September 06, 1999 12:00 PM

Wallace Swett is still anguished over the day last summer when he sat in a conference room at New Mexico’s Holloman Air Force Base and bargained over the fate of 143 aging veterans—chimpanzees that had served as research subjects for the Air Force. Swett, an animal rehabilatator who owns a 10-acre sanctuary outside San Antonio where he cares for animals once used for research, circuses and films, knew he could afford to offer only about 30 of the chimps a nurturing home for their golden years. The rest would be taken by, the Coulston Foundation in Alamogordo, N.Mex., a nonprofit medical-research lab. “It was one of the most difficult days of my life,” says Swett, 50. “I had to sit there and pick which ones to take.”

The chimps had served valiantly, some for more than 30 years, as subjects in studies on acceleration, gravitation and other aspects of jet flight. In the 1970s, however, simulation technology began to render them obsolete. Like their celebrated cousins in the space program, they were phased out and leased to private facilities. Most wound up at Coulston, which focuses on vaccination and toxicology research.

When, as part of a military budget cut, the Air Force was ordered to find new homes for the last of its chimps, the service solicited bids. Swett and Coulston were the only viable candidates. Swett, a founder and director of Primarily Primates, where more than 550 animals receive expert care, took 32 of the chimps. The remaining 111 were sold for $1 to Coulston, despite the fact that it has been the subject of many complaints filed in recent years by the USDA in connection with the unusual deaths of chimps. Gloria Cales, an Air Force spokeswoman, said they approached such alternatives as zoos, but none were interested. “We did a thorough review of Coulston’s performance,” she adds, “and they did as well or better than other facilities.”

USDA officials say they are still investigating open violations against Coulston. But Chris Staley, a Coulston director who says he wishes Swett could afford to house all the Air Force chimps, claims the deaths at his facility were accidental and that most of their chimps are not currently being used for research, just for breeding and the study of aging. “We have one caretaker for every 15 chimps,” he says. “That’s better than most human hospitals have.”

Thus far, 10 apes have settled into Swett’s care, with the others due by October, when their 40-by-60-foot quarters will be completed. Like Gigi, already in residence, many will have to relearn innate skills that eroded in captivity. “For over 20 years they spent their lives in a small cage for the betterment of mankind,” Swett says. “They don’t have the muscle tone even to climb or swing properly.”

The unmarried Swett developed his love of animals as a child on his family’s two-acre farm in Kingston, N.H. He was in third grade when his parents—Wallace, a carpenter, and Josephine, a homemaker—moved the family to Weymouth, Mass. After graduating from high school in 1967, Swett worked at pet shops, volunteered at zoos and then took a job as a naturalist at the Boston Zoological Society.

In 1978, Swett and three partners started Primarily Primates in an old farmhouse in Hanover, Mass., taking in 18 apes given up as pets. Seeking a balmier climate for his charges, Swett relocated to San Antonio later that year, supporting himself as a bird specialist at the city zoo. “I was there when he started and was working out of a garage,” says ex-Police Woman star Earl Holliman, head of Actors and Others for Animals, an advocacy group. “There should be some sort of sainthood for this guy.”

Perhaps, but in the meantime, Swett found an angel. Thelma Doelger, the widow of a wealthy California developer, called him in 1981 to offer help. “I was thinking maybe a few bags of feed or a bag of fruit,” he says. “She said, ‘No, I want to do more.’ More turned out to be 10 acres on the edge of Texas hill country. “She offered to buy the land if I would promise to stay with it the rest of my life,” says Swett. “A promise is a promise.”

Congenial as their surroundings are, Swett’s arrivals have suffered some culture shock. Recently, the chimps were driven to hysteria by the sight of a Texas longhorn. Although Primarily Primates also houses leopards, vultures, emus and an Australian kookaburra, the chimps “had never seen a cow before,” says Swett, who reassured them in soothing tones, “It’s okay. You’re home now.”

Nick Charles

Bob Stewart in San Antonio, Ellise Pierce in Dallas and Chris Coats and Lance Uyeda in Houston

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