Monkey Business

"We are also a global leader in providing purpose-bred, high quality...disease-free large animal models to the biomedical research community, principally for use in their drug development and testing studies." -- Charles River Laboratories, 2005 Annual Report

In a series of low-slung concrete-block buildings on Almeda-Genoa Road in southwest Houston, hundreds of large animal models wait to meet their new owners. These large animal models are also known as research models or nonhuman primates, but most people outside the research field call them monkeys. Specifically, they are rhesus and cynomolgus monkeys, imported from the Republic of Mauritius, a tiny island east of Madagascar.

Based in Wilmington, Massachusetts, Charles River Laboratories is the world's largest provider of lab animals -- mostly rats, mice and rabbits. But monkeys constitute about 5 percent of its supply, and they are housed in the company's primate distribution center in Houston.

The center's facade has no sign and no street number. It is not listed in Charles River's annual reports, Web site or product catalogs. The company has made sure that, publicly, the center does not exist. No animal rights groups contacted for this story were aware of existing interior photos, nor did they know exactly what went on inside. The Houston Press was able to find only two outsiders who have ever toured the facility. Both opposed testing on primates, but both gave high marks to Raj Ballah, the center's recently retired director.

While some information on animal dealers is available from regulatory agencies, these records can be difficult to obtain. For example, any quarantine records requested from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control must first be reviewed by the inspected facility for the redaction of proprietary secrets. This means that private dealers can sit on public records until every disease in the world is cured and animals aren't even needed anymore.

While the debate over using primates in research has received extensive media coverage, there has been little examination of the business of supplying primates. Historically, providers have said they avoided media attention for fear of reprisal from radical animal rights groups.

Charles River Laboratories did not give the Houston Press a reason. For more than a month, a company spokeswoman in Massachusetts ignored requests for a tour of the monkey distribution center and an interview with a center representative before saying the company did not want to be a part of this story.

Short of getting a job at the center, or perhaps disguising oneself as a monkey, there is little chance of seeing the inside of the facility, which can hold up to 2,800 monkeys. Since I can barely handle one job, and since rhesus monkeys don't have beer guts, those options wouldn't work for me. So I had to piece together a view of the monkey trade from interviews, public records, research journals and PR spin from both pro- and anti-animal-testing interest groups. That last part was the worst. Propaganda gives good headache. Thus, the only animal harmed in the writing of this story was me.

"A virus scientists suspect is a form of the Ebola virus has been detected in a third monkey at a primate center near Alice. The monkey and 47 others in the same quarantine room will be euthanized today. Two monkeys from the same room previously had been confirmed as having the Ebola-Reston virus." -- Texas Department of Health press release, April 1996

In October 1989, a shipment of cynomolgus monkeys from a Philippine colony brought Ebola to Texas.

The monkeys flew from Manila to Amsterdam, then on to New York, where they were finally transported to facilities run by Hazelton Research Products in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Alice, Texas, about 50 miles west of Corpus Christi.

The virus was first discovered in tissue samples collected from monkeys in the Virginia lab. While not all monkeys always survive such trips, monkeys from this shipment were dying at a higher rate than usual in the lab's quarantine unit. A vet sent tissue samples to the United States Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, which confirmed the presence of the Ebola virus.

Of the nearly 200 animal handlers tested for Ebola, none showed clear of infection. However, six handlers, including one in Alice, developed antibodies that suggested they were infected. None of the handlers showed any subsequent signs of illness.

Three months later, in January 1990, the Virginia and Alice labs received a second shipment of infected monkeys, from the same Philippine colony. In 1996, another shipment of cynomolgus monkeys again brought Ebola to Alice.

David Smith, then commissioner of the Texas Department of Health, did his best to reassure the public, stating: "The public has never been in danger and still isn't. Ebola is a scary word, but the outbreaks in Africa which killed hundreds of people were caused by the Zaire and Sudan subtypes of the Ebola virus. [This] subtype kills monkeys but has never been known to cause illness or death in humans."  

At the time of the original Ebola scare in 1989, Charles River's primate facility was located on Long Island. And while none of the infected monkeys was discovered there, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control pulled the company's import permit, along with the permits of Hazelton and Worldwide Primates in Miami.

According to the Associated Press, CDC inspectors discovered violations of quarantine procedures, including repeated use of syringes. In notifying the companies, CDC director William L. Roper stated that inspectors found "isolation and quarantine conditions to be inadequate to protect persons who come in contact with...primates, as well as to prevent disease transmission among the primates themselves."

