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."

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Contributor Craig Malisow covers crooks, quacks, animal abusers, elected officials, and other assorted people for the Houston Press.
Contact: Craig Malisow