Elizabeth Allen

A district court judge ruled Friday that six chimpanzees at the center of a fight between San Antonio-based Primarily Primates and Chimp Haven in Louisiana must be returned to Primarily Primates.

Chimp Haven took the group of retired research chimps from Primarily Primates in November 2006 after Primarily Primates was sued by the Texas attorney general and placed in receivership. After the lawsuit was dismissed in April 2007, Chimp Haven refused to return the animals, according to court documents.

“Once we were given back the sanctuary and we agreed to complete the enclosures that were started before the receivership,” said Primarily Primates lawyer Eric Turton, “at that point we requested the chimps back and Chimp Haven refused to return them.”

“It’s pretty much a complete victory for us,” Turton said of Friday’s decision by 285th District Judge Michael Peden.

Originally behavioral research animals at Ohio State University, the retired chimpanzees were moved to San Antonio in March 2006. OSU pledged more than $300,000 so Primarily Primates could build enclosures for the animals and provide for their care.

The group of seven animals was transferred to Chimp Haven in fall 2006 after the attorney general successfully petitioned an Austin court to appoint a receiver to run the sanctuary. One chimp died last month.

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The receiver moved dozens of animals to other sanctuaries and zoos around the country, saying Primarily Primates was overcrowded.

In a petition to have the chimps returned to Primarily Primates, the sanctuary cited a Bexar County ordinance that prohibits members of the general public from possessing “wild animals” as the sole reason for Chimp Haven’s refusal to return them. But Primarily Primates has a state permit to operate, the petition says, although the permit is under the name of its executive director, Stephen Tello.

In a statement that names Sarah, Keeli, Ivy, Sheeba, Harper and Emma as the chimps in question, officials at Chimp Haven said that when it was asked to take the chimps, the animals were in need of medical attention and better housing.

“We are disappointed that the court does not consider what is in the chimpanzees’ best interest, but instead must rule on ‘property’ issues,” Chimp Haven Director Linda Brent said in the statement. “We are investigating options for appeal of the decision.”