On Monday, an animal rights activist traveled into rural Hendry County in his 4x4 SUV in search of a primate breeding complex that is expanding its facilities to accommodate thousands of monkeys that will be imported from Africa and used for lab testing. He hoped to bring attention to what he says is the mistreatment of animals by primate-breeding companies that operate with impunity in Hendry County.
After using a drone to obtain aerial footage of the site, the activist was pursued by security guards. "This was a full on car chase," he tells New Times. He spoke on the condition of anonymity. Once home, he posted the footage on YouTube using the username Drones for Animal Defense. This account has also posted drone footage of another monkey-breeding facility, Primate Products, and video of Lolita, the orca at Miami Seaquarium, swimming in her pool.
In the past few years, advances in technology have made affordable, remote-controlled, camera-equipped drones accessible to the general public. They are now proving an effective tool for animal rights activists, who in recent years have been accused of using extreme tactics and subsequently been blocked from accessing controversial sites. After cases of animal abuse were exposed by whistleblowers, so-called "ag gag" laws have been enacted to outlaw undercover filming on farms.
Since 2000, Hendry County has emerged as an epicenter of animal breeding facilities. There are four companies in the area who are breeding monkeys: Primate Products, Bioculture, Mannheimer/Haman Ranch, and PreLabs which is building Primera Science Center.
Primate Products, which breeds, sells, and performs genetic testing on monkeys, explains on its website that in 2000, the company "was solicited and encouraged to open the operation in Hendry County by the Hendry County Economic Development Council." Primate Products found the area attractive because of the abundance of agricultural workers and because the warm climate mimics primates' natural Asian and African habitats.
Primate Products claims it has "worked closely with the county and the local community of which we have been welcomed into and have their full support." It employs locals and says it has over the years cooperated with various government agencies including the Agricultural Extension Office, Hendry County Planning and Zoning Agency, the South Florida Water Management District and Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. The facility has over 1,000 primates on its property.
Additional primate breeding facilities have been approved by Hendry County officials since. The Primera Science Center, being built by Pre-Labs, is a proposed facility that will breed exotic monkeys from Mauritius, an island off the coast of Africa, for bio-medical research. According to government documents, the facility plans to import about 3,200 macaques from the wealthy island nation.
Currently there are at least an estimated 3,000 primates living in Hendry County. With the new expansion of BioCulture's facility , there may be even more on the way. Proponents of lab animals believe that conducting studies on the non-human primates allows for medical progress without harming humans. However, animal rights activists argue that the facts supporting lab experimentation (and cruelty) are dubious at best. They encourage alternative methods of product development.
In Hendry County, residents have expressed concern that Primate Products' exotic monkeys may transmit a disease to insects, or to rodents (a report by Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service [APHIS] once noted rodents contaminating the monkeys' food supply at the facility), which could then spread to other animals and humans. Some residents fear the monkeys themselves could become a public health hazard should one of them escape in the nearby wilds.
There have already been nearly 40 incidences of monkey escapes, mainly due to human error (forgetting to shut cages tightly), at just one lab in the Midwest that purchased monkeys from breeders. Though the animals were recaptured, they were often done so brutally. The university where this one laboratory is located asserts that these escapes are infrequent.
Animal rights groups like Smash SLS have begun campaigns against the companies and their employees, even organizing pickets at individuals' homes. Around the country, animal rights groups employing similar or more extreme tactics have been labeled "domestic terrorists" and sometimes prosecuted.
In 2014, local residents sued Hendry county, alleging that zoning codes were twisted to allow the breeding of primates on agricultural land. According to the lawsuit, facilities can only breed domestic animals. The plaintiffs allege that there should have been a public meeting, under Sunshine law, to address whether monkeys should be allowed under the zoning codes. The judge has allowed the plaintiffs in the case to move forward and currently attorneys are in a discovery phase to figure out what exactly transpired that county officials jumped the gun without informing the public of the new Primera Science Center.
There was a town hall meeting yesterday in LaBelle and activists used the public forum to voice their concerns regarding the breeding facilities. Afterward Hendry County Administer Charles Chapman told reporters that the animal testing currently conducted by at least one of the facilities, Primate Products, is not authorized by zoning codes. He appeared to be unknowing of the experiments on the animals though, suggesting a lack of correspondence between the local government and the federal agency APHIS.
The case has been followed closely by animal rights activists including Jane Velez Mitchell, formerly a news anchor on HLN, who now runs her own animal-focused blog.
Hendry and Lee County residents are demanding these facilities handle their business endeavors with more transparency, and are urging the county to release what protocols are in place to protect public health and the area's sensitive ecosystem should any of these animals escape. There is already a formidable feral macaque population in northern Florida that are infected with Herpes-B virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that if transmitted to humans, the virus can cause encephalomyelitis (swelling of the brain and spinal cord) and even death.
These invasive monkeys have flourished in the Sunshine State since their introduction in the 1930s, leading some activists to believe the primates in the breeding and lab facilities could be successful in setting up another base population near the Everglades and become infected with the virus if they escaped.
This week, the activist with the drone traveled near Immokalee to monitor the progress of Bioculture's expanding site. In 2009, the company was forced to abandon plans to build a facility in Puerto Rico after activists challenged its permit in a lawsuit that went all the way to the Supreme Court. According to Amir Shuan, an investigative reporter for Israel's largest newspaper Yedioth Ahrono, the plans of the company's new Hendry County facility show it has enough wells to provide water for 14,000 monkeys.
As the drone flew directly over Bioculture's facilities, workers spotted the aerial device. They saw the trajectory it was descending and went after the activist — some in a silver Jeep and others in a white pickup truck, the activist says.
He told New Times on Monday night, "Later I was pissed and angry, but during that time I had tunnel vision on getting past these thugs. At no time did I trespass on their property." Once he reached the county line, he says, the vehicles backed off.
"At no point did they show badges, lights, or anything. Just thugs working at the site. If there had been a delay with my drone for just 30 seconds, they would have trapped me, and gotten the footage. I even took the memory card out of the camera and hid it in the car so that, at the very least, they would not take it. That is what this was all about they wanted the card."
Reese (a nom de guerre to protect his identity) is upset because the workers at the facility chased him as if "they had all the authority in the world."
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"They are not above the law," he says, "and they have no right to keep those animals prisoners like that, to be sold to labs that will essentially torture them to death. It was a primate concentration camp."
There are confirmed reports that some of the monkeys at the Primate Products facility have "accidentally" been electrocuted to death and some reports of species infighting among the primates (which activists believe is due to incompatible combinations of animals). Media sources in Southwest Florida were brought to attention of these breeding facilities after concerned residents complained of hearing the sounds of screaming monkeys.
According to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), Primate Products, which is located in the same rural complex as Bioculture, was cited for violations last year that include keeping the primates in hot temperatures that could make them ill and having animal (waste) water accumulate on the floor of one of the holding areas (due to faulty drainage to a nearby canal), which the inspector categorized as a "disease hazard" because bacteria could grow.