Driving by its front gate on Castle Hall Road, no out-of-towner would look twice at the unassuming compound of low-lying buildings that is Alpha Genesis Inc.
Nor would they guess the facility in rural Yemassee and a sister compound nearby are home to roughly 5,000 monkeys.
Images show two of the species of macaque kept at Alpha Genesis’ Yemasee research facility. Shown, from left, are a Rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta) and a crab-eating, or cynomolgus, macaque (M. fasciculariss). Einar Fredriksen (Rhesus), Sakurai Midori (cynomolgus) Wikipedia
While Yemassee locals haven’t heard of any problems at the “monkey farm” – as they call Alpha Genesis – the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has been investigating the monkey breeding facility and research lab since May, according to USDA spokeswoman Tonya Espinoza.
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While the reason for the investigation is unknown, it was opened a month after a USDA inspection at the facility.
Records show that between January and October of 2014, Alpha Genesis reported the deaths and injuries of 12 monkeys to the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare. Those deaths included an animal that died of dehydration and another whose organs ruptured after being shot with a dart gun.”What we want, obviously, is the health and wellness of these animals to be taken care of,” Espinoza said of the regular USDA inspections, adding that there is not timetable for when the investigation will wrap up. The agency can issue official warnings, monetary penalties and even suspend or revocation a dealer’s license.
Greg Westergaard, president and CEO of Alpha Genesis, said he is not aware of an open investigation and that anything needing correction after an inspection is typically addressed within three months. He said his company is in compliance with federal law.
Stop Animal Exploitation Now, an Ohio-based nonprofit working to stop the use of animals in research, wants the company shut down. The organization, a frequent critic of Alpha Genesis, recently discovered the 2015 deaths and injuries through an open records request.
It’s not the first year Alpha Genesis’ monkeys have been hurt or killed. The company was given an official warning by the USDA on May 20, 2014. That notice referenced a monkey that died after being left out in the cold on a January night that dipped to 9 degrees. The warning also noted another monkey was found dead in an enclosure thought by facility workers to have been empty. Three other monkeys from the same building also died in January due to the cold, a USDA inspection found.
Michael Budkie, director of Stop Animal Exploitation Now, said Alpha Genesis should not be allowed to care for animals because of its history of failing to take care of the animals’ basic needs. Private individuals would be charged with animal cruelty for similar incidents, he added.
“Unfortunately, the Animal Welfare Act doesn’t have criminal component to it,” Budkie said. “And, so instead, what we think should happen is their license should be revoked and these animals owned by the federal government should be moved someplace else that is not so frequently a killer of animals through negligence.”
Because the facility is used for research, it is subject to the Animal Welfare Act, which the USDA enforces through routine and surprise inspections.
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases as well as the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke own animals at the site, Budkie said.
Specifically, NIAID owns a breeding colony and contracts with Alpha Genesis for the animals’ care – food, water, veterinary treatment – according to an NIAID statement. The animals are then used for research at other institutions to help develop “life-saving preventions and treatments for diseases affecting public health,” the statement read.
Many monkeys at the facility are bred and sold to various USDA-licensed research facilities. According to media reports, Alpha Genesis monkeys have been used in vaccine development and research on cures for a wide range of diseases, including cancer, heart disease, multiple sclerosis and more.
Westergaard said his company is widely recognized for its animal care practices and is fully accredited. Budkie’s claims are hyperbole, he said
“The pattern (of complaints against animal research facilities) has gone on for many years and is repeated across many facilities in many, many states without prejudice,” Westergaard, a former scientist with the National Institutes of Health, wrote in an email. “That is (Budkie’s) right, but it is also my right to work closely with the proper and authorized regulatory agencies rather than respond to the inflammatory rhetoric of someone with a specific misleading agenda.”
Budkie says he doesn’t file complaints against all animal research facilities and that Alpha Genesis is one that continually turns up during his records requests.
“If Alpha Genesis were a human being, they would be considered kind of a career criminal – at least in our mind,” Budkie said.
Dehydration, medical procedures gone wrong
One day this past spring, an enterprising monkey tugged free a thin piece of wire holding together its chain-link enclosure, and two of the animals slipped through a gap and onto the surrounding property of Alpha Genesis.
One of the monkeys was recaptured after being offered fruit. The other jumped to the roof of a building at the Yemassee facility and refused to climb down.
The first dart tranquilizer grazed its left chest. The second stuck in the animal’s right side, sedating it, according to records.
The next day, kept in an enclosure by itself for monitoring, the monkey showed poor appetite and no bowel movements. Handlers provided fruit, other food and treats, and Gatorade.
In the morning, the monkey was found dead. Unbeknownst to handlers, the dart had ruptured the animal’s gall bladder and damaged its liver.
The death was one of several self-reported this year by the facility. Incidents are investigated by an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, required by law of institutions receiving federal money.
The Alpha Genesis committee is made up of scientists, specialists and outside members of the community, Westergaard said. Incidents deemed to breech federal law or Public Health Service policy are reported to the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare.
