Update on the Great Texas Debacle

Update on the Great Texas Debacle

Many people have written to ask about the latest in the Primarily Primates ordeal. By way of background for guests who are new to this controversy, the current legal predicament facing Primarily Primates (“PPI”), the pioneering Texas animal sanctuary, arose when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (“PETA”) presented a case early last year in which several primates living at the refuge were named as plaintiffs. Perversely, PETA’s case intended to remove animals from the country’s oldest private primate refuge and place them in the custody of people who use primates in research.

The profound wrong here is that PETA argued on the side of those who cause the need for refuges in the first place. If PETA wanted to make its mark in advancing law for primates, suing over who is the rightful owner of primates at PPI was simply the wrong way to go about a test case. Institutions use primates in all manner of experiments; others hire them out for human entertainment. So why did PETA’s decision-makers use limited animal-advocacy resources to mount a series of attacks on the animal-protection sector itself?

In the beginning, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals treated the Texas refuge supportively. PETA would place rescued animals there, then fundraise off the animals’ fascinating photos and stories, while monetary support was desperately needed at the refuge itself. One day, the sanctuary told PETA enough was enough. PETA has been critical of this sanctuary ever since — at least in part, because not enough funds are available; yet PETA itself declined to provide financial or other assistance. Instead, the group has attacked the sanctuary in various ways, including through the use of photos which, as it emerged in a Texas courtroom, were deliberately staged to put PPI in the worst possible light.

PETA evidently has never understood the role of the refuge, and why it and its residents ought to have been supported over the years rather than neglected or maligned. As is widely known, PETA openly reports killing many, many animals each year. It is important to Friends of Animals’ supporters that a different view prevail at the refuge. This issue has come up directly in this case, with FoA highly concerned about the animals taken away from the refuge and placed at the Houston SPCA. (We’ve been insisting on information regarding those animals, and the SPCA has hesitated to divulge it.)

It’s an ethical imperative not to kill for reasons of financial or institutional convenience if one claims to be a sanctuary or an animal-advocacy group. Systematic killing of animals is better described as animal control than animal advocacy, and it’s antithetical to the purpose of a refuge. It’s wrong for the same reason that systematically killing human refugees would be wrong.

PETA always has gone along with the National Institutes of Health’s eerie claim that the federal CHIMP Act of 2000 “established a system of sanctuaries.” That system — to which no true sanctuary would apply and which therefore consists only of Chimp Haven in Louisiana — is precisely where several apes have wound up in this case. Presumably, PETA thinks that the NIH and other research institutes should keep control over nonhuman apes they’ve used — and be supported in part by the public to do so. Unfortunately, that can help to drive true private refuges out of business. Most public money and attention will go to the places that put animals on public display and that can afford PR agents, such as zoos — and Louisiana’s Chimp Haven.

And now Lee Theisen-Watt, who was installed temporarily to adjust the affairs of PPI, is having trouble fundraising and running the place. Need we ask why? Well, not only have Theisen-Watt and PETA maligned Primarily Primates incessantly over the Internet and through other channels, but the receiver and crew have also moved apes into a storage site that’s legally controlled by the NIH; and moved many, many lesser-valued animals off to uncertain fates. No wonder people are hesitant to support PPI now.

We are concerned about every single individual who was moved: All have value unto themselves. But removing apes was a major event, and PETA’s public priority since early 2006.

Significantly, PETA’s betrayal of the apes and its condonation of NIH management of apes is happening at a time when Prof. Colin Blakemore is making a high-profile argument, capturing worldwide attention, that the ban against research using nonhuman apes in Britain should be lifted! Advocates need to be clear about this issue, and Friends of Animals are the only ones who are, so please read this carefully: It’s not acceptable that the NIH and other researchers own, manage, or control nonhuman primates.

To make matters worse, after the original case (which focused on taking a specific group of lab primates away from their refuge — as has ultimately occurred), the Texas Attorney General stepped in and began facilitating the cause, by authorizing a raid of the sanctuary based on unproven allegations. At the scene of, and central to, the Attorney General’s takeover was a board member of a group called Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) who has also received a PETA “Activist Award”: Robert “Skip” Trimble. People affiliated with ALDF have previously attempted to wrest control of PPI — including through a receivership action in 1993 under the Attorney General’s office — exactly what’s happening today. PETA opposed the sanctuary then as well. If the reader is thinking that this kind of treatment over the years is bizarre, well, so do we. One could hardly come up with a more self-defeating example of activism than the advocacy community’s series of attacks on PPI.

A number of facts here would suggest that personal career interests and relationships have played a major role in this case and that the interests of the animals — who have the most at stake — have taken a back seat. We are all vulnerable to the pull of personal loyalties and it’s difficult to negate them once taking a side becomes inevitable; but PETA simply should never have brought this case in the first place. And certainly, at the point that Friends of Animals offered to carry out a merger, and PPI accepted, we submit that it was high time for the animal-advocacy community to stop talking about selling off assets and doling out animals, and instead get behind that promise of a bright future for this refuge. Friends of Animals may not resort to sensationalist imagery or celebrity profiles to win mainstream attention; but this organization has an excellent record since its founding 50 years ago. Our supporters are far more excited by advocates who take the cause seriously.

This controversy is a current example of that distinction. Ultimately, what happens with PPI will be a key to whether North America will have true sanctuaries as distinct from “retirement” that’s nothing but PR for institutions that use apes and other primates.

Our most profound thanks to all of you who’ve joined us in steadfastly insisting on a more promising future for primates and for the animal-rights movement. To support our efforts, please oppose the receivership and support the offer of Friends of Animals to provide a future for the animals at Primarily Primates.

Write to:

Attorney General Greg Abbott
PO Box 12548
Austin, Texas 78711-2548
United States

For more background, you may wish to see Primarily Primates’ Resident Chimpanzees Taken Away to Chimp Haven . The photos show the apes before they were taken away from PPI.

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