November 19, 2006
[San Antonio Express]
The chimpanzee named Winston had lit up screens as the smoking monkey
in "Project X."
The chimp called Oliver had gained celebrity as "the missing link"—
though, as it turned out, he wasn't.
The other monkeys had served as medical subjects or birthday entertainment.
But all of them had at least one important thing in common. When they
grew too big, too old, too unruly or too plain tired, they were
retired to one of the very few places in America that would take them:
a sprawling expanse of land on the edge of the Hill Country for
animals with nowhere else to go.
Primarily Primates Inc. took in chimpanzees and other kinds of
monkeys, ponies and panthers, pigeons and polish hens. There was a
lion, too. Until last month as many as 1,000 animals lived at the
But, behind the mesh fence, there was trouble. Overcrowded and filthy,
the facility was a squalid hoarder's camp — "Worse than the Third
World," one vet critic put it.
Last month, a Travis County probate judge ordered Primarily Primates
placed under court supervision and appointed Lee Theisen-Watt, a
wildlife rehabilitator, to act as receiver and take charge.
As the chimps were being sedated, PPI founder Wally Swett pulled a
rifle on one of the volunteers. A lieutenant with the Bexar County
Sheriff's Office later said that Swett, who was not cited in the
incident, appeared to be confused.
Swett, who acknowledges but denies allegations of alcoholism, is
troubled by what has happened at the facility.
"I'm very, very, very depressed," he said.
In 1993, the Texas attorney general accused Swett and board member
Stephen Tello of spending on themselves donations that had been
earmarked for animals. The state lost its case, however, and it would
take 13 years — and the deaths of six chimps this year alone—for
outsiders to get an up-close look at the facility.
At the center of the controversy is Swett, a pot-bellied man with a
taste for Marlboros and cheap wine in the afternoon.
"Are you sure I can't get you some wine?" he asked a reporter during a
late-afternoon interview in his living room. "They say it doesn't
help, but goddamn it, it does."
In the span of an hour, he cursed, he cried, he chain-smoked and he
drank glass after glass of boxed Frazier wine.
"I'm supposed to be an alcoholic. I'm working on it," he said sarcastically.
Accusations of alcoholism, reckless spending, animal neglect and abuse
are pure inventions, he said, lodged by disgruntled former employees
and malcontents backed by the animal rights group People for the
Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Swett's best hope right now is an old loyal friend and animal rights
leader whose hatred of PETA is so intense she is using her
organization's money to bankroll his legal fight.
Priscilla Feral, president of the Connecticut-based group Friends of
Animals, will spend, by the time trial begins, upwards of $100,000 of
her organization's money defending Swett and Tello in court.
"We're going to the wall," Feral said by telephone from her home in
Connecticut. "We're hemorrhaging and we're under a lot of criticism."
In a final twist, Feral, who accused PETA of a power grab, said if her
side wins, Tello would remain in charge — but would report directly to