On numerous occasions, we at Friends of Animals have been asked to respond to a commentary by Lori Gruen of Wesleyan University which appeared several weeks ago in the Hartford Courant. We have responded on our website, but questions continue to reach us, so I’m taking the more formal step of writing to you today. Basically, Lori Gruen claimed that we are attempting to recover animals who have been moved from the Texas refuge Primarily Primates, and that we what we’re most concerned about is reclaiming our “property” (by which Gruen means these animals).

 Hope and Grace at Primarily Primates

Hope and Grace at Primarily Primates

The Courant never mentioned that Lori Gruen has worked for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) — which recently sued Primarily Primates. PETA’s case was dismissed, but Gruen repeated their claims. Repeating claims, of course, does not make them true.

Twenty-nine years ago, Primarily Primates opened. The mission was clear-cut: No longer would primates who’d been owned as pets, unwilling actors, or test subjects become used goods that could disappear into nothingness. For a refuge, crises and fundraising difficulties are common, and Primarily Primates has had their share of them over the years. But the biggest trouble began after Ohio State University decided to divest itself of a group of chimpanzees. For 23 years, these apes — natives of equatorial Africa with a strong urge for motion and freedom — were confined for cognition experiments. Bizarrely, Gruen calls the lab which held them a “comfortable home.” Primarily Primates offered a refuge where they would no longer be used. Contrary to Gruen’s statements, chimpanzee experts from Ohio State did examine Primarily Primates before sending the apes there, and were impressed.

I toured the sanctuary in May 2006, when the chimpanzees from Ohio State had lived there about three months. The young ones had already been introduced to a group. They had trees to climb, and space to swing and chase each other playfully.

But the researcher in Ohio was angry about the apes’ removal from the lab, and attracted allies — people hoping to void the contract between the school and refuge, and put the apes back in the lab. Lawsuits began.

Friends of Animals stepped in to help keep these and other animals alive and flourishing at the Texas animal refuge. That does not mean we would like to see animals classified as “property” but rather that we would like to ensure that they are guaranteed lifetime refuge once given it.

Lori Gruen wrote of the deaths of two chimpanzees after their arrival in Texas. Drama and embellishments were thrown around the Internet regarding Kermit and Bobby, and Gruen repeated a lot of it. This disrespects the apes and their histories. The truth? Both had pre-existing heart conditions, common for captive apes. They were not mishandled when they arrived at the refuge; the sanctuary was blamed unfairly and inaccurately for the deaths of these two primates it accepted. Earle Holland of Ohio State corrected the Hartford Courant; in “Chimps’ Cause of Death Disputed” (printed 9 August), Holland wrote that Gruen’s commentary is “dead wrong in some of its facts.” This is particularly troubling, Holland added, as Gruen reports using the story of Bobby and Kermit when teaching.

“Although it makes great drama to tell the story Gruen’s way,” Holland wrote, “it’s still false. College professors, like journalists, have a responsibility to get the facts straight.”

And so much of the rest of Gruen’s commentary is also dead wrong. The piece set out to attack Friends of Animals’ reputation (even by its high-schoolish title, “False Friends”), and is full of just the kind of gossip, sensationalism and inaccuracies its title seems to promise.

Gruen’s (that is, PETA’s) allegations of animal maltreatment had already been belied by Virginia Landau, a primatologist with the Goodall Institute. Landau, who visits zoos nationwide to improve conditions for captive primates, said of Primarily Primates, “The animals look good.” Landau added that it’s common to see nervous quirks in animals in many captive situations, but these were not common at Primarily Primates — particularly notable, given that Primarily Primates so often accepts terribly abused animals.

Five months ago, Primarily Primates was entrusted to a restructured board of directors, of which I serve as chair. The Texas Attorney General deemed this in the best interest of the state, the refuge, and its animals, and encouraged us to retrieve the chimpanzees whom Gruen thinks belong in a lab.

Most unfortunately, those chimpanzees are now at Chimp Haven, which warehouses apes under a contract with the National Institutes of Health. In late 2006, Senator Michael Enzi, a Wyoming Republican, said the apes at Chimp Haven could be useful test subjects in a bioterrorism emergency. We are supporting the legal work to recover these apes this year, and Primarily Primates is fulfilling its agreement to complete construction for the Ohio State chimpanzees, to provide them a truly comfortable and genuinely permanent refuge. Updates will be frequent and public, at www.primarilyprimates.org.

Also, Primarily Primates is seeking some other animals who were removed from the refuge. They are individuals who have developed ties over the years with other sanctuary residents. During their time at Primarily Primates, the youngest Ohio State chimpanzees got to know the youngest refuge “old-timers” — Jackson and Emma. These two were also taken away — to Oregon, on an expressly temporary basis. But this June, the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s chief outside litigation counsel filed a complaint in federal court to state the desire of the Oregon site, now that it has helped in a temporary situation, to remain in “possession” of two young chimpanzees. Proponents of this legal action against Primarily Primates call it a landmark case. But claims based on “possessing” animals are traditional property arguments. In other words, several groups sued Primarily Primates and it is they who are claiming Emma and Jackson, as well as twelve gibbons and a steer, are their property.

As people familiar with the animal-rights position know, dedication to the lifetime care of individuals in a private setting is precisely what defines a sanctuary. No viable refuge should be forced into expensive litigation over this. Three entities are doing so although each of the three agreed in writing to house animals temporarily — agreed, that means, to return them to Primarily Primates.

Each one of the animals has a perfectly good spot at the refuge, without exception. In the case of the gibbons, twelve were removed, one gibbon alone remains in the spacious area designed for pairs to interact. Jackson’s and Emma’s best interest is thwarted each day they are absent from Primarily Primates, where these youngsters spent their formative years, where they were fostered and loved, missed and wanted.

One day, the law will see that primates like the gibbons, Jackson and Emma and their friends are not our things. It will respect their interests in living in their own habitats. They will no longer be deemed suitable for labs, private homes, rental companies, zoos or circuses. Until then, the sanctuary movement, in which Primarily Primates has a key role, merits our steadfast commitment.

I write this having just arrived back in Darien after working with the residents and the construction at Primarily Primates. Ensuring the sanctuary will be a model of excellence requires substantial monetary resources; it depends on your trust and generosity. You can place full confidence in our commitment.

Sincerely yours,

Priscilla Feral