LaBELLE, Florida––A long-running “Not In My Back Yard” dispute over the location of a breeding facility in Hendry County, Florida that supplies monkeys to laboratories has exploded into a nationally visible debate over how monkeys are used in labs.
Which is what many of the opponents of the breeding facility wanted all along, while pursuing legal strategies focused on zoning and permitting issues to try to shut it down.
Disclosed Matt Dougherty of WINK television news in Fort Myers on March 30, 2015, “Workers at Primate Products facility located near Immokalee were regularly told to perform C-section abortions on pregnant female monkeys, remove the dead fetus, then package it for sale to buyers.”
“Couldn’t live myself”
Said former Primate Products vet tech David Roebuck, “The internal organs were then taken from the fetuses and freeze dried and sold to pharmaceutical companies. If you know what a deep freezer looks like, there were two of those, filled with parts. Internal organs, that had to be taken out of the fetuses surgically. After that was done, the mothers were still lactating, so they collected their milk and sold it to another pharmaceutical company. The point of it is to make money. They had financial contracts with pharmaceutical companies, to provide a certain amount of milk for a certain amount of money.”
Roebuck quit after just two days, he said, because “I knew I just couldn’t live with myself if I was going to be doing that. I couldn’t do it.”
Continued Dougherty, “Exclusive documents obtained by WINK News corroborate the practice. The documents are allegedly a part of Primate Products standard operating procedure manual which instructs the person performing the surgery how to slice open the primate and remove the fetus, then freeze organs should the female monkey die in the process.“
Hendry County has authorized Primate Products to conduct “agricultural activities,” as a monkey farm, against the objections of local residents who have brought a lawsuit against the county alleging procedural violations during the authorization process. Hendry County, however, has not authorized Primate Products to operate as a laboratory.
Added Dougherty in an April 2, 2015 follow-up, “Hendry County has launched an investigation,” because of apparent violations of the Primate Products operating permits.
USDA documents, Dougherty said, “show the facility performed an average of three tests and/or experiments on monkeys a day in 2014. The county sent notification of the investigation via certified mail to Primate Products last week, detailing the potential code violations. Primate Products has 21 days to explain the violations and allow a code inspector on its property.
“Possible violations.” Dougherty summarized, “include the 1,148 primate tests/research/experiments the company admitted to the USDA that it performed last year. Other violations include the possibility the company was operating outside the scope of its agricultural zoning designation by manufacturing primate restraint products.”
“Primate Products’ president Thomas Rowell said the reported tests are animal ‘usage,’” Dougherty added “Rowell said he does not consider this testing or experimentation and likens the business to a farmer milking a cow.”
Primate Products and other companies operating from the same tract of land had already been under scrutiny for about 18 months when Animal Defenders International in February 2014 announced findings from an undercover investigation of the monkey farm Biodia on Mauritius.
Animal Defenders International undercover investigators “caught on film horrific treatment of monkeys,” ADI said. “The ADI undercover footage reveals screaming monkeys being swung by their tails by workers, a tiny baby monkey being torn from the arms of her desperate mother, conscious baby monkeys being pinned down and tattooed without anesthetic, a heavily pregnant monkey being manhandled and pinned down, and monkeys being injected in the eyelids in TB tests.”
But the findings from Mauritius were not the bombshell that ignited controversy in Florida.
“The ADI undercover team also uncovered plans for the monkey dealer to set up a facility in LaBelle, Florida,” the Animal Defenders International media release said next.
That disclosure connected with months of investigation of a planned expansion of an existing monkey breeding operation in Hendry County. Florida, where LaBelle is the county seat.
Among the investigators were the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, the League of Humane Voters/Florida, Stop Animal Exploitation Now, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and former CNN news anchor Jane Velez-Mitchell, through her web projects JaneUnchained and TheirTurn.
The paper trail led through a maze of entities named SoFlo Ag LLC, P2B2 LLC, XII LLC, Primera Science Center, and PreLabs.
The relationships among the Mauritian firm Biodia, Primera, PreLabs, and the other companies involved in the Hendry County monkey-breeding facility became even more complex as Animal Defenders International and the others continued to follow the paper trail.
Sugar & resorts
Some of the companies at a glance seemed unlikely to be involved in laboratory monkey supply.
