the NIH -- which Chimp Haven agreed to run. Friends of Animals and the GRASP project were vocal about asking animal-protection groups such as HSUS to support true sanctuaries (such as Primarily Primates) back during the CHIMP Act debates, and instead HSUS very actively promoted the CHIMP Act (and, by extension, Chimp Haven), which will make it very difficult in the future for nonhuman apes to get out of the NIH's clutches. What can people do? Support the work of people who want to build the refuge up, not tear it down. Please follow the media accounts and ask that the traditional sanctuary's position get a fair hearing. A special thanks to Susan Davis for following up to ensure fairer, more accurate, and more serious media coverage of this story.]

It's obvious she is writing up certain staff to set the stage to fire them. She's just documenting cause for firing them to make it all seem legit. It's just lame and so predictable. More dirty, dirty tricks to coverup her actions. I hope the staff is seeking counsel. Employees have rights, and making up lame rules just to get rid of someone is not legal. If she was truly doing right by these animals, she wouldn't need to be hiding their condition and resorting to these games to get rid of whistleblowers. It's disgusting.

[Under the receivership] HSUS volunteers have delivered hay to PPI. More disturbing is the report of significant financial support for construction of enclosure connectors coming from New England Anti-Vivisection Society, through its Project Release & Restitution. I have no opinion, at this point, about whether or not the connectors are an improvement that will actually make maintaining and enhancing the enclosures easier and safer for humans and non-humans alike. I have e-mailed NEAVS and asked (1) How an organization whose mission is to end the use of animals for experimentation can support a receiver who has already shipped chimps to Chimp Haven and (2) If NEAVS has ever provided financial support to PPI before it was placed in receivership. Whatever their response, I will ask them to make an equal contribution in support of the traditional administration of the sanctuary. Please consider joining me demanding that NEAVS explain their reasoning for supporting the receiver. Project R & R can be contacted by e-mail at: . The project web address is:

I have been a supporter of Primarily Primates for more than 15 years. I WAS also a supporter of PETA for many years. As soon as I learned of the Gestapo-like takeover of Primarily Primates I called and spoke [to a PETA] staffer. She had no comment, comeback, nor explanation for what they had done. That, in and of itself speaks volumes. I have always understood that there are politics in every walk in life. It would seem that PETA only wants to make headlines without regard to the welfare of the animals they supposedly care so much about. Why are we not seeing this story in major newspapers and magazines? Why not use a PETA-styled ad campaign to enlist the help of a well known model, singer, star (nude perhaps?) to advertise what PETA has done and is doing to the residents of Primarily Primates?

i couldn't finish reading this with out crying my eyes out. i thinks its horrible, inhumane.

To all concerned, please write to the Attorney General. Please write to your Texas state representatives and the Governor and ask for help. Please write to the news media demanding fair coverage because I think the AG needs to be accountable and investigated for allowing conflicts of interest to be so rampant in this case. If we don’t keep the pressure up for answers it will be swept under the rug. Why is the AG stalling the trial dates? PPI has stated they want to go to trial and it was slated for January – the AG already got that postponed, February, March, July, 2008? This isn’t a factory – these are live animals. This was conducted with such careless consideration for the animals and disregard for the right to be innocent until proven guilty. There were so many other options for an investigation if the AG had valid concerns about PPI. Why didn’t the AG come in and make unannounced inspections with impartial experts to judge the care of the animals? Why are PETA staff and attorneys conducting the investigation instead of the AG’s office – ask Frost bank about that one! These are valid questions to which I would like answers. If they had to go this route, in the entire state of Texas, the AG could not find an impartial, QUALIFIED primate specialist to act as receiver who was not so intricately involved with PETA staff and attorneys? Why didn’t the AG just seize the office and financial records instead of putting these animals in such a tenuous situation by disrupting every aspect of their daily care and routine? Even someone properly qualified would need to be briefed on daily operations and make a gradual transition – none of that happened and Watt just jumped in and began her crusade to trash PPI.

