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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 always believe in following the "money trail" so checked land values in the area where the Primarily Primates Sanctuary is located just in case the "resident nuisances" (nonhuman and human) are chased off! I believe the sanctuary owns about 70 acres of land (with a couple of houses). I found the following land values and note that the area is of interest to developers. I wonder if there is a plan to sell the land. It could bring in a few million dollars. If it gets sold, who will reap the profits? The A-G? Or others associated with the current activities? There are two properties for sale near PPI 1. MLS 557509, 25389 Boerne Stage Rd (1.7 miles from PPI) 23 Acres Land with 2300 square foot ranch style home $1,345,000 2. A new development of estate homes on lots of 10 acres or more. (1 mile from PPI) MLS 573466 and others. Lot size 10 - 12 acres. Prices for lots (land only) $300,000 to $799,000 I hope my concern is unwarranted.

After reading the stuff above, these testimonies from back in 2004? from the former sanctuary employees that PETA bases this whole case on baffles me. Did they go report this stuff to the local Humane Society, SPCA or law enforcment who have authority to act on laws concerning animal abuse? Sounds like they all went to PETA instead of seeking immediate action from local officials. If I saw a person getting abused I wouldn't go to the Red Cross and invite them out for a tour! A disgruntled employee who wants revenge or to stir up bad publicity for being fired would go the PETA route since that is what they are known for. A PETA scammer would also go this way it seems. This whole mess is just totally unbelievable. I feel bad for the animals.

Most disturbing in all of this is the silence from other animal rights/protection groups. Are they not concerned about these animals? I have to date, not received any replies at all from the Houston SPCA, the HSUS, or the Attorney General's Office. There is an incredible disregard for donor rights as well as the well being of all the animals at PPI. I wonder if Dr. Kirk's concerns about Oliver have been addressed? Does anyone know?

Sadly, this story has a lot of parallels to Iraq. Both were invaded based on faulty evidence and misstatements of fact. The misuse of funds appears to be the AG's missing weapons of mass destruction. Both have poor leadership resulting in more harm than good. The costs of the damage are out of control. Both have no exit plan. The AG and PETA may want to check on their approval ratings.

Someone needs to contact a reputable journalist on the national level and get this out to the general public. Interview the Jane Goodall staff members who visited. Interview the veterinarians who know about the type of care these animals received. Expose what has happened to the seized animals. Ask the questions that could reveal what truly happened in this takeover and let the public decide if this sort of seizure should be acceptable in the United States. Animal advocates who don't live in Texas may have no idea that this has happened. I'm sure that some are still confused about the facts. The media, when responsible, can be a great check and balance when there is an injustice.