According to a summary of the investigators’ findings sent to ANIMALS 24-7 by the League of Humane Voters/Florida in July 2014, “Biodia Co. Ltd. is a subsidiary of the Medine Sugar Estates, a joint venture between two shareholders, namely Medine Sugar Estates and Bioculture (Mauritius) Ltd.”
Medine Sugar Estates, a diverse conglomerate, apparently owns about 5.5% of the total Mauritian land mass, including at least four destination resorts, and “appears to hold a 50% shareholder stake in Biodia,” the summary said.
Biodia, in turn, “has a business relationship with PreLabs of Illinois,” the summary continued. “PreLabs acts as Biodia’s distributor in the U.S. PreLabs has purchased land on Wheeler Road, LaBelle, in Hendry County.”
PreLabs also in some manner “uses a company called PrimGen,” the summary of findings continued, “which on its catalog is described as a division of PreLabs. PrimGen was formerly known as Three Springs Scientific, Inc.”
“We want answers”
“We want answers,” Velez-Mitchell told Warren Wright of Fox 4 News. “We want to know who is behind this. Where are the monkeys coming from? What’s the contingency plan if a monkey escapes? What do you do in the event of a hurricane? Are these structures built to withstand a category three, four, or five hurricane?”
Agreed Florida state senator Dwight Bullard, whose district includes Hendry County, in an August 15, 2014 interview with Velez-Mitchell, “We’re talking about 3,000 primates. If two or three of them get loose, what does that mean? I definitely believe Primera and Hendry county need to put a pause on the establishment of this facility,” Bullard said, since in his understanding, some government agencies “didn’t know that this was even happening,” and “did not know who to call if something were to take place.”
Hendry County information officer Janet Papinaw claimed the county had only limited authority to intervene.
“Hendry County’s authority is only to address the proper land use, zoning, site layout, drainage, buffering, and traffic impacts of such a facility, as well as building construction standards,” Papinaw said. “Specialty farms and animal husbandry,” Papinaw continued in a prepared statement, “fall under the agriculture land use and zoning district of the property procured by Primera. As such, primate breeding and holding is an allowable use under the land use category and zoning district where Primera is constructing their facility.”
Orlando attorney Justine Thompson Cowan and Christopher A. Berry of the Animal Legal Defense Fund on November 6, 2014 sued Hendry County on behalf of residents William Stephens, Carol Grey, and Keely Cinkota, “seeking judicial relief from Hendry County’s evasion of public scrutiny when it approved” the monkey breeding facility.
“Despite the radical impact” the facility “will have on the neighborhood,” the lawsuit charged, “the county met behind closed doors with special interests in favor of the facility while taking every possible measure to impede public participation.”
This, the ALDF-backed lawsuit contends, violated the Florida Sunshine Law, which requires a “fair and open decision-making process” in such matters as making zoning determinations.
Of most significance, summarized Cowan in her January 2015 response to an unsuccessful Hendry County petition to dismiss the case, “On June 14, 2012, Myra Johnson and Sarah Catala from the [Hendry County] Planning and Zoning Department, private developers Rock Aboujaoude and David Rolls, a real estate broker, and two other individuals determined that breeding thousands of wild and exotic primates was ‘an allowable use in general agriculture’ notwithstanding the fact that animal husbandry under general agriculture only applies to the care and production of domestic animals.”
The meeting of June 14, 2012 appears to have set in motion the expansion of monkey breeding facilities that led to the November 2014 ALDF lawsuit.
Asked about plans
Ten days after the meeting, the ALDF lawsuit recounts, the Hendry County board of commissioners were asked at a public meeting about the expansion plans.
“According to the minutes from that board meeting,” says the lawsuit, Animal Rights Foundation of Florida communications director Don Anthony “spoke about a Chicago-based company named PreLabs which plans to construct a breeding and holding facility on Wheeler Road for hundreds, maybe thousands of monkeys. He reported that the monkeys will be held at the facility and bred for research and testing. He urged that board to carefully examine the application and not rush to approve permits. He also asked the board to hold a public meeting for this to allow local residents to comment on the proposal.”
Before the ALDF lawsuit was filed, Primera had said little on the record about the Hendry County facilities, and has said little in the months since. In a November 10, 2014 public statement, however, Primera alleged that it “is currently a target of animal rights extremist groups,” who “have the potential to commit illegal acts such as trespassing, property damage, disrupting business operations, making false and disparaging statements, illegally obtaining confidential information to disclose to the public and invading the privacy of our neighbors, employees and their families. For these reasons,” the company said, “Primera must protect the privacy and security of the respective parties.”
