Tribe Member Battles Monkey Farm in Florida

     (CN) – A Seminole tribe member requested an injunction to shut down a primate research facility in rural Florida, claiming it runs an unethical animal-tissue harvesting operation and puts his sacred lands at risk of being infested with “wild, potentially disease bearing monkeys.”
     In Hendry County Court, Samuel Tommie claims the company known as Primate Products is illegally operating a monkey research center that houses animals in deplorable settings while denying “sick and injured monkeys adequate veterinary care.”
     Among other unsettling activities, Tommie says, the facility carries out “invasive and sometimes lethal surgeries on monkeys to remove plasma, serum and tissue, such as fetal and ovarian tissue,” for sale to researchers.
     According to the complaint, the site poses a safety risk to members of the Seminole community such as Tommie, who “regularly meditates and engages in other cultural practices in the wilderness areas within Big Cypress Seminole Reservation,” near Primate Products’ property.
     As noted in the lawsuit, the facility near Immokalee has been cited for numerous violations of animal care standards.
     The U.S. Department of Agriculture inspected the place in 2015 and noted that monkeys in outdoor cages were exposed to temperatures so cold that their tails became frostbitten and required amputation.
     The inspection report notes that the staff there improperly carried out tooth extractions on monkeys, and that amputations, debriding and other surgical procedures were being performed in unsanitary conditions.
     Additionally, three monkeys were found dead after being accidentally electrocuted by an electrical cord, the report notes.
     According to Tommie’s lawsuit, Primate Products’ 2014 records indicated the company had more than 2,700 non-human primates in its possession, of which roughly 94 were subjected to procedures that could produce pain or distress.
     “The nuisance posed by the defendants’ housing of thousands of monkeys is compounded by the threat that one or more monkeys may escape from the defendants’ facilities – as some already have in the past. Escaped monkeys are likely to find refuge in the wilderness areas, and reproduce to create a colony of free-ranging monkeys that will adversely impact the surrounding ecosystem, and also pose a danger to Mr. Tommie when he engages in his cultural practices,” the lawsuit states.
     According to the complaint, the monkeys are carriers for a multitude of infectious diseases, including hepatitis, tuberculosis, and Zika virus, whose recent emergence has been blamed for birth defects in infected babies in South America.
     Sanitation is a concern, the complaint says, as “monkey waste flows into a large pond on the site and … from the pens into the surrounding ground water – all threats to the safety and welfare of Mr. Tommie and the surrounding community.”
     Moreover, the complaint claims that approximately 100 monkeys recently perished from an outbreak of an “unknown pathogen” spreading among animals kept by co-defendant BC US (aka Bioculture), a firm that works alongside Primate Products at the Immokalee site.
     In his April 22 request for injunctive relief to shut down the facility, Tommie argued that Primate Products is improperly operating in an agricultural zoning area, under the guise of an “animal husbandry” center.
     He says the company is in violation of Hendry County Land Development Code.
     For its part, Primate Products has defended its safety profile and right to stay in Hendry County, insisting that its monkeys are closely screened for disease.
     Established more than fifteen years ago, the company’s Immokalee location is one of the longest-running monkey farms in the small county north of the Everglades, which despite its sparse population and remote location has become a hub for selling research monkeys and harvesting them for science.
     The company also runs a training program for researchers at the site, sells restraint systems for lab animals and provides space for quarantine and preparation of monkey specimens.
     Billing itself as one of the largest primate research-supply firms in the world, Primate Products claims on its website that its staff “and its associated operating partners have dedicated their professional lives to the conservation and care of nonhuman primates.”
     According to the company, the USDA investigation was spawned after an animal-rights activist infiltrated the company by securing a job at the Immokalee facility. The activist secretly videotaped the conditions there, released the footage and incited public outrage.
     The fallout was widespread, as the National Institutes of Health suspended work with Primate Products, and Congressman Ted Deutch called for an inquiry into the company’s purported $13 million in federal contracts.
     The company says it worked with the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare to resolve all issues concerning ethical treatment of its monkeys.
     “OLAW, working with [the company’s] Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee … and staff, were able to identify strengths and at the same time uncovered some weaknesses in the animal welfare program, which were corrected,” the company said in a press release.
     Regarding the zoning matter, county officials last year looked into whether Primate Products and other research outfits, including the Mannheimer Foundation, were violating county code by housing their monkeys in areas zoned for agriculture.
     The county concluded in Aug. 2015 that the companies were “in compliance with Hendry County’s land-use regulations.”
     In a letter to county officials, Primate Products maintained that it sells its specimens in a manner “consistent with the guiding principles of ethical and humane use of animals in scientific research.”
     Supported by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a lawsuit similar to Tommie’s was filed in Hendry County in 2014, challenging county officials’ decision to approve the Primera Science Center (a new monkey breeding facility) as well as the “Panther Tracts” expansion to Primate Products’ operation. That case is set for a June trial.

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