Among the other incidents reported by Alpha Genesis in 2015:
▪ A monkey died of thirst and four others were treated for symptoms of dehydration after the water supply to a set of cages was turned off for a week following pressuring washing in February. As a result, all employees underwent training on checking water lines. And supervisors must now check behind employees.
▪ In August, a monkey was returned to the wrong social group after a technician misread its identifying tattoo. The animal was chased by other monkeys and wounded. The animal was removed and treated but later died from being overheated. In a similar incident the same month, a monkey died of gastric bloat after being returned to a newly formed social group. Technicians now have to work in a buddy system when returning monkeys from clinics and receive a supervisor’s approval, Westergaard wrote to an OLAW official. The monkeys also receive a temporary fluorescent hair dye when they return from treatment so that they can be more easily monitored.
▪ In May, a monkey’s arm was broken while it was being sedated in preparation to be sold. The team involved was re-trained in proper handling techniques, Westergaard told OLAW. In another incident the same month, monkeys in one of the buildings were not fed in the morning, did not receive medical treatment and their living space was not cleaned after the two employees responsible showed up late and another employee falsified their time cards. One worker was fired and another suspended without pay, and none of the monkeys suffered ill effects. A manager is now required to come in on the weekend and ensure employees are on time and doing their work.
▪ In February at Alpha Genesis’ Hampton facility, a monkey died after being bled for routine health processing and developed a hemotoma. The processing staff underwent new training on proper blood collection techniques, and staff discussed implementing an in-house blood donation system for emergency transfusions.
▪ In January, a monkey’s tail had to be partially amputated after being injured due to the cold. A heater in the area was found to be connected to a faulty switch. Alpha Genesis told OLAW it was experimenting with a temperature monitoring system that would alert officials to future HVAC failures.
In each case, the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare responded and told Westergaard the corrective measures were appropriate and that no further action by the office was needed.
Alpha Genesis has also occasionally struggled with monkeys that escape.
USDA inspections noted an incident a year ago in which 26 monkeys escaped onto the Alpha Genesis compound.
The animals were recaptured within two days, and the two employees responsible were fired.
About the same time, a monkey being transferred for treatment escaped his cage, hopped over the perimeter fence at the company’s Early Branch facility and was never found.
Westergaard said local police are notified whenever an animal escapes the fence. He said he still sees the fugitive monkey from time to time, and expects it to jump back over the fence and return on its own. It will be identified during one of the animals’ biannual health exams.
“It’s pretty tricky to spot a monkey in a tree,” Westergaard said. “And since she does not pose a threat to anyone, it would be risky and foolish to give chase.”
Stiffer enforcement sought
Nationally, animal-rights activists are pushing for the USDA to increase penalties when the minimum standards of the Animal Welfare Act aren’t followed, said Kathleen Conlee, vice president of animal research issues at the Humane Society of the United States.
Conlee, who worked for Alpha Genesis during the 1990s when the company was known as Labs of Virginia, wants all animals removed from research and more facilities to go to a model like Harvard University, which ended primate research and now uses computer modeling.
Animals are expensive and require a long time to see results, Conlee said.
For now, stiffer penalties are the goal.
But the national trend is softer fines. A recent federal audit of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service found that fines were being reduced an average of 86 percent of the maximum of $10,000 per violation allowed by the Animal Welfare Act.
In addition, almost 60 cases involving dead animals or repeat violations were not closed properly during an attempt to jettison a backlog of 2,000 cases, the audit found.
Multiple previous audits also noted low penalties and a need to revise how penalties are calculated. After normal reductions to account for a facility’s size, history and good faith efforts, another 75 percent reduction can be given to forgo a hearing and save the agency time and money.
“Violators continued to consider the monetary stipulation as a normal cost of business, rather than a deterrent for violating the law,” a 2005 audit report said.
A low profile in town
Meanwhile, Yemassee residents say they haven’t heard or seen anything out of the ordinary.
“You don’t ever hear (anything),” said Town Councilman Colin Moore, who has lived in Yemassee all of his 62 years.
Moore said he knows people who work for Alpha Genesis and knows they go in late at night to ensure generators are working and that the animals are warm and cared for.
“I’ve never heard ... anything that would alarm me,” Moore said. “Everything I hear has been good stuff.”
Alpha Genesis’ employees include scientists, veterinarians, veterinarian technicians, administrative professionals and caretakers, said Westergaard. The company has contributed to the Lowcountry and to important research for 50 years, he said.
“It is valuable work which has significantly improved the health and well-being of people and animals throughout the world,” said Westergaard, who has been with the company since 1998 and owned the business the past dozen years. “And I for one am proud to be a part of it.”
Monkey deaths at Lowcountry facility alarm animal activist group (Charleston Post and Courier), May 16, 2013
New research effort will pick monkeys’ brains, June 17, 2006
Where the Wild Things Are, Nov. 2, 2005