Primera did not, however, allege that it had actually experienced any such “illegal acts,” in Hendry County or elsewhere––although seven activists were arrested and later released without charges for alleged trespassing during a protest several days later.
In context, the list of “illegal acts” appeared to have been cited simply to rationalize nondisclosure of essential information about the Primera project.
While seeking to expand monkey breeding capacity, Primera claimed “unwavering commitment to refining the nonhuman primate research model and reducing the number of animals used in biomedical research.”
The Primera statement went on to allege “distorted and unsubstantiated media coverage…designed to misguide the public and convey an agenda-driven story,” overlooking that the zoning issues leading to the ALDF lawsuit had been covered by a range of competing media, reflecting an array of perspectives on relevant issues including economic development, conservation of farm land, and animal use in biomedical research.
Meanwhile, the project involving Primera, PreLabs, Primate Products, and Biodia turned out to be not the only expansion of monkey breeding facilities on the property.
Israeli environment minister Gilad Erdan in December 2012 announced his intent “to ban the import of wild animals by intermediaries who breed and then export them to other countries,” for what Erdan termed “moral, ideological, and educational” reasons, “to reduce the animals’ suffering and the harm caused to them.”
This caused the 25-year-old Israeli laboratory monkey supplier Mazor Farm to relocate to Florida. Activists for several months pursued rumors that Mazor Farm would resettle in Hendry County. Mazor Farm instead moved to neighboring Collier County––and billionaire Ady Gil bought and sent to sanctuaries about 1,250 long-tailed macaques who were to have been part of the move.
But there was something else going on at the Hendry County site.
Drones for Animal Defense
“Just four months after filing a lawsuit against Hendry County, Florida, for approving a monkey breeding facility without soliciting public comment, local residents discovered that County officials secretly approved another monkey breeding facility,” reported Donny Moss of TheirTurn on March 21, 2015. “Hendry County residents only learned about this massive expansion when the organization Drones for Animal Defense released aerial footage,” Moss continued. “The newly-discovered facility has already been built and is owned by the Mauritius-based company Bioculture. Bioculture is leasing land from Primate Products, a company that breeds monkeys and manufactures equipment for use in monkey labs.
“Area residents, who are determined to shut down this facility, do not know if Bioculture has already imported monkeys, and the company’s sales & marketing director refused to answer any questions when TheirTurn reached him by phone,” Moss said.
Puerto Rican case
“But the residents’ efforts are not without precedent,” Moss recalled. “In January 2012, the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico ruled,” after a two-year legal battle, “that Bioculture’s already-constructed monkey breeding facility in Puerto Rico could not be opened because it was illegally built on land that was zoned for other purposes.”
Built to house 4,000 monkeys, the Puerto Rico site, at Guayama, a suburb of San Juan, was to become Bioculture’s 20th breeding colony worldwide.
Hendry County disputed the Moss report and the interpretation of the Drones for Animal Defense footage.
Wrote Hendry County public information officer Electa Waddell on March 23, 2015, “The facilities in question, Primate Products Inc. and BioCulture, are located on lands owned by Panther Tracts LLC. The Panther Tracts LLC property has been used for primate breeding purposes dating back more than ten years. Additional buildings were approved to be added on the land already in use for related activities. Hendry County is formally requesting a retraction or correction of all stories regarding the above mentioned due to erroneous information.”
Responded Moss, TheirTurn “has posted the county’s statement but will not be issuing a correction or retraction. A response to the county’s statement issued by the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida explains why TheirTurn’s story and those that followed are in fact accurate.”
Said the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida statement, “The county has in fact confirmed [the existence of a second new monkey breeding facility] and the company behind it. The fact that BioCulture’s new facility was built on land that is also the site of another company that breeds monkeys (Primate Products) does not change the fact that BioCulture is a separate company that has build several new buildings that are designed to house and breed thousands of additional monkeys in Hendry County. (See satellite image below.) Based on Hendry’s statement, both BioCulture and Primate Products lease the land for their respective primate facilities from Panther Tracts LLC,” the holding company that actually owns the land.
Concluded the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida statement, “We believe it is the fact that these facilities are so controversial that has led Hendry County to keep them hidden from the public in the first place.”
The Hendry County property was reportedly to house more than 3,000 macaques when controversy over the expansion started. The eventual site capacity has more recently been estimated at 5,000 to 14,000.