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Open Letter from Stephen Tello

December 02, 2006 | Animal Rights / Chimpanzees

I write to address multiple, serious public misstatements regarding Primarily Primates, a leading animal refuge for nearly three decades. We who have dedicated years to its mission frequently, and often alone, kept animals from certain death. The work we've done merits the support of the advocacy community.

We haven't publicly exhibited animals, but every year we've offered tours to individual donors and other interested parties. Primarily Primates has held state and federal wildlife education permits. It's wrong to tell the public, as some activists have done, that it took 13 years for outsiders to see our work.

What has actually happened? Several weeks ago, a Travis County probate judge and the state's Attorney General, acting in response to legal attacks by the Virginia-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), placed Primarily Primates under temporary receivership.

Since then, Lee Theisen-Watt, who's presented by the media as the independent receiver, immediately gave PETA affiliates full run of the refuge. Their lack of understanding of primates has caused a severe facial injury to one chimpanzee, the deaths of two monkeys, and the illness of a third. Still another has been stolen. Many animals have been taken away. Seven chimpanzees have been carted off to the zoo-like Chimp Haven, which is tied, by law and financing, to biomedical testing.

Our website has been taken over and turned into a frenzy of allegations against our work, adorned with distorted photographs taken by people promoting a series of lawsuits obviously meant to ruin us.

It's a sordid affair, worthy of a bad soap opera. Unfortunately, real animals have been dragged into this spectacle, and some won't survive it.

There's no good reason for this. Contrary to what the receiver has reported, we never housed 1,000 animals. We housed 374 monkeys and apes and about 200 other animals. Most of the recently removed animals had enjoyed 75 acres and a pond; animals needing daily housing maintenance numbered under 500.

Until mid-October, our staff worked night and day, seven days a week, to provide proper care and nutrition. We also worked to inform the public that exotic animals don't make good pets, and were often the last resort for animals discarded by entertainers, zoos, and labs.

The Texas press has reported that Primarily Primates would create "slick newsletters" telling of animals facing desperate plights. There's nothing "slick" about asking for money to feed our residents. If only others in the animal advocacy community had fought with us less and given more.

Our newsletters were welcomed by donors who helped us with every major rescue, the bills for our weekly produce, the winter electricity. Those dedicated people are now reading disparaging media accounts written by people who stop by to see us only when we've been viciously knocked down in the midst of a flurry of gossip.

Reports have relied on the criticisms of Terry Minchew, who left numerous animals at Primarily Primates yet has the gall to claim that no one should do that. They've also relied on the spurious comments of John Fischer, a worker previously fired for cause. As supervisor, it was Fischer's daily job to check all heaters. Fischer's own negligence caused the death of one monkey (not two as reported through the media) from frostbite. Fischer was not prevented from responsibly disposing of deceased animals; this was wrongly reported.

A person from the Dallas Zoo weighed in, critical of our small staff. Zoos have large staffs because they cater to public viewers. Sanctuaries, however, do not.

Reports of primate deaths at Primarily Primates have been incorrectly described and miscounted. The concept that primates lacked medical care is wrong. We've used seven veterinarians, from various fields of expertise. A primate veterinarian visited the sanctuary nearly every week. It's not unusual for sanctuaries to not have an on-site veterinary clinic. Most do not.

Two chimpanzees who arrived from Ohio State University died from pre-existing conditions, as verified by necropsies. (Two others had died earlier, in the Ohio lab itself.) And yes, we found that we had to delay the socialization of one chimpanzee. Back in Ohio, this chimpanzee attacked another, who died. Reports of chimpanzees in small enclosures are misleading. The only ones, out of 75, for whom space was a concern were the new arrivals from an Ohio lab. Our construction for their enclosures -- eight times the size they had in the lab -- was interrupted by this very case.

Yes, Primarily Primates bought a house -- below market value, from a donor who covered a significant portion of the price. Rent from the bookkeeper has helped to pay the mortgage. The point for buying this house was to insulate the sanctuary from the surrounding community, a prudent thing for a sanctuary to do.

The Texas environmental board visited in the past and, after making a few changes, found our method of waste disposal in compliance with state and local regulations. (There is, however, a 1000-acre cattle farm next to us, which will leak to the creek bed during heavy rains.) And, contrary to media reporting, Primarily Primates does not accept animals with contagious diseases. All animals are tested prior to arrival.

Once in our refuge, animals have been safe from being used further or killed. PETA may not understand this; it's well documented that PETA kills animals as part of a systematic policy. We haven't been able to take in all animals needing rescue, but we've done what we can. And one thing no true sanctuary would accept is the idea that one cares for animals by killing them.

One of the first official acts of the temporary receiver was to petition for permission to start killing. This person (who receives $50 an hour for temporarily administrating Primarily Primates) complains of low available funds. PETA's disparagement of Primarily Primates has destroyed donor relationships, so it's no mystery why the sanctuary now has only $10,000 in the bank. This is an embarrassment to the receiver.

This year, we were expecting our highest donation level since before 2001. (By late September, Primarily Primates was ahead of the previous year's income by more than $200,000.) PETA's lawsuit against Primarily Primates and the subsequent receivership prevented the normal year-end donor mailings and stopped two major grants.

The role of a receiver is to try to help a charity survive, not to ruin it. The advocacy group Friends of Animals stepped in to enable us to legally defend our name and our sanctuary. That group's president and I have faced contempt-of-court proceedings regarding a particular mailing, and while we'll abide by the orders of the court, we note that these proceedings were carried out simply because we did what, under normal circumstances, would be our proper work -- asking Primarily Primates' traditional donors to help us survive as a true sanctuary.

The people at Friends of Animals are some of the few I've met who just won't abandon their mission for convenience, publicity, or financial gain. Since 1957, they've taken on the really difficult issues: the aerial chasing of wolves; the ivory trade; creating wells that can enable humans and nonhumans alike to survive in the driest stretches of West Africa.

Now, Friends of Animals have come to help us. For this, they've faced hostility from animal-protection groups who could have helped us rather than malign us, thus sparing Texas a series of courtroom spectacles.

A wildlife rehabilitator who has worked in the non-profit sector for 21 years, usually volunteering, I'm able and willing to offer a future to animals, in an area that has a public need for wildlife rehabilitation and will continue to have such a need for years to come. I'd carry on my work at Primarily Primates without any salary. My heart's with our animals.

Still, Friends of Animals did not come to defend me or any other individual. They came to defend Primarily Primates.

But when an operation like PETA decides to assault a struggling sanctuary with their well-funded PR machine, it's hard to fight back. They've long prided themselves in getting the upper hand in the media world, and it's no surprise they've got it now. This means several major projects, designed to augment the naturalistic enclosures that our nonhuman residents already enjoy, are now delayed and possibly stopped forever. There were other desperate animals awaiting rescue; the fates of most will never be printed or heard.

Stephen Rene Tello


PeTA has been in the news in North Carolina for collecting dogs and destroying them in their death vans.

I have been trying to keep informed of the happenings at PPI from both perspectives. It is difficult. I know the press loves to sensationalize rather than report and PeTA LOVES to disrupt. In the past I have been a donor of PPI and had received wonderful advice from Mr. Swett on four chimpanzees in my care. Having been a target of PeTA, I know for a fact that Lee Watt is involved with them. I'm am very concerned how the state could not know this. It is also very obvious she has little or no primate experience by the videos she has been spending her time acting for. I did address this issues in an email to AG Abbott, but did not receive a reply (not suprising). Why is it no one seems to understand that Chimp Haven is a holding facility of NIH .... It is NO sanctuary! I would very much love to help PPI. I had been planning to volunteer there for an extended period prior to this upheaval. I hope everyone is still praying for the animals there, as I have been and will continue to do.

If [the receivership] wishes us to believe that PeTA is not involved in the present situation at PPI, they should probably not have Jane Garrison doing the 'staff' intake. Garrison has been around for ages and she is a known PeTA staffer.

To all those who continue to point fingers at PETA, remember that this all started with allegations against PPI. It doesn't matter who made the allegations or who is running PPI right now. All that matters is whether or not the allegations were true. Why is that issue not the focus of everyone's attention? That's what everyone should be talking about. Are the allegations true or are they not? [Blog editors' note: No, Dave. This all started because a group of Homo sapiens believed it acceptable to build their academic careers by running years of experiments on a group of hapless African apes in a lab in Ohio. When the university's patience ran out with the experimenter's inability to keep funding this massive project, and therefore the school wanted to dump them (as is so typically the case in these fancy experiments), Primarily Primates offered to take them. Primarily Primates didn't cause the problem but it certainly has paid a tremendous price for it, exemplified by the ire you (and the parties suing Primarily Primates) are incessantly misdirecting. Now these same apes are being moved about the country like pawns across a chessboard. It's well known that Chimp Haven, the institution which has them now, has had financial setbacks. Will these apes be a boost to the director and board of Chimp Haven? What everyone should be talking about is ending human use of other primates. Why is this not the focus of everyone's attention?]

In response to Dave's comments: I agree with your statment that it matters whether or not the allegations made against PPI are true or false. However, I don't agree that the question of who made the allegations is irrelevant. Who, along with why and how, matter a great deal to me. As a concerned individual without the resources to travel to Texas, and without the necessary background in the appropriate care of primates, answers to the who, why, and how of these allegations are critically important in coming to a personal belief about whether they are true or false. I believe I should not rely on legal proceedings to necessarily reveal the truth. The legal system - as good as it is - has far too often come to decisions later proved wrong. (Think of wrongly accused persons on death row recently proved innocent by DNA evidence.) To the extent possible I read and assess the available information for myself. Who, why, and how are among the questions I ask to help gauge the quality of information. Furthermore, asking who, why and how is necessary if I am to consciously participate in the continuing evolution of this movement. Am I willing to align myself with an organization that uses strong hand tactics and false allegations against a true sanctuary? Am I willing to support an organization that has, through neglect and abuse, failed to provide sanctuary to the nonhuman residents living there? The answer to both questions is a resounding no. So, I do seek the answers to who, why and how to help me decide where the truth lies. I continue to visit the PETA website hoping to find detailed reports, and carefully considered reasoning for their action against PPI. I have found only sensationalized, selective and tabloid-like items. In the end, it comes back to your statement: "All that matters is whether or not the allegations were true." And, that statement applies equally to the allegations being made against PETA.

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