After contacting two animal rights organizations (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Friends of Animals) that were embroiled in a lawsuit over a primate sanctuary, I was confused by the conflicting information I received from both organizations. I had been seeking a group that supported veganism rather than vegetarianism; that supported an abolitionist approach rather than pursuing the long-failed single-issue welfare track; and that was using their funding to help actual living animals rather than just espousing theories, controlling them, or worse yet, killing them. After several headlines in the animal newsfeed I read, I became interested in the plight of sanctuaries and decided to make it my mission to visit as many as I could in the Texas region where I live. When I was invited to visit Primarily Primates, I could hardly refuse. The timing was a bit intense, coming exactly one week after my visit to Serenity Springs farm animal sanctuary in Forestburg, Texas. Despite some misgivings about spending the time and energy to travel to this second sanctuary, I made my travel plans anyway. It meant getting up in the wee hours of the morning to arrive on time, but I am very glad I did. The day before I arrived, the lawsuit between the two animal rights organizations had been settled and the sanctuary was secure. Friends of Animals is the parent organization for the sanctuary, Primarily Primates; I would have a chance to see for myself what kind of condition it was in.
There was a nice straight road leading out of San Antonio into the hill country towards the sanctuary. I had imagined it far from any signs of life and was prepared to be on a deserted road, but that turned out to be erroneous thinking on my part. Sadly, the press of human population growth has moved ever closer to the sanctuary. While it is still in the hills far from the city, I could see the housing tracts moving slowly closer to the hill country. When I was leaving, I saw a doe walking about in the yard of a home as I descended the hills, looking so out of place as she foraged for an existence here among the homeowners. We take their habitat and then consider them pests – hardly fair.
When I pulled into the sanctuary, I was surprised at all the cars parked along the dirt road. I had not realized how many animals lived at PPI (about 450), nor how many caretakers, and even a veterinarian would be onsite working. The day I arrived, a group of Boy Scouts was busy building some climbing and shelter structures, replacing the basic existing ones for a luxury model. These Scouts were very much appreciated by the staff; the sense of community was wonderful to witness as the boys and their leader invested in this beautiful place. The sanctuary is private, which affords the animals some serenity, so my visit was a bit disruptive for them. To soften the intrusion, I was allowed to bring a large bunch of grapes to share. A small group of us wandered through the acreage, Stephen Tello, the Executive Director of PPI; Priscilla Feral, President of Friends of Animals; Kaz Sephton (President) and Jack Olmer of the San Antonio Vegetarian Society. I was fortunate to also meet the sanctuary veterinarian and primate specialist, Dr. Valerie Kirk, before we started off from the sanctuary office. The grounds are very green and forested, with most of the large housing structures grass-bottomed, keeping as close to natural habitat as possible. Here were over four hundred animals that one organization was helping to save from death or worse. The enormity of the task of feeding and caring for so many animals suddenly struck me; no wonder there were more than a dozen cars parked out front, permanent staff to maintain the grounds, care for the animals, and support the sanctuary. It is a seven-days-per-week activity.
The sanctuary is 78 acres of rolling green with mostly shady areas. The housing areas are not simple cubes, but structures several stories high which allow for climbing and swinging. Some have large cargo nets, swings, and tubular climbing devices. Most have connecting upper-story tunnels that go from one housing structure to the other, giving the primates more territory to explore. Some even have rooms with air conditioning where they can crawl out of the hot Texas sun. Although it was a warm August day, I was surprised at the temperature – with all the trees, it was much more comfortable than I had expected. Despite the comfort, I did feel a bit guilty to be able to walk about freely when they were confined, but I knew their confinement was for their own protection. They appeared active and healthy and seemed to enjoy the small group of people walking through their home. We were both diversion and entertainment.
The first primates I met were a couple of gibbons. I was standing back several feet from the edge of the housing, but one recognized a rookie when he saw one and grabbed me by the hair – hard! I was surprised by the telescopic abilities of those arms, but the strength of their tails surpasses it, I was told. Once he let go of my hair, he grabbed me by the arm. While I appreciate direct communication, I couldn’t tarry, because there were 78 acres to see and I had to move on. I wanted to get to know them as much as they wanted to check me out; those two did grab my attention — literally. I left some grapes in a feeding tray before I moved on.
The chimps have so many stories – some were “pets” whose owners grew tired of them, some were used in labs, some were removed from unusual circumstances, like the one removed from a drug dealer. Like humans, these primates also show signs of neurotic, repetitive behavior when their formative years are traumatic. The sensitive methods for rehabilitating the animals when they are new to the sanctuary provides a segue to their new life and aids in their adjustment. Stephen, the man in charge of their care, knew all of their stories and habits. Like the father of a large and somewhat dysfunctional family, he was aware of the troubled primates and seemed empathic towards them all. The teen chimps made a lot of noise, banging against the bars and demonstrating their importance – like teens everywhere, trying to establish a sense of themselves during their identity-formation stage of development. All male animals that can reproduce are given vasectomies so that reproduction is not possible; the goal is to provide sanctuary, not to increase the number of confined animals. There is a huge aviary, so large that birds can fly within it – it requires daily checks to keep out racoons and snakes. There are macacques, lemurs, lions, wild cats and a couple of animals that looked like members of the macropod family. I was able to feed a macacque, something I was told was unusual. My knowledge of these beautiful animals is minimal, so I paid attention to all admonitions — especially after the hair-pulling incident. (One group of chimps had a couple of know feces-flingers – I stood way back. I didn’t want to provide too much entertainment!)
The lemurs are sociable and so gentle. When feeding them grapes, many would gingerly take a grape out of my hand with their soft, dark little fingers. Others wanted me to put the grape directly into their mouth. They looked right at me with those big, beautiful golden eyes and oh so tenderly would hold out their hands. Their noises were reminiscent of a small kitten, correspondingly soft, pleasant noises. But watch them climb – what strength and speed! In some housing areas, it was important to feed the dominant animal first, so the others would get a chance for their own grapes. Heirarchy, just like at work! I felt right at home. The beautiful spider monkeys will grab your heart – Their ability to transport through branches, swing, and climb is inspiring. So much spirit!
Not only has PPI rescued dozens of animals, they have also saved many humans from the consequences of their own poor choices. Whatever leads people to be enchanted with the idea of exotic pets, the end result is almost always disastrous for all concerned. (A recent news article highlighted how one family pet became an attacker, something that can happen when the animals are not understood). One of the chimps was self-mutilating before being brought to the sanctuary, when his human started leaving him home alone for long periods of time. The damage resulted in circles of red, raw flesh. Some have been raised solely with fast food and would not even eat bananas or other healthy food; it took a good deal of patience to introduce them to sanctuary life. All animals are originally rehabilitated and monitored before being put into habitats. Compatible groups live in some of the larger enclosures, mimicking what takes place in the wild. Of course, all of the animals are non-native and due to the diverse backgrounds from which they come, it is challenging to help them adapt to their new home and fellow primates. Phoebe, I was told, was getting ready to move into a habitat with Logan and Harley, so they could all adjust together. Imagine knowing over 400 names, stories, and personalities! The serene appearance belies the thoughtful and somewhat complex methods behind each animal’s adjustment period, allowing them to be on equal footing, to keep the sanctuary a haven rather than a horror.
Jordan was the last lemur I met before I headed back to the airport; he let me scratch his back and put grapes right in his mouth. It is amazing that these animals would ever trust a human being after what so many have been through. I began thinking about the tremendous financial commitment to these animals. With chimps living into their fifties and some of the other primates into their thirties, this a a long-term commitment to hundreds of animals, many of whom are traumatized and have suffered physical and psychological damage. They are dependent on humans because we have used them in sad and sadistic ways, and neglected them as individual feeling beings. This sanctuary, like most of the sanctuaries I am learning about, have to fight for their very existence by remaining ever vigilant, fiscally responsible, and watchful against all threats to the preservation of a peaceful place for these animals. What a shame that hundreds of thousands of dollars had to be diverted into a legal defense rather than towards improving the sanctuary. Whatever shape the sanctuary was in over the past several years, it is a beautiful place now. Of course, ideally the animals would be living in their native land in natural habitat; sanctuaries would be unnecessary. Meanwhile, with all the billions of animals that suffer and are slaughtered, vivisected, used for entertainment, neglected and abused, it is helpful to know that dozens of compassionate people are working to maintain a place for these few hundred animals to survive and flourish. I am all for that.
To see what is going on at PPI these days, check out the stories and many videos below:
Primarily Primates website
Primarily Primates videos