Charles River acted quickly; its permit was reinstated in a matter of weeks. However, the New York Department of Health implemented its own regulations. Because JFK Airport was the point of entry for approximately 80 percent of the country's primates, the department issued an order prohibiting the importation of any monkey not quarantined abroad for 60 days. This was in addition to the CDC's 31-day quarantine guidelines.

This greatly upset Joe Held, former assistant U.S. surgeon general, and then-director of Charles River's primate division. In a speech to a National Institutes of Health committee in 1990, Held said that stricter regulations would dramatically reduce the number of monkeys imported while simultaneously increasing cost -- to the tune of about $5 million. This included increased shipping costs, since airlines that didn't outright drop their animal transport services tripled their fees.

"There are other areas of impact besides these numbers and costs to the biomedical community," Held said, according to transcripts in Brown University's Laboratory Primate Newsletter. "There is the impact felt by 12 of our workers and their families when they had to be laid off because we couldn't bring in enough primates to justify keeping them on the job...There was also a problem for many of these positive people in their domestic situations, since some had been counseled not to have sexual relations."

Within a year, Charles River decided that the cost of doing business in New York was simply too great. The company would have to move somewhere with more lenient regulations. It decided to move somewhere that, after two Ebola scares, hadn't tightened its quarantine procedure. It decided to move to Texas.

"This morning's New York Times is reporting that key details of an article published June 7 in Slate, 'Monkeyfishing,' were fabricated by the author...No monkeys were actually hooked, none 'came flying from the trees, a juicy apple stapled to its palm,' lines were not cut to free them, and so on." -- From a 2001 apology by then-Slate editor Michael Kinsley, on an article published in the online magazine about a supposed new sport called "monkeyfishing."

Since Charles River founder Henry Foster began breeding rats in wire cages in his basement in the '40s, Charles River Laboratories has truly blossomed.

In 2003, Fortune named it one of the 100 fastest-growing companies. In 2005, the company generated $1.1 billion in worldwide revenue. The Boston Business Journal named it the company of the year for 2006. The article was titled "The Mice that Roared" and included pencil drawings of expressionless mice. Monkeys were not mentioned.

Such is the case with most publicity surrounding the company. Newspaper or magazine articles are usually headlined with some variation of "Mighty Mouse."

The same goes for the company's annual reports, which include photos of genetically altered mice, but do not even mention the word "primate."

The closest the 2005 annual report comes to Monkeytown is the acknowledgment that "certain special interest groups categorically object to the use of animals for valid research purposes. Historically, our core research model activities with rats, mice and other rodents have not been the subject of animal rights media attention."

When at all possible, the company refrains from mentioning any animals. The company's preferred description of itself, listed on its Web site and in annual reports, is as a "global provider of solutions that advance the drug discovery and development process."

The company provides its "research models" to drug companies, biotechnology companies, and government and academic institutions. The company's annual reports do not name clients, but scientific journals and some U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings indicate that Charles River has provided monkeys to Eli Lilly, Merck and Wyeth.

The majority of primate research is conducted on two kinds of macaques: rhesus and cynomolgus. They are good models for a variety of research, including studies of AIDS, heart disease, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and tuberculosis.  

In a genius move, the federal government has divided primate responsibilities among the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Department of the Interior and the CDC, thus ensuring that no one has the same idea of how many primates are actually imported into the country each year.

While the information is public, none of the agencies makes import data easy to get; public records requests are often necessary to procure the most basic information. Most organizations on both sides of the animal-testing debate say the United States imports between 10,000 and 15,000 primates a year for research and exhibition. However, the AESOP Project, an organization fighting to end the use of primates in research, has filed extensive FOIA requests for USDA records that reveal higher numbers. Based on that data, more than 26,000 primates were imported in 2005. The numbers have not dipped below 18,000 since 2001.

While macaques appear to be valuable for biomedical research, they are also what is known in scientific terms as a pain in the ass.

In 1973, Charles River opened a breeding colony in Key Lois, Florida, with 1,200 rhesus monkeys from India. While some were caged, others had the run of the land, which did not include any human residents. The monkeys quickly went about ravaging the key's mangrove trees and pooping in the water. A few years later, the company introduced 2,000 more rhesus monkeys to nearby Raccoon Key, with the same ecological results.

