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Secretive research monkey facilities come under scrutiny in Florida

The Guardian – By Timothy Pratt – Feb 28, 2015

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A long-tailed macaque sits in his enclosure at an unspecified monkey farm in Laos. Research monkeys are often held in “appalling” conditions, according to the BUAV. Photograph: Photograph: Jo-Anne McArthur/BUAV/AFP

As other developed countries back away from primate research, one Florida county is about to become home to more research macaques than humans.

A series of events has put a tiny Florida county of less than 40,000 residents at the center of national and international controversy regarding monkey breeding and research. They include lawsuits, protests and federal complaints, and threaten to put southern Florida’s Hendry County on the map for the wrong reasons.

Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), a Northern California-based nonprofit organization, has sued to block the development of a new breeding facility that would allegedly house up to 3,200 macaque monkeys. That facility would be in addition to the county’s three existing facilities, where local authorities have recently arrested multiple protesters for trespassing.

An Ohio-based activist group has also filed a complaint with the US Department of Agriculture after staff at one lab, Primate Products, found three macaque monkeys dead from electrocution. The complaint urges the USDA to revoke the facility’s license to sell monkeys for research.

The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) has also gotten involved, arguing that macaques caught in the wild on the African island of Mauritius are used to produce offspring that are then sent to Florida, and Primate Products.

“The trapping and removal of wild primates from their natural habitat and social groups has a substantial negative impact on these individuals,” says BUAV spokeswoman Sarah Kite. “Over the years, official bodies and organizations have called for a move away from this practice.”

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Macaques sit on a snow covered tree at Wulingyuan National Park in China this month. Photograph: Xinhua /Landov / Barcroft Media

The county seat of LaBelle only has around 4,600 residents, meaning that the number of monkeys in the area could soon overtake the number of residents.

It’s hardly used to being the center of attention, says Michael Budkie, whose organization, Stop Animal Exploitation Now, filed the January complaint with the USDA after three monkeys were electrocuted. It is his second such complaint in the last year.

“It’s unusual that there’s so much activity (surrounding primate breeding and research) in one place … making (these facilities) the focus of opposition,” Budkie says.

Animal Legal Defense Fund’s day in court is 5 March. Nick Atwood and six other protesters who were arrested 22 November for allegedly trespassing on the site of the Mannheimer Foundation, a research facility, are scheduled to appear in court 12 March.

The lawsuit alleges that county should not have approved a project that would bring monkeys to a facility still in the planning stages without public notice or input, violating Florida’s open government law.

Chris Berry of the ALDF says his organization has filed the suit on behalf of area residents, who feel they should have had a say in the decision to allow the facility in Hendry County. “We’re concerned about facilities involved in animal suffering being in compliance with the law (and) care about community involvement in decision-making processes,” he said.

County spokeswoman Electa Waddell says the lawsuit is “totally without merit”. She says: “None of the meetings or communications involved in this decision violated the Sunshine Law.” County staff studied the proposal and recommended that it be accepted, according to Waddell.

Barbara Petersen, president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, says she doesn’t understand why the county approved the facility the way it did. “Why didn’t they let the public know they were doing this? This is what I find alarming,” she says.

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A wild Rhesus monkey grins while up in a tree in Silver Springs, Florida. A huge population of wild monkeys is sweeping across Florida – after being introduced during the filming of Tarzan. It’s now estimated that hundreds of Rhesus monkeys roam the sunshine state – all descended from three pairs released in the late thirties. Photograph: Graham McGeorge / Barcroft Media

It is not clear who is behind the proposed facility. A company called Primera has published a letter to the community in a local newspaper attempting to alleviate the public’s concerns. But protestor Nick Atwood supplied the Guardian with a document that appears to show that Primera is managed by a Chicago-based company called PreLabs.

PreLabs didn’t respond to requests for comment. Primate Products president and chief operating officer Thomas J Rowell also declined to comment.

Last month, businessman and conservationist Ady Gil purchased approximately 1,250 monkeys for an estimated $2m from a breeding facility in Israel. The country has cracked down on monkey breeding for research, and some have reported that the animals were about to be transferred to a facility in Florida. It is not clear whether Gil’s purchase of these monkeys will have any effect on the opening of Primera’s venture.

Macaques can be sourced from all over the world, adding to opponents’ concerns about the dangers of monkey-breeding centers in spreading disease. According to one of the complaints filed against Hendry County:

Unlike domestic livestock, non-human primates are known carriers of a wide array of serious infectious diseases such as Ebola, Herpes B, tuberculosis, and parasites that may be transmitted to humans. In fact, macaques have been responsible for outbreaks of an Ebola strain in United States research facilities, and macaques have also escaped from other Florida breeding facilities in the past resulting in bites and other injuries.

Michael Budkie, a former primate research worker, has been pushing to get primates out of labs since 1986. If the Primera facility does wind up housing around 3,000 monkeys, as suggested by its rudimentary website, it would be unusual, he says: “Facilities of this size do not open regularly.”

Atwood, who works for the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, says he is “concerned about our state’s reputation, and the economy being based on industries involved in animal suffering”. He also notes that the proposed Primera facility raises quality of life issues, since it is close to residential areas.

The USDA’s response to Budkie’s complaints about Primate Products could include follow-up calls to the company for more information, or a site visit, says spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa. The agency can then give the company a chance to enter into compliance with the Animal Welfare Act, which governs treatment of monkeys in captivity for breeding and research. It can also levy fines of up to $10,000 for each act of noncompliance.

But there is no deadline for the agency to respond. “We want to make sure we’re thorough,” Espinosa says. “We take as much time as needed.”

Kari Bagnall notes that many research facilities in recent years have “retired” monkeys from experiments, prompting sanctuaries like Jungle Friends, where she is executive director, to grow in size. Her Gainesville, Florida, center is home to 207 monkeys, with an additional 90 scheduled to arrive in the next six months.

“The release of these monkeys sends welcome signals of shifting beliefs about the ultimate fate of monkeys in research,” Bagnall wrote in an email. “However, the excitement is dampened when we hear of a new breeding facility…

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Posted by Teri Perticone

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