USDA Investigates Company Bringing Thousands of Lab Monkeys Through Bush Intercontinental

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If the shipment of hundreds of laboratory monkeys from China to George Bush Intercontinental airport expected Thursday is anything like last December's, here's what we can expect: no documentation showing the animals had received food or water in the previous 24 hours; leaky panels that allow waste products to spill out of enclosures upon offloading; and unsecured panels allowing the animals to reach outside their boxes, increasing risk of injury to themselves and others.

Those violations of the Animal Welfare Act, among others, were part of Air Transport International's USDA inspection reports from July and December 2014, provided to the Houston Press by PETA. The monkeys — macaques — are imported by three major companies with facilities in Texas: Houston's Charles River Laboratories, and Covance and SNBL, both located in Alice, according to PETA. (Charles River sells monkeys in addition to using them for research.)

The July inspection report shows that Air Transport International was not registered as an animal carrier with the USDA. The report also stated that one monkey — number 897 — "had several small lacerations on the face. The animal had dislodged part of a metal strip inside the primary enclosure intended to cover sharp edges of metal mesh used for ventilation. Dried blood was identified on the mesh. A crumpled piece of metal with sharp points and edges was noted in the enclosure attached to the mesh." 

"A valid registration helps to ensure compliance with the standards and regulations for transportation in commerce as required by the Animal Welfare Act," the inspection report states. 

Citing an ongoing investigation, spokespeople for both the USDA and Air Transport International said they could not provide any further information about the company's operations. (USDA records show that Air Transport International canceled its registration in December 2013 and re-registered in September 2014, and is currently registered. An April import of 1,200 monkeys showed no USDA violations.)

While PETA did not have exact financial information for Air Transport International, the group's research indicates that "the average cost per monkey for shipping is between $350 and $400," according to Justin Goodman, director of PETA's Laboratory Investigations Department.

"So that means on some of the large ATI flights of 1,200 monkeys, they could be making close to half a million dollars," Goodman told us in an email. "Unfortunately, the USDA fine for violations identified during two such shipments in 2014 will likely pale in comparison."

What does the Houston Airport System think about the unregistered importation of loosely caged animals into its largest airport? Not much, apparently. 

PETA research associate Mitch Goldsmith wrote Houston Airport System Chief Operating Officer Lance Lyttle in January 2015, citing the USDA violations, and asking that Lyttle "reconsider your involvement in shipments of monkeys through Houston airports."

Lyttle politely blew off Goldsmith, pointing out that it's not the Houston Airport System's job to enforce federal law. 

"The Houston Airport System exists to connect the people, businesses, cultures, and economies of the world to Houston," Lyttle wrote. "In order to accomplish this goal, we rely heavily on the expertise of our regulatory partners." 

We wanted to ask Lyttle if the Houston Airport System has the ability to independently investigate the possible illegal importation of cargo, or if its personnel have to sit idly by, crossing their fingers that federal agencies are doing their jobs. We wanted to ask that, but Lyttle's assistant, Aisha Stewart, said we'd need to sit tight and wait to hear from a public information officer. We're still waiting.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Texas Department of Parks & Wildlife also play roles in making sure individuals or companies importing animals into wildlife ports are properly permitted, and that declaration documents are provided. 

Unlike the USDA, whose inspection reports offer a degree of transparency and are available online, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Texas Department of Parks & Wildlife do not disclose the names of the companies that bring animals into ports. (If a violation warrants a U.S. Department of Justice investigation for possible criminal charges, that information would generally become public upon indictment or conclusion of an investigation, according to official sources.)

One of the largest providers of laboratory animals, Massachusetts-based Charles River Laboratories opened its Houston primate distribution center off Almeda-Genoa Road in 1991 and has maintained a low profile

Air Transport International's "operations base" is in Wilmington, Ohio, with corporate offices in Irving.

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