In 1997, after years of debate, a Florida judge ruled that all uncaged monkeys had to leave the Keys in two years. As part of a settlement, Charles River agreed to restore the Keys at its own cost. In 1999, according to an SEC filing, the company sold the colonies' assets to Merck.

Things have been easier with Charles River's cynomolgus monkeys.

These come to Houston from Mauritius. It is believed that either Portuguese or Dutch explorers first brought the monkeys to Mauritius in the 1600s, where the lack of natural predators allowed for a tremendous population increase. "Opportunistic omnivores," these monkeys will eat pretty much whatever they can get their hands on. Some researchers believe they were responsible for wiping out the island's forest birds, and all researchers understand that they like to steal eggs from nests. Other hobbies include raiding gardens and sugar cane crops. They've also been known to beg for food and, failing that, to steal food from people's homes.

In 1989, Charles River contracted with Bioculture Mauritius, a colony run by Australian-born zoologist Owen Griffiths. In e-mail correspondence with the Press, Griffiths initially agreed to answer questions about how many of his company's monkeys were trapped and how many were bred in captivity. Griffiths responded, through a pro-animal-testing group, after the story's deadline. Griffiths stated that he could not "provide...specific client information."

In the 1997 contract between Charles River and Bioculture Mauritius (the most recent contract filed with the SEC), Bioculture agreed to make available at least 5,000 monkeys per year. Based on their age, weight and health, Charles River would pay between $540 and $1,300 per monkey. Charles River also agreed to "promote [Bioculture] as a supplier in its marketing efforts, including trade show exhibits," provided that Bioculture "shall, at its own cost and expense, prepare a quality brochure."

Griffiths has told foreign newspapers that Charles River also donates $50 per monkey to the Mauritian government for environmental conservation.

"Cage-conditioning involves holding animals in solitary confinement in small cages for between six and 90 days, and it causes considerable distress. In part, cage-conditioning is justified by centres because of the expectation of purchasing laboratories, especially in the USA, that monkeys will be accustomed to single caging." -- British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection report, 2006

Charles River's June 9, 1999, shipment of macaques was a bit short.

According to the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, ten monkeys aboard an Air France shipment from Mauritius were dead on arrival. The cause was shock, secondary to heat stroke.

According to the AESOP Project (and based on information from the Department of the Interior), the port of entry was Chicago. Charles River's Houston facility received 114 macaques later that day.

It's the worst shipping incident animal rights groups have been able to dig up in the company's nearly 60-year history. But while DOAs may be an anomaly, animal rights groups believe shipping causes undue stress on all monkeys.

The most recent advocate study, issued by the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection in June 2006, states that monkeys are being hurt before they even board a plane for shipment.  

"The International Primatological Society published international guidelines for the acquisition, care and breeding of primates, but these are only recommendations," the report states. "It is unlikely that any overseas breeding centres...achieve these goals."

Problems cited in the report include dilapidated pens with no tools or toys to play with, overbreeding of female monkeys, and premature weaning that leads to high infant mortality rates.

The report also cites a 2001 report by England's Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which states, "animals captured but subsequently deemed unsuitable for use may also be killed rather than be released. Where trapping takes place over a large area, monkeys may be left in traps for several days or even weeks before a sufficient number are caught for moving to a holding centre."

Shirley McGreal, who runs the International Primate Protection League in South Carolina, says she toured Charles River's Houston facility in 2001.

"It was really clean. We couldn't spot a single violation of the Animal Welfare Act," she says. "So I think there's something about Dr. Ballah...I don't think they make them like him anymore. I think he wouldn't put profits ahead of providing minimal care for the animals...I would not say that of any other animal dealer."

AESOP Project director Linda Howard, who died shortly after being interviewed for this story, had joined McGreal on the tour. Howard also provided her e-mails with Ballah that revealed his interest in the humane treatment of his company's monkeys.

In September 2000, Howard e-mailed Ballah information about Tanzanian baboon trappers hired by Charles River. Howard wrote that the trappers were allegedly killing baboons and taking them to a taxidermist. She threatened to notify the media if Charles River did not investigate the claims.

Ballah immediately issued forms for the trappers to sign, which stated in part: "We will never do business with anyone who uses inhumane or cruel methods in trapping animals...We have been in the business of import of nonhuman primates for nearly fifty years and we have never knowingly done business with anyone who used inhumane trapping."

