The practice of breeding monkeys for research in Hendry County has reached such a level it’s led the media to say the rural area east of Fort Myers either is or may possibly become the biggest supplier of primates for research in the country.
The animals are used in behavioral, psychological and medical research.
Environmentalists and locals are protesting the industry’s expansion here. And now, the county is investigating two of the companies. One of which is also under investigation by the United States Department of Agriculture.
Thomas Rowell drives past a line of cages. A large tarp covers four at a time.
Little hands grip the chain link fences. Beady eyes stare back.
They belong to a type of monkey called a macaque.
Thomas Rowell is a veterinarian and President of Primate Products. One of the animals watches us intently. She pulls her lips back, exposing her teeth.
“That’s kind of a grimace, you know? A yawn. She's a little nervous. Not sure what's our intention. Not accustomed to have you here with the headset on… there’s a little bit of concern about what exactly are we doing,” he said.
“Concern about what exactly are we doing.”
That sentiment has been invoked by activists and local residents in recent months over the growing number of primate breeding facilities moving into the county.
Primate Products is one of four such companies either building or already operating in Hendry County.
This heightened attention has prompted Hendry County to investigate.
County Administrator Charles Chapman said the companies’ USDA reports sparked the investigations.
He said the county is looking at whether two facilities – Primate Products and the Mannheimer Foundation’s Haman Ranch – are possibly performing practices that violate their agricultural permit.
“In particular, we’re looking for a site visit. Seeing what they actually do on a daily basis. Making sure that they fall within the definition of what is agriculture as far as the production or processing of various product,” Chapman said.
The Mannheimer Foundation did not return requests for comment.
Primate Products’ 2014 annual report said more than 1,100 nonhuman primates were involved in things like research, experiments or surgery.
President Thomas Rowell said the company is focusing more on what he calls services like extracting blood or bone marrow than breeding animals.
Rowell said those services are agricultural byproducts. But, the way to get some of those products is through procedures that are counted in the USDA report as things like experiments or surgery.
“That’s where this idea of we were doing research on the animals came from. Basically, we were taking the animal and utilizing the bio-products or whatever byproducts that we can,” Rowell said.
But, local animal activists like Madeleine Doran said they’re concerned about Primate Products. The Fort Myers resident wants to see all of the primate facilities in Hendry County closed and the end of importing primates into the area.
“I don’t believe it follows the letter of the law or the intent from the state of Florida that macaque monkeys imported from Africa should be classified as agricultural,” she said. “They are not food. They are not a cow. It’s not a goat.”
Rowell said they have imported some from Africa in the past, but all of their monkeys currently come from China.
Doran also objects that the animals are kept in captivity and sold for profit.
Primate Products CEO and founder Paul Houghton has a list of examples of medical contributions that come from using primates in research.
“Treatment of leprosy, procedures for restoring blood supply to the brain… understanding slow viruses like AIDS, retro-viruses,” he said.
He said the mission of Primate Products is human health.
But there are those who say using animals for research is an old science. People like Theodora Capaldo, head of the New England Anti-Vivisection Society.
Capaldo, a licensed psychologist, said many areas of scientific animal use could be eliminated if it wasn’t for the financial incentives around what she calls “status-quo” research.
“They’re saying ‘Well we don’t need the chimpanzee in Hepatitis C research because we can use other kinds of monkeys.’ Well, if the chimp wasn’t of service why would a species of lesser genetic proximity to humans be necessary? And if it’s simply to use them as bio-containers for a virus, we don’t have to do that anymore,” Capaldo said.
Houghton said animal research is expensive. Companies use primates at the very last stage after testing their potential product out on less expensive models like mice.
“The false information that's being provided is that primate research isn’t necessary,” Houghton said. “That there's other things you can do that are better and if there was then they would be doing them because animal research, primate research in particular, is the most expensive way you can obtain this information.”
A spokesperson for the US Food and Drug Administration wrote in an email, “There are many areas where animal testing is necessary and non-animal testing is not yet a scientifically valid and available option.”
Houghton said his company hasn’t changed in its business during its time Hendry County.
“We haven’t changed in fundamental business. There’s more of this and less of that. There’s more of this animal and less of this animal but functionally in terms of an oversight no, what we’re doing now, we were selling blood to the people that needed it 15 years ago and we're doing that today,” he said.
County Administrator Charles Chapman said if they find the companies have violated their permits, he would discuss possible consequences with county commissioners and the county attorney.
And he said this is uncharted territory. Any consequences, he said, would set a precedent.
Hendry County Notice of Investigation for Mannheimer Foundation:
Mannheimer Foundation USDA Reports:
Hendry County Notice of Investigation for Primate Products:
Primate Products USDA Reports: