On a scalding Saturday afternoon, nearly a dozen Miami Beach Police cars are jammed up on the lawns of a shady residential street near Mount Sinai Hospital. Cops lean against their cruisers as a mangy group of about 20 protesters spills out onto the overgrown lawn before a white, single-story house.
The group waves placards with pictures of emaciated primates clutching the bars of their cages. Some protesters hide their faces behind black bandannas. Others wear monkey masks.
"Raise your fist and your voice!" cackles a skinny and bespectacled 30-year-old with his hair swirled up into a '50s greaser 'do.
"Helpless monkeys have no choice," the group answers.
"There will never be an excuse," he yells.
"For animal abuse!" they echo.
For the past three years, the bespectacled MC, Gary Serignese, has captained an effort to torpedo the monkey distribution industry. He has ditched the old activist playbook for a more aggressive style. Case in point: The tiny house where he's leading the charge today doesn't belong to a business titan or controversial scientist but to the 93-year-old mother of Matthew Block, a primate dealer associated with a Miami-based company called Worldwide Primates that peddles animals for sometimes-gruesome experiments. It's Block's first brush with Serignese and his group, Smash HLS.
"They're harassing a 93-year-old lady," the primate dealer says. "She's not active in the business."
Traditionally, animal rights crusaders in Florida have played it safe. They have pressured municipalities like West Palm Beach to snip ties with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus or filed lawsuits on behalf of endangered sea turtles. Only in the past few years has a more radical fringe come alive inside the movement.
That spirit is best exemplified by Camille Marino, a former investment banker from Wildwood, Florida, who is responsible for "Negotiation Is Over," a website devoted to publishing information on animal researchers. After threatening to strap a Michigan professor "into a monkey restraining device and use industrial pliers to crack your testicles like walnuts," Marino landed in prison last year for stalking. She's still inside, but her attitude took Sunshine State activism to a different level of hostility.
Serignese isn't quite that aggressive, but he has changed the protesting dynamic in the subtropics. The Kant-quoting, Elvis-adoring grad-school dropout grew up with a single mom who paid the bills as a nurse in Boca Raton. He spent his formative elementary years in a Lutheran school, where ideas of right and wrong were stressed. After graduating from Olympic Heights Community High School, he headed to Florida Atlantic University to study ethics. "I like the philosophy of personal responsibility," he says.
He entered graduate school at Purdue but dropped out after a bad breakup. Back in South Florida, he began to read up on social movements and activism. He wanted to stop animal testing. No exceptions. As a toddler, he had cried when he saw people fishing, and fur coats had always upset him.
But the conventional animal rights movement didn't sit well with Serignese. Passing out leaflets about the evils of Monsanto and tossing paint at celebrities wearing mink all seemed a waste of time. Groups should target specific businesses like suppliers, he says.
His model became Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC), a campaign that got off the ground in 1999 in England by honing in on one company, Huntingdon Life Sciences, the country's largest animal-testing lab. In 2010, Serignese started a local group with the same agenda along with friend Nick Atwood, a balding and soft-spoken veteran campaign coordinator with the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida (ARFF). They called it Smash HLS — "Smash" in reference to a punk rock song by the British band Active Slaughter, "HLS" in homage to the Huntingdon group.
"There's a big part of the animal movement that's just about education," Atwood says. "They have the idea that what they're doing is going to change minds ten years down the road. [Smash's tactics] allow you to put a face to an evil enterprise."
At first, Serignese gathered followers from activist groups such as Occupy Wall Street and Food Not Bombs. But soon, the group developed a base of about 150 people who ranged in age from high schoolers to 80-year-olds. They decided to demonstrate regularly and seek concrete results.
The group's first target was Primate Products Inc., an Immokalee-based company that regularly ranks among the top five primate importers in the country. According to the latest figures submitted to USDA, between August 2011 and May 2012, the company imported 1,521 monkeys; the previous year saw 1,818. Its major clients include large testing firms and schools such as the University of Maryland and the U.S. military. It's unclear specifically what kind of mistreatment — if any — is common in those places, but according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), primates at research institutions sometimes have pharmaceuticals pumped down their noses and throats or are used to test military-grade chemical weapons. Some have holes drilled into their heads to track motor functions.