Today she'll be flying in from Los Angeles to protest Hendry County's approval of several facilities that breed monkeys for research. The protest takes place tomorrow in Clewiston. Any day now, a court decision is expected in a court case regarding the county's secret approval of several monkey breeding facilities. Activists are calling the controversy "Monkeygate."
Velez-Mitchell became involved in the matter, she explained via phone, because she works with a group called Animal Defenders International, which discovered plans to create a primate research facility called Primera in Hendry County.
When Velez-Mitchell began to ask questions, she found that average people in Hendry County hadn't heard anything about it. "We learned that the commissioners approved it in secret without a public hearing, even though Florida has very strong public records laws. The Animal Legal Defense Fund filed a lawsuit on behalf of the local residents who live where Primera is set to go — if it goes."
Velez-Mitchell, who lived in Fort Myers in her 20s, says, "When I talked to the county administrator — the top executive for Hendry County — I asked, 'How many monkeys are you going to allow?' He had no idea. 'You could put 2 million monkeys in the facility?' His response was, 'We don't tell private enterprise how to run their business. And we're a small county; we don't have the resources to monitor them.' He says that on camera."
"What's really, really shocking is that as this controversy was going over, a second secret facility had been approved. During the time [county officials] were holding these news conferences — well, when they were responding to protests so would speak to the media; they actually said they couldn't say much because of the pending lawsuit — they approved a second secret facility even bigger than Primera!"
Velez-Mitchell says that a philanthropist from Israel informed her of the Israeli government's banning the export of wild-caught monkeys for purposes of experimentation. Velez-Mitchell flew to Israel to do a story about the release of monkeys that had been captive. A reporter from a local news outlet told her, "Don't celebrate" — the monkeys would just be going to Hendry County.
And not to Primera, he said. "I'm talking about another facility. Come to my office and I'll show you the plans." He showed her blueprints and shipping receipts that seemed to prove his story. In
"Then scandal number two broke," she said. "We published the video. All the local papers picked it up." Turns out, the county was indeed planning on another center, called Bioculture, which had previously been forced out of Puerto Rico. Officials, she says, were "secretly trying to turn Hendry County into a monkey breeding capital of America.
"The county administrator was confronted as reporters grabbed him outside the courthouse," Velez-Mitchell says, and he described it as an expansion of an existing company, Primate Products.
"That's incorrect on its face," Velez Mitchell says, "they're separate — but during all of this, PETA was investigating Primate Products and found huge problems that were caught on tape — workers swinging monkeys by tail; internal tissue that was was coming out of monkeys' anuses from stress and workers were pushing it back in with their thumbs; monkeys with their tails chopped open... the list goes on and on." When the USDA investigated, it found 25 violations — an extraordinarily high number for the agency, she says, which typically is not very friendly to the animal rights movement. (Here's a link to the PETA investigation.)
Even after all of that, she says, the atrocities kept coming: The county gave Primate Products a clean bill of health. A whistleblower came forward and accused the company of doing C-section abortions on the monkeys and selling the parts.
"The county was allowing all of this laboratory breeding under a zoning of agriculture. Doing c-section abortions on monkeys is not agriculture. These are not even domestic animals. It's a complete twisting of the whole definition of agriculture." The scandal is being called #Monkeygate, she says.
Any day now, a judge will render a decision on the ALDF lawsuit alleging that the county violated the violated the sunshine law by not telling people about the second facility.
A protest is scheduled for 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesday at Clewiston City Hall, Commission Chambers, 115 W. Ventura Ave., Clewiston. See this Facebook link for details.
County commissioners, Velez-Mitchell said, "have forgotten they work for the people. My position is that these animals cannot speak for themselves. We have a moral obligation to ask the tough questions and hold these people accountable. This is one of the most reviled industries... There is a growing consensus among scientists that doing experiments on primates is not only morally reprehensible but doesn't help science."
She noted a recent case in which the National Institutes of Health was forced to cancel a planned years-long experiment that involved
scaring baby monkeys and then putting them in a room with their sedated mothers. "Mommy can't wake up because mommy is sedated. It's a sadism horror show. It's institutionalized sadism."
PETA did a Freedom of Information Act and got a video of the experiments; members of Congress were outraged.
"Our tax dollars are being used to fund this nonsense," Velez-Mitchell says. "It's becoming a bipartisan issue because Republicans are like, 'Why are we spending all this money?' and Democrats are like, 'Is this really helping science?'
"This is the social justice issue of the 21st century."