ADDENDUM: Urgent News. On top of the fact that Lee Theisen-Watt sent out 7 of Primarily Primates' chimpanzees to CHIMP HAVEN, I have just learned the following information. Please write to Greg Abbott, the Attorney General of Texas and ask that the 7 chimpanzees released by the the temporary receiver Lee Theisen-Watt be returned to Primarily Primates. The Honorable Greg Abbott
Attorney General
Office of the Attorney
PO Box 12548
Austin TX 78711
(512) 463-2100 The Shreveport Times Chimp Haven Directors Sued -- Group Claims Mismanagement December 13, 2006 By Janelle Rucker A group of donors and supporters of Chimp Haven Inc., in Keithville have filed suit accusing the institution's directors of mismanaging the facility. Virginia K. Shehee, Mary Jansen, Tim and Sarah Goeders, Linda Koebner and others have asked the court for an injunction against the directors of the nonprofit residence for chimpanzees formerly used for research. Director and President Linda Brent and director and Chairman of the Board Tom Butler are directly named in the suit. The plaintiffs believe the defendants "have mismanaged the Chimp Haven Project in Caddo Parish in violation of that corporation's purpose, to the detriment of the animals residing at Chimp Haven and to the detriment of fundraising and additional grant opportunities on which Chimp Haven must rely on to survive," according to the suit filed recently. "Chimp Haven was very shocked to read the allegations considering the great success the sanctuary has enjoyed over the past year," Chimp Haven spokesman Rick DelaHaya read from a prepared statement as Chimp Haven officials have been advised not to answer any specific questions about the lawsuit. The suit cites instances in which the plaintiffs accuse the directors of making poor decisions about personnel and maintaining the chimps in social groups at the facility. One such instance plaintiffs claim lead to the death of a chimp named Woodruff, who was placed in a group with three other aggressive male chimpanzees and later found dead from "a heart attack bought on by a combination of an attack upon him from other chimpanzee in his group. ..." "I can assure the community the chimpanzees are doing exceptionally well. They are being cared for by the most experienced staff and the organization is solid and growing," DelaHaya said. "We are confident that when all the facts are presented in the case, all the allegations will be proved false and we can continue the business of taking care of the chimpanzees, which is our No. 1 priority." The plaintiffs also accuse the directors of alienating donors, volunteers and researchers. The suit lists how the defendants "improperly and illegally" suspended New Yorker Koebner from the board of directors as one such incident of alienating supporters. Also cited was a promise never fulfilled to Shehee that she would become a trustee "in exchange for her assistance and donations." To remedy the situation, the group is asking for injuctions, including a court judgment declaring the facility is being seriously and persistently mismanaged, the removal and replacement of Brent and Butler from their positions, restoration of Koebner to the board, and an independent, third-party review of the conditions of the facility and it's accounts and records. Now that the suit has been filed, the defendants have to respond, said Julie Blewer, with Davidson, Jones and Summers, who are handling the case for the plaintiffs. DelaHaya acknowledges they have received a copy of the suit and said the organizations, legal counsel is in the process of reviewing it. Blewer expects an answer from the defendants in the next few weeks but declined to comment further, instead, referring questions to plaintiff Tim Goeders. Calls to Goeders were not returned. Chimp Haven remains closed for the winter but will reopen in March or April, DelaHaya said. He doesn't expect the lawsuit to delay the sanctuary's opening to the public next season. The parties: Plaintiffs: Virginia K. Shehee, of Caddo Parish; Sharon Wright, of Caddo Parish; Mary Jansen, of Caddo Parish; Tim Goeders, of Caddo Parish; Sarah Goeders, of Caddo Parish; Jan Landon, of Caddo Parish; Frank Landon, of Caddo Parish; Cathie Neukum, of New York; Linda Koebner, of New York. Defendants: Linda Brent, Director and President of Chimp Haven, Inc., of Caddo Parish; Tom Butler, Director and Chairman of the Board, of Texas.

Underscoring the point made by Stephen Rene Tello that the receiver ought to have better prepared regarding equipment: It turns out that the heaters which the receiver accepted from a corporate donation are propane heaters for home, garden and restaurant patio use -- not appropriate for sanctuaries. As they involve a flame, they also present a fire hazard.

I have first-hand experiences with the receiver and her staff. These are the most unprofessional group of people I have ever had to work with. All these allegations that are coming to light about the receiver and the so-called animal care they are providing are true and worse in many more cases. I try to stay neutral since I still work here but that becomes harder with each passing day. So many of the volunteers that come in to help wind up leaving with a very different opinion about the receiver Lee Theisen-Watt and her right-hand man in all these crimes John Fischer. The most recent volunteer (who became a staff member) left. This person told me directly that Theisen-Watt and Fischer are not as knowledgeable as they would like everyone to believe they are. I've heard this same statement over and over again from so many different people who come out here. The cages these animals are forced to live in are filthy and most of the enrichment that they provide is unsafe. Most of the receiver's staff is connected to PETA.

I thought they were using the propane heaters outside? There's a photo of one on their website.... Also, a former staff member told me they used to use kerosene heaters for the primates. Isn't that worse than propane? It makes awful fumes.... FoA comments: In the past, PPI only relied on kerosene heaters for temporary heat -- the "fumes" from a properly operated kerosene heater are not considered a danger to humans or chimpanzees. PPI has a modern heating system that was well-maintained and in use until the takeover by the receiver. While the receiver reports that the heating system is broken, it's more likely she does not know how to operate it. Stephen Tello has offered his assistance in getting the heating system turned on. The apparent problem with the recently donated heaters to PPI is that they are shown as being put to use “outside” – outside the enclosures and sleeping-quarters of the animals. Because of the design, size and use limitations of this type of heater, the animals will receive little or no benefit from them.

That's interesting, because every time I go there I see numerous people all working together very well. Is the receiver an expert on everything? Of course not. But she is clearly working for the benefit of the sanctuary and not some nefarious PeTA stooge as she is portrayed here. BTW, what "knowledge" did Wally Swett have before he started taking on chimps and monkeys and Patagonian Cavies and lions and....?? [Blog editors' notes: 1. The whole case against the refuge, resulting in this temporary receivership, was brought by PeTA; and it is public knowledge that the receiver and PeTA attorneys are working together closely. 2. Wally Swett didn't pretend to know more than others, treat them as nonpersons, and ruin their lives' work.]


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