Posted by: Craig Woolheater on April 30th, 2007
I have covered the plight of Oliver and Primarily Primates here on Cryptomundo.
It looks like the case may soon be settled.
The Texas Attorney General wants to settle litigation over San Antonio’s Primarily Primates sanctuary by returning the facility to a reformed board of directors and permanently removing the man who founded the refuge for abandoned and unwanted animals nearly three decades ago.
The settlement would end complex litigation that began last October, when a court took control of the sanctuary after the attorney general charged that thousands of dollars in donations were being misspent while animals lived in substandard conditions at the Leon Springs sanctuary Wallace Swett founded 28 years ago.
Travis County Probate Court Judge Guy Herman has a hearing scheduled for Friday on the settlement. If he accepts it, a court-appointed receiver who has run the facility for the past six months will be required to vacate the sanctuary by Friday afternoon. The proposal drew sharp rebuke from Skip Trimble, a Dallas attorney representing the receiver, Lee Theisen-Watt. He called the settlement “a total and complete betrayal” of the animals and the people who have supported the facility since the state seizure.
“It is a tragic day for a lot of people, more importantly, the animals,” Trimble said on Wednesday.
Attorney general spokesman Tom Kelly declined comment. “We would withhold any comment until we know we have a viable agreement and it’s being accepted by the judge,” he said.
The reformed Primarily Primates board will include Eric Turton, a San Antonio attorney who has represented the sanctuary during the litigation, and Priscilla Feral of Friends of Animals, which raised money to help Primarily Primates fight the state seizure.
Swett, who still lives in a house on the sanctuary property, would be banned from serving on the sanctuary board or serving as an employee. He would have to vacate the house within 120 days.
“Where am I going to go?” Swett said. “This is a paradise here. There is no other place I could survive.”Cindy Tumiel
AUSTIN — A probate judge Friday agreed to return a primate sanctuary in Bexar County to a restructured board of directors in a settlement that permanently excludes Wally Swett Jr., the facility’s troubled founder, from the premises.
The ruling by Travis County Judge Guy Herman tentatively ends a costly legal battle over control of the sprawling Primarily Primates Inc. sanctuary, which the judge placed under court control last year after the state attorney general charged that the facility’s managers had misspent thousands of dollars in donations while hundreds of animals suffered in deplorable and substandard conditions.
The judgment will leave the 400-plus animals, which include everything from chimpanzees to capuchin monkeys to panthers, in new — or somewhat new — hands.
By 4 p.m. Tuesday, the current court-appointed temporary caregiver, Lee Theisen-Watt, will be required to pack her belongings, clear out her staff and volunteers, and hand the keys to the facility to a foe, Priscilla Feral, who runs Connecticut-based animals rights group Friends of Animals.
The ruling left allies of Theisen-Watt fuming.
“It’s a terrible decision,” said John Fischer, the current animal care supervisor. “The animals are going to suffer. Things are going to go back to the way it was.”
Feral has been footing the legal fees of Swett and his fellow board of directors since last year. This week, attorneys representing Feral reached an agreement with the attorney general’s office, which will oversee the transition and the newly installed governing board of directors.
The settlement calls for the removal of Swett, the founder who’s been accused of hoarding 800 to 1,000 animals and drinking on the job, from any role at the facility and the immediate resignation of the board in charge at the time the facility was placed in receivership.
But critics note that it reinstates two members on the board last year, Lou Griffin O’Neil and Robert L. MacNaughton, and that it likely will restore day-to-day operations to Stephen Tello, a longtime board member who was allied with Swett. The new board includes Feral and the San Antonio attorney she hired, Eric Turton.
Looking emotional outside the courtroom Friday, Feral vowed to bury the hatchet with Theisen-Watt and the scores of volunteers and staff she’s invited in, though Feral insisted none would remain on the premises after Tuesday.
“I don’t want this to be a race to the bottom. We’re not a warmongering organization. I want peace and I want to move forward,” Feral said.
Feral had objected to Theisen-Watt’s decision to send hundreds of animals to other sanctuaries, a move Theisen-Watt defended as necessary to relieve severe overcrowding. Feral had argued that Theisen-Watt had allowed a rival animal rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, to “clean this place out” and seize control.
On Friday, Feral said “hundreds of animals were missing.” She would not say how many she would try to bring back, though the settlement makes clear the new board will “use its best efforts” to seek the return of seven retired chimpanzees once enclosures for them are completed.
Feral acknowledged she faces a tough road ahead. She has just days to assemble a team of paid staff and volunteers. Legal expenses have surely affected the organization’s finances and turned off potential donors.
It was not clear Friday how much was left in the organization’s coffers.Lisa Sandberg