According to the e-mail correspondence, Ballah ultimately canceled the baboon order and worked with Howard to find a reputable trapping company. By 2001, Charles River had gotten out of the baboon business altogether.

While the company still imports cynomolgus monkeys, even that practice might be decreasing; U.S. Department of the Interior records show that the company imported 3,455 in 2004 and only 1,670 in 2005.

And, with one glaring exception, USDA inspection reports since September 2003 have not shown any significant violations. In December 2005, an inspector found sutures that were past their expiration date in the surgery room. The problem was "corrected immediately."

I had to FOIA the inspection reports, which took a month and revealed little. Actually, as far as inspection reports go, they're lame. There is no checklist, so there is no indication of what the inspector was looking for. Generally, USDA inspectors enforce the Animal Welfare Act, which states that some animals need to live in clean, well-lit cages before they're hauled off to be force-fed meth or have their eyes sewn shut.

Furthermore, violators don't have to fear stiff penalties. According to a 2005 USDA Inspector General's audit, a zoo in Brownsville was fined $5,600 for violations that killed five gorillas and a rhinoceros. The fine had been reduced from $22,500.

Rabbit Urine Punch:
1 large can pineapple juice
1 bottle white cranberry w/raspberry fruit juice
1 liter ginger ale
Chill each ingredient. Mix in punch bowl when ready to serve. Can double recipe for larger groups. Note: The pineapple juice provides the cloudiness of rabbit urine, but any other clear/yellow fruit juice can be used as the other juice in the recipe. -- American Association for Laboratory Animal Science, "Animal Research Fair Planning Guide"

Great science does not depend on monkeys alone.

Many biomedical companies are hunting for animal alternatives, including better computerized research models. To further this initiative, Charles River created the Charles River Laboratories Foundation, which, according to the Charles River Web site, promotes humane care of laboratory animals and "advances the three R's of animal welfare: reduction, refinement and replacement."

To that end, the foundation awards an annual prize to a researcher who shines in those areas. This year's award consists of $2,500 and a plaque.

On the flip side, Charles River in 2004 gave $100,000 to the American Association of Laboratory Animal Science to launch, a brightly colored Web site that brings the goodness of animal research into the schools. The site's "Fun Stuff" page includes instructions on how to make an actual mouse-shaped computer mouse. The Web site states: "Then, whenever you have questions on the use of animals in biomedical research, our Kids-4-Research website address will be right at your fingertips!" (This is in line with other fun kid stuff that AALAS markets, like a coloring book called "The Adventures of Larry the Lab Mouse.")  

The kids4research Web site also has a Q&A section on the debate over animal testing. Sample question: "Do the experiments cause pain to the animals?" Sample answer: "Federal laws, including the Animal Welfare Act, regulate the elimination and alleviation of pain."

What the site doesn't mention is that, thanks to lobbying by biomedical interest groups, mice, rats and birds are not considered "animals" under the Animal Welfare Act. Which is to say, Larry the Lab Mouse is fucked.

One of the most active of these interest groups is the Foundation for Biomedical Research, a spin-off of the National Association for Biomedical Research, which was created at the behest of Charles River Laboratories. According to a Wall Street Journal article that animal rights groups love to quote, NABR was born in Charles River founder Henry Foster's living room.

Both interest groups keep track of violence propagated by animal rights extremists. Some of the incidents are alarming. In 2001, the marketing director of the British drug-testing company Huntingdon Life Sciences was pepper-sprayed on the doorstep of his home, in front of his wife and three-year-old daughter. Extremists also hounded the company's accountants, Deloitte & Touche, by breaking windows, gluing doors closed and constantly calling family members. Deloitte subsequently ended its four-year relationship with Huntingdon.

In 2003, pipe bombs detonated in two San Francisco-area companies with ties to Huntingdon. No one was injured. In Seattle the year before, extremists tossed smoke bombs into the offices of other companies with ties to Huntingdon.

This makes it a little easier to understand why Charles River isn't so excited to talk to the media. And, with the exception of a 1991 Houston Chronicle story about a few dudes in gorilla suits who protested shortly after the facility opened that year, it has avoided media exposure.

There have been no subsequent reports of organized protesting since that time. Maybe that's because the company has done such a good job about pretending that it doesn't import hundreds of large animal models into Houston every year. It reminds me of something Iva, an alleged employee of Charles River says in one of the company's uplifting promotional videos: "Everything we do is very visible. And I believe that all the people who work here understand that."

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >