It's been almost 20 years since the notorious "Bangkok Six" incident, when investigators at a Thailand airport intercepted a crate marked "live birds," only to find that it contained six tightly-packed endangered orangutans destined for Russia from Indonesia. Only two of the orangutans survived.
A Miami primate dealer named Matthew Block -- proprietor of World Wide Primates, who'd started his business of raising animals for research while still in high school -- eventually pled guilty to charges for his role in the case, paid a $30,000 fine, and was sentenced to 13 months in prison. He then began cooperating with authorities, working as an informant to rope in illegal animal traders. In 1993, he helped arrange the arrest of five Mexican zoo officials who traveled to Miami in hopes of buying a gorilla on the black market. (During that incident, a Fish & Wildlife investigator dressed in an ape suit to fool the zoo guys into a takedown.) Around the same time, he also helped ensnare a Jacksonville dealer who was holding rare Australian cockatoos.
In spite of Block's work on the side of law enforcement, some animal rights activists have never forgiven him or forgotten him, instead engaging in their own form of retaliation. In 1994, 33 crab-eating macaques were stolen from Block's property. Last year, intruders cut holes in several monkey cages, letting the animals escape. And this week, the Animal Liberation Front received a communique that activists targeted a Miami Beach house they believed to belong to Block's wife Brooke. "We punctured 4 tires on a car in the driveway and poured red paint over the car and on the front door of the house," authors of the communique stated. (Matthew Block, now in his late 40s, is no longer a registered agent for Worldwide Primates; rather, his wife Brooke and mother Gertie are listed officers on the paperwork.)
Matthew Block spoke to New Times briefly, confirming the incident -- and clarifying that the vandals missed their target. The house and car, he says, "belong to my 80-year-old mother. This is their third time getting it wrong, and one of those was a firebombing a few years ago. They're going to end up killing or hurting someone."
When Block spoke to us last September after intruders released the monkeys, he noted that "These monkeys never lived a day in their lives" out of his company's care. "They have no clue how to behave in the wild. No clue how to get food and water." Block said it was cruel to free them -- to them let them "sit in the wild and starve to death." Other primate experts said that the animals can be unpredictable and aggressive, and it was fortunate that the released monkeys did not run into and hurt or maim humans.
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Records received from the United States Department of Agriculture in response to a Freedom of Information Act request indicate that World Wide Primates has had its license renewed regularly with few violations. In the years since 2002, inspectors noted a missing tile, a rusted cage, and a note that "In July 2005, non-human primates succumbed to heat exhaustion when HVAC system in Room C failed." In 2004, investigators noted that an adult male capuchin was housed alone; the law required he be able to see and hear nonhuman primates of his own species.
Perhaps the most revealing detail to be gleaned from the sparse paperwork is that business has been good: In 2003, a year the company bought 319 animals and sold 182, the reported gross income from sales totaled $340,295. In 2007, when the company bought 1123 animals and sold 1270, that figure peaked at more than $5 million.
Block noted that his company imports animals for research purposes but does not conduct any research. Although his line of work remains a topic for ethical debate, Block in turn argued that "these people [the vandals] do not deserve publicity." Last year he stated, "ethically, the media should not be giving accolades to people who violate federal law." He added that in the search for the perpetrators, "the FBI is very much involved." The agency considers animal rights extremism "domestic terror" and in 2006, revisions to the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act toughened penalties for related crimes.