Search Our Site

Search form


The Struggle to Save a Sanctuary and a Movement

November 21, 2006 | Chimpanzees / Animal Testing

Ithaca Journal - Ithaca, New York, United States

Lee Hall / Guest Column

It's our country's original primate sanctuary. Primarily Primates, Inc. of San Antonio, Texas offers refuge to animals who've been discarded by pet owners, the film industry, and even space research.

And for years it's been under attack.

The most recent battle involves chimpanzees used in cognition experiments at Ohio State University. When OSU decided to unload them, Primarily Primates offered a home.

University representatives inspected the sanctuary, and were impressed. New construction soon began at the refuge, to provide the chimpanzees eight times the space they had in the lab.

But the researcher was enraged. Chained to the laboratory gate, Sally Boysen protested the end of the research opportunity, and quickly attracted allies.

One, Terry Minchew, had accepted an invitation to stay at Primarily Primates, rent-free, in exchange for providing enrichment for animals -- a task she ignored. Minchew did find time, though, to arrange a covert visit from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals ("PETA"). Minchew, who became a key witness against Primarily Primates, abandoned numerous animals at this same refuge.

PETA first tried to close the sanctuary under a county ban on "dangerous wild animals." But because Texas law sensibly tolerates wildlife rehabilitators, Primarily Primates has cared for more than 70 chimpanzees legally. The first, Rudy, arrived in 1983, and is thriving today.

To be sure, Primarily Primates has problems. September 11 and two hurricanes hit the non-profit economy hard. And now, the sanctuary must fight a lawsuit. Most unfairly, this interrupted construction work on the chimpanzees' new enclosures.

Primarily Primates is now pressing for a jury trial to clear its name. Meanwhile, the Attorney General's office, at PETA's urgings, has imposed a receivership. Public attacks on the sanctuary have intensified under the receivership -- a legal mechanism that's supposed to preserve viable Texas charities, not attempt to ruin them.

One of the receiver's first official acts was to petition for authority to kill animals. This contradicts the very point of a sanctuary, which offers care, and the belief that even elderly animals, or those with lab-induced disabilities, have an interest in living out their lives. So Primarily Primates contested the receiver's authority to kill, and, fortunately, a judge suspended it. And this month, a court in Austin ordered a stay to halt further removal of animals. That's good news. (After their move to Texas, two of the Ohio chimpanzees died, overcome by pre-existing heart conditions.)

But supporters worry about the animals already moved. And PETA now supports sending the chimpanzees to Louisiana's Chimp Haven. Not a true sanctuary, it warehouses chimpanzees for the National Institutes of Health -- the entity responsible for funding primate experiments.

PETA turned against Primarily Primates in the early 1990s, after being told to stop sending animals to the refuge, fundraise off their photographs, yet fail to financially support them.

In 1992, an activist named John Holrah gathered and circulated accusations against the sanctuary and its founder, made by disgruntled former workers, some of whom had been dismissed for cause. The accusations would later be repeated by Steven Wise. A founding member of the activist group Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), Wise was actually hired to represent the sanctuary. Wise got involved in prompting the Texas Attorney General to place the refuge into receivership, and in attempting to have its assets frozen. In 2000, the Supreme Judicial Court in Wise's home state of Massachusetts imposed a six-month suspension on Wise, whom it bluntly described as having been "embroiled in an internal power struggle at PPI, which he tried to use to punish [Primarily Primates officers] for refusing to pay his bill, and to collect his fee."

And to this day, attempts to control the sanctuary continue. When the receivership was imposed in October, an ALDF director was on the scene.

In an ill-placed flourish, the sanctuary's opponents named nonhuman primates as plaintiffs. A serious animal-rights case, designed to enable nonhumans to sue, would confront an enterprise that brings animals into captivity in the first place -- not a refuge.

Yet supporters care deeply about Primarily Primates. And just as this refuge stepped up to accept Ohio State's primates, Friends of Animals came forward to commit the resources needed for Primarily Primates to recover and be as strong as its supporters expect it to be.

Ultimately, if the case for animal rights succeeds, nonhuman beings will have a protected interest in living for their own reasons. Until then, the sanctuary movement, in which Primarily Primates has a key role, merits our steadfast support.

Lee Hall, legal director of Friends of Animals, headquartered in Darien, Connecticut, has published a model case for the legal personhood of nonhuman primates in the Seton Hall Constitutional Law Journal. For more information about Friends of Animals' work to preserve Primarily Primates, visit


There’s an ongoing thread underlying the PPI vs. /PETA/Chimp Haven drama that perpetuates in spite of every effort to correct it. Recent comments on this blog suggest that some of those commenting are simply ill-informed of the facts. Maintaining ignorance in the presence of facts is a personal choice poorly made. For example, Bob McGivern made several points expressing his dismay with Ohio State’s actions regarding what has become known as the “OSU chimps.” He points to what he sees as the “’cowboy’ approach to moving the chimps that was approved by OSU administrators” adding that they “did not consult with Dr. Boysen about the procedures for the move, ignored a standing agreement to move the chimps to Chimp Haven that Dr. Boysen had instituted in the event the facility at OSU shut down, and have since relied on ‘spin’ by Mr. Brad Holland to cover obvious OSU administrative incompetence in planning the shutdown of the Chimp Facility.” Surprisingly, Mr. McGivern has renamed me – it’s “Earle” Holland, not “Brad” Holland – and any of the 30 to 40 news stories that have quoted me in the past nine months could have corrected that. Moreover, his accusation of ‘spin’ is ludicrous in that Ohio State’s position in providing complete and comprehensive explanations for the university’s actions has been more open and forthright than any other institution in the country facing a research controversy. The institution has placed a virtual mountain of information, including court documents, at for anyone interested in view it. Mr. McGivern says we did not consult Dr. Boysen in our plans. On the contrary, she was integrally involved in discussions about the future of the chimp project for at least three years prior to its closing. She informed university officials in September 2005 that she found those discussions useless and refused to participate further. The university continued with its planning for closing the center in spite of her self-imposed absence. Mr. McGivern cites an agreement to move the chimps to Chimp Haven but fails to note that this agreement was a memorandum of understanding, not a contract, that only stated Chimp Haven’s interest in receiving the animals. McGivern omits the facts that OSU officials were later informed by both Chimp Haven officials and officers at the NIH that our chimps would not be allowed to retire there since the NIH intended to send Chimp Haven a large number its chimps. Moreover, Dr. Boysen also withdrew her support for sending the chimps to Chimp Haven once she learned that she would not be allowed to continue her work there. Lastly, Ohio State hired Dr. Thomas Butler, a highly respected primate expert and chair of the board of Chimp Haven to assess the capabilities of Primarily Primates as a suitable home for our chimps. His review of that operation and assurances to us that it met our requirements was a fundamental core to our decision to retire our animals to PPI. It is illogical that Chimp Haven’s senior official would not have urged us to choose his facility rather than PPI if there Chimp Haven was willing to accept them. Much has been said of the deaths of both Kermit and Bobby within six weeks of arriving at PPI. However, necropsies on both animals showed that the cause of death in each was a different, previously undiagnosed heart condition -- nothing related to the transfer of the animals from Ohio. Each of the chimps underwent an extensive physical examination annually which included examinations by a primate cardiologist. It should be noted that in a two-month period in 2004, while Dr. Boysen managed the chimp program, we also lost two chimps – one to a pre-existing medical condition and the other to a systemic infection resulting from chimp-on-chimp violence. Prior to the move from OSU, the number of incidents of chimp violence was increasing because of the crowded conditions in our facility. This culminated in the serious injury to a student employee who was aiding a caretaker who was treating a wound on one of the animals, itself a product of chimp-on-chimp violence. That student’s injury required multiple surgeries to correct. For more than three years, Dr. Boysen had failed to win research funding through competitive grant proposals to funding agencies. To her credit, she submitted no fewer than nine such applications but all were rejected after peer review. During that time, the university paid upwards of $200,000 per year to support the animals. I know of no other laboratory in the history of the university that has received that degree of support when at the same time, the researcher has been unable to garner support from funding agencies. Much has been said about the university’s maltreatment of Dr. Boysen in her efforts to maintain her program. Conveniently forgotten is the fact that she repeatedly violated her approved research protocol governing the chimps in her charge. She was authorized to keep two infant chimps at her home overnight as part of one project but was forbidden to carry those animals anywhere but to and from her home and the lab. However, she carried that pair of animals to various fund-raising events and even when she appeared as a guest on the nationally broadcast radio program, “Whad'Ya Know?” Egregious as this is, it is amplified by the fact that she served at one time on the institution’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee – the watchdog group on campus responsible for animal care – and clearly knew such actions were against regulation. Ohio State has been vigorous in our attempts to explain our decisions and our actions regarding this situation and we stand by our decision regarding these animals. We are not a party to any of the litigation or disputes involving PPI or Chimp Haven, nor have we been regularly informed by either party or the courts involved. Ownership of the animals was transferred to PPI at the moment the animals left campus and the contract governing their transfer gave the institution no rights whatsoever to monitor their situation after that. We do, of course, maintain our concern for their welfare and hope that their future is brighter than what we could offer at the university. Simply put, that is why we retired them. I urge anyone truly interested in knowing the actual facts regarding Ohio State’s decision to close our research program and retire these animals to review the materials at our website -- Additionally, the May 2006 issue of the magazine Columbus Monthly has a lengthy and detailed story outlining the facts of the situation. It is always easy to envision that a large organization is misleading, deceitful and heartless but reasonable intelligent people know that that ease doesn’t make it true. Earle Holland Asst. Vice President for Research Communications Ohio State University

To Bob McGivern: Thank you for writing. You do not explain what agenda you believe PETA is attempting to further, so we can’t address your point, except to say that tactics themselves will tell what a group’s mission actually is. Nothing is merely a tactic. Every time a group engages the public, it models its viewpoint and priorities. The Ohio State administrators did send representatives, including veterinary experts, to observe and report on Primarily Primates. The overarching point, however, is that all chimpanzees used in laboratories eventually become a burden and their future impossible to control by the parties who saw them for their research value. Sally Boysen’s chimpanzees were no exception. One day, the project ends, the researcher finds out that the apes can’t be taken home as hamsters can, and there’s anguish over the change in the researcher’s life. We’ve seen this pattern over and over again. Researchers normally wish to think of and present themselves as people who truly looked out for the primates’ interests. They often turn to the animal-protection community for acceptance. The advocates, seeing them as potentially useful experts, usually welcome these researchers. We agree with you on the point that apes and other animals who do survive laboratories go through a new kind of stress when they are moved. As you suggest, that was likely a precipitating factor in the death of two physically vulnerable chimpanzees who were moved from Ohio. It’s also a very good reason not to have taken the risk of moving them on a reportedly temporary basis yet again, as has just been done by Chimp Haven. Now the big picture. Are you challenging your views that we Homo sapiens make the right decisions when we hold other apes in captivity and build careers out of them? This is the case whether they’re used for liver biopsies, blood studies, or for projects that examine their minds and mental reactions. Cognition experiments are arguably some of the most invasive protocols ever devised. In short, wouldn't you ask if maybe it’s about time OSU stop running anything that could be called by such a demeaning term as “Chimp Facility”? We strongly disagree with the view that moving anyone to Chimp Haven is a compassionate gesture, and our new item on this blog ("Chimp Haven: What's the Story?") tells why. Lee Hall.

The Sanctuary is just that-a safe place free of pain,stress and drama. Please,please allow the path there to be made a reality.

We need to spread the story to as many as possible. Please note, that the full article can be e-mailed to others directly from the newspapers website.

My brother, sister-in-law and I were given a tour of PPI by Stephen Tello just one week prior to the seizure -- on October 6th. At that time we saw hundreds of animals all over the expansive grounds. All the animals seemed very well taken care of, relaxed and content. They were alert, curious, active and the cages were clean. I did not see any animals that seemed in ill health. I did not see pools of sewage on the property. Some of the animals appeared to be quite old, but I did not see any that seemed in any sort of distress. Stephen told us the sad stories of these unwanted creatures and how they ended up at PPI. This man sincerely cares about these animals. He knew their histories in detail and he described special care many of them need. He also spoke about how they try to assimilate primates in social groups to more closely match their lives in the wild. I was profoundly touched by PPI and the dedication that these people have given to these discarded animals. If they can not be returned to the wild, they need to be in a place like PPI. I can not express how disturbed I am that the animals at PPI, who seemed perfectly well taken care of and content just one week prior to the seizure, have had their lives thrown into turmoil. These animals have already suffered in labs or in the hands of people not prepared to care for them. Subjecting these animals to care by untrained volunteers and hordes of people running loose with flashing cameras is what they did not need, especially under the pretense of “coming to their rescue”. I saw absolutely no sign that any animals needed an emergency “rescue” or were starving or suffering. Statements made by Theisen-Watt and PETA staff about raw sewage and the poor condition of the animals are so opposite to my own observations that I believe none of their claims. Theisen-Watt has absolutely no credibility in my opinion. She lied to the court about her credentials, and yet she has been allowed to offer her "expert" opinion on everything from primate care to hydrology. I believe this case was orchestrated purely for publicity for PETA, to raise funds and for revenge in a long standing personal vendetta. The property is so large, I could definitely see that running the place would be a motive for someone desiring to oversee a large sanctuary. I also think of how much money and time PPI has had to waste fighting PETA to defend themselves. PETA says it is appealing the lawsuit the San Antonio judge dismissed in August. That’s three lawsuits PETA has brought against PPI in just the past year. Now they are throwing mud at Mr. Tello and trying to ruin his reputation. You can not fake the knowledge, concern and sincerity he showed towards these animals. He and PPI are the best stewards for these animals.

