The Struggle to Save a Sanctuary and a Movement

The Struggle to Save a Sanctuary and a Movement

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 www.friendsofanimals.org.

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