Dave wrote on another post, "It doesn’t matter who made the allegations or who is running PPI right now." It certainly does matter! PETA's allegations are usually self-serving and they have poor history when it comes to the truth. Just look at the current criminal case in North Carolina accusing a PETA trainer and trainee of killing healthy cats and dogs and tossing them in dumpsters after taking them from a shelter -- under the pretense of finding them homes. Since these allegation were brought forth by PETA and everyone involved with the allegations seems to be PETA connected, is it wise to have PETA so involved in the investigation? Lee Theisen-Watt's attorney holds a PETA "Activist Award"? Could the connected interests be any more obvious? PETA routinely places undercover operators to "gather evidence". PPI has reported trouble with breakins at night and undercover activists undermining the sanctuary for years. Finding animal abuse cases whether real or fabricated is a source of income for PETA. These undercover employees have clear motives for "finding" evidence. The AG and Lee Watt have given PETA free rein in all aspects of PPI's records and the animals. I can think of no other legal case where the accused is stripped of everything and total power is just handed over to the party making the accusations (Theisen-Watt on behalf of PETA) before a trial. How was Theisen-Watt selected? Why was not an impartial receiver put in place? How was her salary as receiver decided and who is paying her? Theisen-Watt is making a bundle off this - $50 an hour. If this case drags this out for a year, and this person were to stay that full time, she will have banked well into six-figures - that is absurd both for her lack of credentials and based on PPI's annual budget. Ken

PETA has put their human interests before that of the animals they profess to protect. Where is the protection at PPI? Unfortunately it is the animals that are paying a terrible price as a result of PETA's self-serving efforts to get even with the sanctuary. Why is it that the legal system is unable to see something that is so obvious? Every official that has allowed this travesty to occur should be held accountable. Quite frankly there is nothing ethical about the way that animals are being treated at PPI, thanks to PETA's actions.

Well i hope all of them are ok, it makes me angry how people treat animals in bad ways. Their living things too. I hope you guys keep up the good work to protect wildlife and being kind to animals. Thanks

[Dr. Valerie Kirk expresses concern for Oliver's life. We find this message urgent, and will distribute it to primate interest lists. - Blog eds.] I examined Oliver July 26, 2006 to evaluate a fluid shift seen in his right eye by the [traditional] care staff at PPI. He was examined cage-side, without sedation. I described what I saw during the exam to a veterinary ophthalmologist, who suggested it could be age-related changes in the vitreous humor. In a patient of advanced age as Oliver is (he'll be 50 next year), the vitreous, which is normally jelly-like in consistency, becomes less dense and take on a more liquid consistency. When the eye moves, the vitreous has more freedom to move due to the momentum created by eye movement, because it has become less viscous (thinner). Unless Oliver were in pain, as evidenced by blinking, keeping his eye closed or rubbing his eye, using eye drops to treat the condition would, in the opthalmologist's opinion, not be worth the risk to the care staff. Oliver's left cornea is totally pigmented, causing him to be blind in that eye. To determine why Oliver is blind in the right eye would require a thorough examination of the eye, which is not possible cage-side without sedation. I did not want to sedate Oliver because he has a history of liver disease from an undetermined cause. Dr. Michele Martino had examined Oliver during his bout with liver disease and had followed his progress with lab work. When she saw the lab work indicated his condition was improving, she did not request Oliver be sedated further to follow the disease to its resolution. She warned Wally Swett that if Oliver were sedated any more, that he might succumb to the sedation. Therefore, we took a "leave well enough alone" attitude toward Oliver. In September, Oliver had what appeared to have been a possible small stroke. He didn't appear to have suffered any residual deficits or problems from it. I am very concerned about Oliver, as I have heard that he may be sedated for transport to another facility for permanent relocation or [this could occur] for examination, evaluation and possible treatment of his right eye. As always when evaluating a patient for treatment, the risk/benefit ratio needs to be considered. We do not know the status of the retina or whether restoration of sight is even possible. We won't know without thoroughly examining the eye, which requires sedation and later anesthesia is treatment is attempted. What if the treatment were a success but the patient died? If Oliver dies because we wanted to give him the benefit of sight, or of a new home perceived as being for his betterment, what have we done? Oliver is very well adjusted to his blindness and has done very well at PPI. Dr. Valerie Kirk


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