Caretaker Horrified by Conditions at Texas Animal Sanctuary

The court-appointed caregiver entrusted with Primarily Primates, a sanctuary holding an estimated 800 monkeys, chimps, jungle cats and other animals, says that everywhere she turns, another horror pops out.

Guinea pigs inbreeding in a crowded cage. A lion in an enclosure with no top and an easy escape route via a tree. A ditch full of stagnant animal waste. A chimp named Darrell housed alone in a dark, hot enclosure teeming with flies.

Lee Theisen-Watt is still in the middle of taking an inventory of the 28-year-old facility after being named its "temporary receiver" by a court last week when the state attorney general's office stepped in, seizing the facility without notice under a temporary restraining order.

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The sanctuary already was the target of a lawsuit this year that ultimately sought to relocate some former Ohio State University research chimps because of concerns about their welfare.

"The enormity of the problem is very hard to get your mind wrapped around," said Theisen-Watt, who has been working with animals for two decades and once consulted for Primarily Primates before breaking ties with it over the care provided there. "Attila the Hun would take over and it would be under better management."

The lawsuit, thrown out by a judge last month, related to seven chimps and two monkeys transferred to Primarily Primates from Ohio State earlier this year in a more than $300,000 contract.

Originally nine chimps and three monkeys were moved, but a monkey escaped on the day of arrival and two chimps, Kermit and Bobby, died within two months of coming to the 75-acre compound.

An emergency hearing is scheduled for Thursday in Austin to determine whether Theisen-Watt can start relocating what she considers the most gravely ill animals. She will also request permission to euthanize in the most extreme cases if a veterinarian deems it is the right course.

Stephen Tello, interim executive director Primarily Primates and a trustee, said he is appalled.

"Their first decision is to start killing animals. I think that's absolutely inhumane," Tello said, referring to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has been heavily involved in the case.

He said he believes PETA's "murder list" is far longer than two monkeys Theisen-Watt said should probably be euthanized.

"I think it's a disgusting move on behalf of PETA and the attorney general who are working under allegations; nothing has been proven," Tello said.

Leana Stormont, an attorney for PETA who has been on site at Primarily Primates for several days, said euthanization decisions should be up to veterinarians, not PETA.

"The notion that there is a murder list is just patently absurd and it's clearly intended to draw attention away from the inexcusable animal suffering that has occurred under PPI's watch," she said. PETA earlier this year filed a complaint with the attorney general's office, she said.

Tom Kelley, a spokesman for the Texas attorney general, said his office got involved after getting complaints about the facility and taking affidavits from former employees.

He said the state's concerns are not only for the health of the animals, but also for those people who could be hurt if any of them escaped, as well as possible mismanagement of publicly donated funds.

Some cages are overcrowded, others have no climbing equipment and some have only recently gotten soft bedding, Theisen-Watt said. She said some primates were underweight and noted how voraciously they ate when offered a handful of cereal.

Theisen-Watt said that since she arrived late last week, Sarah, an Ohio State chimp who had reportedly lost a third of her body weight after arriving at Primarily Primates, already is doing better.

"They're all getting attention. They know something's going on and they're excited," she said.