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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 visited PPI over the years .... I also have some experience in caring for some primates and I felt the staff knew and do care about the animals there. It sounds like if it is not perfect Peta wants to kill. Let the staff continue to care for their animals. This is suppose to be a safe haven for the animals without having crowds of people staring at them.

I have been aware of the PPI controversy for a long time now, but I am as confused as ever. I just hate it when animal protection groups, known for accomplishing so much good work, fight each other. I guess it's just human nature, but I would hope that the animal advocacy community would stick together against a common enemy - animal abusers & exploiters. As far as PPI goes, I just don't know WHO to believe. I have heard both sides of the story, but it is very difficult to support one side over the other when I have no first hand knowledge about what is really going on. Both PETA and FoA have done such great work and I support the philosophy of both organizations. I just wish I knew who to believe. [Blog editors' note: To clarify, FoA didn't fight or sue anyone. Nor has FoA had any designs on the sanctuary or any reason to harm any party. FoA is not a party on either side of the case. What FoA wants to do is help a sanctuary and the animals who live there survive. The animal advocacy community needs to know about this sanctuary. It's been around nearly three decades and it's one of the pioneers in the U.S. sanctuary movement. We've seen advocacy groups support the NIH through Chimp Haven -- against the will of the major sanctuary associations -- rather than form a coalition to protect the health of sanctuaries. When will the advocacy community see that sanctuaries -- not major institutions and experimenters -- are part of our community? We hope that the reasonableness of what we are asking comes through. Once again -- FoA did not fight, did not sue, and has never asked for this challenge. It's here now; FoA can help, and will help, to the best of our power. There are several differences in philosophies between FoA and the group that's suing Primarily Primates. FoA, for one salient example, does not agree with lawsuits carried out in the names of nonhuman plaintiffs and meant to have the animals be returned to institutions which use animals.]

from the blog editor's note above it sounds as if friends of animals is still defending the sanctuary so I also do not know what to believe anymore. if we had all been on the same page sooner maybe the animals would not have suffered as much as they have. is friends of animals still defending the sanctuary or not? [Blog editors' note: We'll try again to clarify. Friends of Animals is not suing anyone. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sued a sanctuary. Yes, Friends of Animals wants to ensure that the sanctuary and the animals living there have a safe future.]

i am wondering what friends of animals and other groups can/will do to ensure a safe future for these animals now. i heard some of them have been sent away to other places and that the court appointed someone to oversee everything. [Blog editors' note: That is correct. There is a court hearing on Friday, 27th Oct 2006; and we'll update you on the outcome as soon as possible.]

Check this out: If this isn't about Lee Theisen-Watt's self-promotion to garner publicity for herself then I am a monkey’s uncle. This photo was taken just days after she took over and released on the web. The animals look well-nourished to me and they seem affectionate towards a human - humans like the ones they have been suffering under for years. Do these animals look like they have suffered years of abuse in filth as she claims? Would the animal in the background even have the strength to swing under the “horror at every turn” facility she describes. Is it appropriate for an appointee of the Attorney General of Texas pose for publicity shots like this during a serious investigation? The handling of this case by the AG is just wrong on so many levels.

Amen to you, Stephen. I don't know how many times I have e-mailed the Express-News asking them why they have not printed PPI's comments. But I got no response from them. The stress the AG's office and PETA have put the animals and the staff under is horrific. It is so typical of the State of Texas to go in causing all this stress then claim to be the saviors. Stay strong for the animals and the staff. I know personally that the kids taking care of these animals are deeply concerned for the them. I just don't understand why they can't tell you what is to become of these animals that all of you love and care for.

Dear G. Ruiz (comment #4): In addition, this goes against everything we believe at PPI. Primarily Primates does not encourage human to non-human affection. We want the primates to depend upon others of their own kind for their entire natural lives. If Lee Theisen-Watt were to be bitten or injured, PPI is at risk of being sued for thousands of dollars for injuries --even if she is stupid enough to put her face up to the enclosure. This publicity shot indicates extremely poor judgement and a lack of primate care experience. Stephen R. Tello, President of Primarily Primates, Inc.

To all who are concerned. My name is Maurice James Guerrero and I was one of the care staff members of PPI when PETA took over. I have almost no words or description to convey the atrocious conduct that PETA and the "receiver" Lee Theisen-Watt have displayed. There is so much to say that I know not where to start. But I'll try to explain just a few of the absurd acts. One, this has turned into a circus and we, the care staff, are being disrespected by the PETA affiliates, lawyers, and volunteers and looked down upon, as well as misconcieved as abusers of animals to the public. When this all started and we were invaded, Lee Theisen-Watt made the comment that we "dont have to worry about cameras and huge amounts of strangers walking the grounds disturbing the animals and work activity". Well it was not a half hour later that she called us(the existing care staff) and said that we needed to walk a group of about seventy people around and answer any questions they ask. All this while being filmed and having a huge amount of camera flashes go off, completely disturbing our animals and the moral of the care staff. The next day after the AG invaded us PETA came out at the discretion of Theisen-Watt and allowed whomever they wanted to come out and tour the grounds and take as many pictures as they wanted to. We are talking about people who dont even know the first thing about primates or any of their species names for that matter. None of the people they have had out there have any business being around animals like primates. They had a total disregard for the sanctity of the animals and truly invaded the animals. PETA and Theisen-Watt allowed very inexperienced volunteers who just so happended to be PETA affiliates and literally friends of Theisen-Watt to come out and disrespect the animals by taking upclose point blank pictures and film that used flashes and made strange noises that sent the animals into an uproar that they are still not calm from. A very huge issue is the so called volunteers. WE the care staff were told by Theisen-Watt that these people were experienced and could be left alone to do a task and do it correctly. Well, I know that the first time I allowed a young volunteer to hose one of my sections I turned my back for five minutes to go take care of some medication that needed to be administered and the volunteer had left my habitats half hosed and looking worse than when he started, all the while PETA just so happens to have a documenting film crew walking to my habitats to document how dirty "I" left my habitat. I do not leave my habitats dirty,and neither do my colleagues, they are cleaned daily and very well at that. This has turned into an attempt to set up the PPI care staff and its directors simply to portray for media glory that we are neglecting our animals. It has become sort of an "us and them" atmosphere here for the original care staff. All the volunteers and even the veterinarians PETA brought in are derrogitory and rude to us. Lee Theisen-Watt in my opinion is very unprofessional and is attempting to make herself look good in the public eye. She has proven to the people who work at PPI that she is not the animal person she said she was and displays a poor attempt to know "everything" there is to know about all of our animals. Rarely since the beginning of all this has Lee Theisen-Watt even been around the care staff to contribute to the managment of the grounds. She is too busy giving news interviews and letting her personal friends come around and take pictures and bring their families and children to "see the monkeys". This coming from a so called professional that said "she hates getting in front of the camera, but that she will if nessecary." Lee Theisen-Watt and PETA dealt their worst low blow to PPI in the media yesterday when they had Animal Cops Houston of the Animal Planet come out and film an episode to air for money and glory in the public eye. It was completely unessecary and a very horrible thing to do to a sanctuary. How horrible is it for a person in charge to abuse the duties and priviliges to ruin the reputation of our sanctuary and then turn around and say to me directly that "it will have a positive response and the public will outcry to help PPI". Well, not once in the two weeks they have been there have I seen in any newscast or interview Lee Theisen-Watt say one positive thing about PPI or attempt to get the public to help us with funding. Theisen-Watt has not once said on camera that we need your help to save this place from going under, please send donations. She has been letting PETA fund everything so that PETA has free rein on the sanctuary to do their worst to the care staff and the animals. Unfortunatly, there is no end to what I have to say about this horrific endeavor that the animals and care staff at PPI are going through. I have been on the frontlines of this circus since it started and will continue to be until they force me out of there by replacing me with some inexperienced volunteer who doesn't know my animals or anything about keeping. I pray that won't happen. I hope the courts will see our side of the story and put PPI back in the hands of people who really care about the place, as well as let us, the care staff who are extremely dedicated to our animals well being, stay on and keep doing what we do best which is care for our animals. To Priscilla Feral, I had the pleasure of meeting you and we had several discussions about PPI and Friends of Animals a few months ago and I just wanted to express my deepest sincerity for all your support. From the bottom to the top of the care staff I can speak for all of my colleagues when I say, thank you so very much. Please have faith in us, we live and breathe for these animals to be taken care of. We hope all will see that soon. Now that I have spoken out I hope that supporters of PETA's and Lee Theisen-Watt's decisions and accusations will have a different view on this matter. Thank you for your time and support. Sincerely, Maurice J Guerrero

Bless you James. To all, My son, Jeff, is also a caretaker at PPI. I can tell you first hand how difficult this whole ordeal has been for these poor kids taking care of these animals. They all had shed many tears over the abuse their animals are under now that "Lethal Lee" and PETA have taken over. This is their lives. They love these animals as their own children. The Express-News had had several interviews with PPI and has not published any of it. This whole thing is so one-sided its pathetic. I hope and pray that the public will step in and help in this desperate situation. I know all the kids (the care staff) are in court today. PETA did not know they were going and they all expect that they will be fired when they get back. A very concerned mother, Donna Steele

I have been unable to find out exactly what Lee Theisen-Watt's credentials are and how she was selected. Education, degrees, published, professional organizations, offices? Is she a vet? Anyone know?


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