An animal rights group is engaging in controversial practices as it targets not just animal researchers — but their friends and relatives, too.
Gary Serignese is president of South Florida Smash HLS (a reference to Huntingdon Life Sciences, a British animal-testing lab that was the group's first target). For years, he has been on a mission to shut down businesses that perform research experiments on primates as well as businesses that supply the monkeys.
To harass founder of the company Worldwide Primates Matthew Block (who once served 13 months in federal prison for violating the U.S. Endangered Species Act in an incident where six orangutans died), Serignese in 2013 protested outside the home of Block's then-93-year-old mother. Serignese has gone after other companies as well, making public employees' home addresses and cell phone numbers and protesting in their communities.
In 2014, Serignese traveled to Hendry County to protest a growing cluster of companies that provide monkeys for experiments — Primate Products, Inc.; the Mannheimer Foundation, Inc.; and a third that was under construction, Primera Science Center. A fourth company from Israel was also reportedly moving to Hendry. Serignese and six friends demonstrated in front of a fenced-in compound, operated by Mannheimer, holding 2,398 macaques. All the protesters were arrested for unlawful entry on a private property, though charges were eventually dropped.
“I've been arrested many times for standing up against animal abuse," Serignese, 34, tells New Times. "I have never once regretted what I do. I am haunted by the vast cruelty that animals are everywhere forced to endure. I am moved to act. I intend to unite with others like me. Together we can improve the goodness in the world.”
He went on: “We firmly hold that animal experimentation is morally and scientifically indefensible. Vivisection is a cruel industry [because] the animals imprisoned in labs are routinely subjected to isolation, food and water deprivation, daily pain, and eventually a lonely death,” Serignese said. “The amount of suffering they endure is immense, and no thinking, feeling being deserves to go through it.”
This Sunday, June 5, Smash HLS has a demonstration planned in front of the Fort Lauderdale home of Yvonne Sanandres, who the group claims is romantically involved with Matthew Block.
Block's company is advertised as being a "leading supplier of premium quality non-human primate models." Block has in the past told New Times that animal rights' activists tactics — they've punctures tires on his ex-wife's car and let monkeys out of cages — ultimately end up harming, not helping, the animals.
Some people also argue that the experiments on animals ultimately do more good than harm. Vivisections on primates have led to the development of vaccines.
But Serignese has little tolerance for any argument that drug testing is worth the harm it inflicts on primates. He called the monkey trade "sleazy."
Sanandres said that Smash HLS hunts down and scares people, sometimes unfairly.
"Smash has a track record of harassment and stalking of individuals and family members who have no interest in their targeted companies, under the guise of the First Amendment," she said. "Some members have engaged in violent activity which instills a fear for personal safety."
She stressed, "I am not a member of the Block family nor am I connected to anyone else in any way. I also do not believe that Matt Block is or has been the owner of that company for a number of years." (Activists say Block at one point transferred the company to his ex-wife Brooke. It now lists Ira Block as president.)
Sanandres said, "Unfortunately, due to an ongoing investigation, I can't comment further at this time."
She also pointed out that one of Serignese's cohorts, Nicholas Atwood, had in 2013 been accused of trespassing in Martin County and, according to a related police report, been on an "FBI watch list for suspicion of terror" for his animal-rights activities. Atwood at one point hijacked Worldwide Primates' website to redirect visitors to Smash HLS's.
Activists said that despite Sanandres' criticism, they are still going to "vigorously" exercise their Constitutional rights. Worldwide Primates tried to get a restraining order against the group in 2014, but a judge said employees failed to prove that they suffered emotional distress.
Said Serignese: "Smash HLS conscientiously observes the legal right we have to protest, to speak up against animal abuse. I find it remarkable that the people who abuse animals, and the people connected to the abusers romantically, so often conflate the freedom to protest with illegal activity. Everyday, animals in labs and at Worldwide Primates are forced to live in constant fear for personal safety. It's for the sake of those animals that Smash HLS so vigorously practices its First Amendment rights."
Smash HLS is supported by another group, Animal Activists Network (AACTN).
“AACTN is proud to support Smash HLS in its upcoming home demonstration,” said Jeff Geragi, who leads the South Florida-based organization. “We hope to raise awareness as to the horrible business Matt Block has and continues to work in.”