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Animal Habitat Keeps 'Family Line' - 2002-05-21

The family of an American conservationist is working to keep his dream alive. Bill Deters was one of five people murdered this month at an animal preserve in Northern Thailand. Mr. Deters' daughter and son-in-law hope to keep the refuge open.

John and Aileen Hunt are still reeling from the news that Mrs. Hunt's 69-year-old father was shot execution-style at his animal preserve near the Thai-Burmese border. Three workers and a three-year-old child were also killed May 10 at the Highland Farm and Wildlife Refuge. Authorities say they were murdered by a 19-year-old Burmese worker, who had been fired and later returned to rob the compound.

Mr. Deters was a retired Army officer who worked in the aerospace industry in California. In 1991, he and his Thai-born wife, Pharanee, went to live on a 14-hectare farm in Thailand's northwestern mountain province of Tak.

Aileen Hunt says her father and stepmother took in a wounded gibbon, a small long-armed member of the ape family. "One of the hunters had shot a gibbon mother, and they were given the orphaned baby, and they raised it. And that started their interest in this."

The animal, named Chester, was the first of 36 abandoned or sick gibbons that came to the refuge, which also houses peacocks, monkeys, rabbits, dogs and other animals.

The couple financed the sanctuary with Bill's retirement pension, later supplemented by grants from the Ford Motor Company, Thailand.

John Hunt said the refuge became a learning center. "They set it up so that students or wildlife researchers could come and observe gibbon behavior. They built another house," he said, "a dormitory for the students, who could come and stay there and study. And in return they had to work at the sanctuary, feeding and caring for the gibbons, cleaning cages."

Mr. Deters' wife, Pharanee, was away from the sanctuary at the time of the killing. A Dutch volunteer hid in the bathroom and survived.

Aileen and John Hunt are traveling to Thailand to offer help with the refuge.

Aileen said when they return to Los Angeles, they hope to raise funds for the refuge. "We would like interest brought there, so his dream can be maintained."

John Hunt, a teacher, plans to involve students in fundraising efforts to keep the Highland Farm and Wildlife Refuge open. In Thailand, Bill Deters' widow, Pharanee, said she is also working to keep the sanctuary open to save gibbons and other abandoned or ailing animals.