I am an Ohio State alumnus and am enraged at the immature and insensitive behavior of this researcher. I am embarrassed and ashamed that the university that I have always been so proud of would allow such a situation to exist there. I sincerely hope and pray that those precious chimpanzees are now living the life they deserve and always should have had, at Primarily Primates. It sounds like a truly wonderful place. I'm glad they have some good supporters and friends, such as Friends of Animals. Sincerely. Katherine Cech

I'm an OSU alum who is familiar with the OSU chimp facility and Dr. Boysen's excellent work over the years. I'm also not a fan of PETA and the tactics they have employed to further their agenda over the years. However, in this instance, I am appalled at the 'cowboy' approach to moving the chimps that was approved by OSU administators. They used deception and surprise to move the animals suddenly, did not consult with Dr. Boysen about the procedures for the move, ignored a standing agreement to move the chimps to Chimp Haven that Dr, Boysen had instituted in the event the facility at OSU shut down, and have since relied on 'spin' by Mr. Brad Holland to cover obvious OSU administrative incompetence in planning the shutdown of the Chimp Facility. Before the move, the chimps lived at the OSU facilty for most of their lives, for more than 25 years in some cases. This was ignored in the adminstrative decision to move them quickly to PPI. As a result, the role of physical and emotional stress stemming from the way the move was structured appears to have been a likely contributing factor in the two deaths that ensued. To me, this is the major issue, not the role of PETA. As Ms. Hall's organization recognizes, chimps are too 'human' not to be considered in a move like this. OSU's actions, removing the chimps from their home in a sudden, commando-like manner, would be considerd inhumane if it was done to children or adults. One can only wonder... What was the OSU veterinarian thinking who approved this process!! Ms. Hall's emotional article is focused on engendering antipathy towards the possible political agenda of PETA. However,it ignores the most important aspects of the situation: the death of two chimps, the conditions reported by others at PPI, and the escape of one of the OSU monkeys. It's hard to believe that the death of the two chimps would not have been prevented had OSU considered the welfare of the animals over their own political desire to quickly dispose of an awkward situation. Is PPI at fault? Is PETA distorting the facts for political gain? These appear to be the wrong questions. Based on their history and goals, I have little doubt that PPI's intentions were (and are) honorable. While their admitted economic problems underlying the lack of a proper facility, combined with OSU's demonstrated administrative incompetence in planning the transfer, appear to have have contributed to the unnecessary deaths of two chimps, I have to place the real fault at the feet of the OSU veterinarian. The facts indicate that that the team saw what they wanted to see when they visited the facility and approved the site, as well as the transfer procedures used to move the chimps. They didn't see the chimps involved.... In the end, I view the court's decision to move the animals to Chimp Haven as a welcome and compassionate gesture, showing that the chimps' physical and emotional welfare still matters to those who are not personally involved. If PETA contributed to the process, they deserves some credit. I only wish my university had shown showed the same level of compassion for the chimps who provided the scientific results that they have used so extensively for the past twenty years to raise money from alums and donors.....

you think these chimps are pissed??! injuring an assistant, dying from an infection from chimp on chimp whatever would they have to be upset about. yes, animals fight in the wild over territory and potential mates, but does this behavior translate to mean the same thing in captivity? probably not. let's try communicating with the animal for once. Someone who truly has the animals' welfare in their utmost concern should be a little more tuned in to what the animal is actually experiencing, especially ones that see these animals each and every day. With all of this arguing back and forth, I think concerns for the animals are merely implied at best. Of course we all think we know what is best for the animals based on the assumption that moving them and exploiting them via research is wrong; obviously, these actions are not in the animals' best interest. however we should explore the root of the problem: the fact that they are in our possession at all. POSSESSION. we talk a lot about the animals' right to live, sharing our environs and living comfortably together and yet our fighting revolves around who has possession of these poor unlucky souls. "Every increased possession loads us with new weariness." -John Ruskin "Any sufficiently advanced bureaucracy is indistinguishable from molasses." -Anonymous

Add new comment