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Texas sanctuary is accused of abusing hundreds of animals

Rights groups square off over facility's future

Sarah, one of several chimpanzees in the care of Primarily Primates, waited near a courtroom in San Antonio in August. (Eric Gay/associated press)

SAN ANTONIO -- The sprawling private animal sanctuary nestled in the picturesque hills above San Antonio was supposed to be a place of comfort and refuge for hundreds of chimpanzees, monkeys, and other animals that had outlived their usefulness as research subjects, movie props, or pets.

And for most of the past 28 years, Primarily Primates enjoyed an esteemed national reputation in the animal-welfare community, attracting donations and support from zoos, universities, and Hollywood celebrities.

But somewhere along the line, according to the Texas attorney general, things began to go terribly wrong behind the chain-link fence that separated the animal refuge from the public. Charitable funds were misdirected, the attorney general alleged, used to buy groceries, liquor, and even a house for one of the staff members. The sanctuary's founder, Wallace Swett, allegedly began "hoarding" hundreds more animals than the facility could hold.

By the time Travis County Probate Judge Guy Herman ordered a temporary receiver to take over the charity in October, finding that the sanctuary's managers were continuing to "neglect and mistreat" the animals in their care, many of the 75 chimpanzees were sealed inside filthy cages behind metal doors that had rusted shut.

The heating system built to protect the animals from subfreezing nighttime temperatures was broken. Animal feces and rotting food overflowed shallow trenches crisscrossing the grounds. Insects and vermin overran the animals' sleeping houses.

"We're talking tens of thousands of roaches," said Mark Ambrose, general manager of ABC Pest Control, an exterminating firm brought in last month. "It was probably the worst roach infestation I've ever seen."

Lee Theisen-Watt , the Dallas wildlife rehabilitator appointed by the court to improve conditions at the sanctuary, shook with anger as she led a reporter on a tour of the neglected facilities last week.

"I cannot excuse anyone for the suffering these animals have endured and are continuing to endure because there are things we can't fix immediately," Theisen-Watt said.

"After seeing what I've seen and how long and how deep and how bad it is, I don't care what the intention was, it resulted in the most atrocious conditions and care and lives for these animals," she said.

Yet what seemed to the state of Texas like an open-and-shut case of animal abuse is now roiling the animal rights movement, with two major groups facing off in a bitter struggle over the future of the sanctuary -- and what exactly constitutes cruelty to animals.

On one side is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals , the Virginia-based activist group, which began investigating conditions at Primarily Primates last year after receiving tips from concerned former employees of the refuge. PETA eventually passed its findings to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott , whose office quickly sought and received the emergency court injunction to hand control of the facility to a receiver.

"Bringing law enforcement down on the head of a sanctuary is not my idea of a case I long to take on," said Mary Beth Sweetland, PETA's senior vice president.

"It's just galling that we have to spend our time working on something that should never have happened. But it did happen," she said.

On the other side is Friends of Animals, another well-known animal rights group based in Connecticut, which has rushed to the defense of the former managers of Primarily Primates and is footing their legal bills as they battle in court to regain control of the sanctuary.

Priscilla Feral, Friends of Animals president, said the allegations of animal cruelty are part of a PETA plot to take over the sanctuary, euthanize all the animals and sell off the facility's valuable land. What's more, Feral says the animals at Primarily Primates received excellent care.

PETA dismisses Feral's accusations about its motives as absurd, and says the group has no control over what happens to the sanctuary now that it is under a court's jurisdiction.

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