Monkey deaths at Lowcountry facility alarm animal activist group

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Monkey deaths at Lowcountry facility alarm animal activist group

[NOTE FROM SAEN: The number of monkey deaths reported in this article is not accurate.  According to federal reports there were 5 deaths due to hyperthermia (heat) and 4 due to hypothermia (cold) as well as another 9 deaths by either traumatic injuries or “evisceration.”]

By Bo Petersen, Post and Courier, Thursday, May 16, 2013

Five monkeys died of hypothermia and a fifth had to be put down. Others were fatally injured, likely during fights.

Those incidents at a Lowcountry monkey breeding facility and research lab alarmed activists, who have called for fines and closer investigation of Alpha Genesis in Yemassee.

“That doesn’t sound like a lab we should be counting on for scientific research,” said Michael Budkie, of Stop Animal Exploitation Now.

The deaths were reported by the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in 2011-12; the problems have been corrected, according to APHIS inspection reports.

“We take every complaint we receive very seriously and look into the allegations,” said Andre Bell, APHIS public affairs specialist.

Greg Westergaard, Alpha Genesis president, did not return a call seeking comment.

The company’s Yemassee captive-breeding facility is accredited and in good standing with APHIS and the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care, which one medical professional called the gold standard of the profession.

Alpha Genesis is primarily a breeding program that held about 4,000 monkeys in 2011, according to the Humane Society of the United States. Because it is a breeding facility, the numbers fluctuate.

Some 1,500 monkeys are kept for federally sponsored research, Budkie said.

The facility last drew public attention seven years ago, when the state of South Carolina bought Morgan Island, the so-called “Monkey Island” in Saint Helena Sound. The island is leased out as a free-range monkey breeding colony holding thousands of animals designated for research. Alpha Genesis no longer runs the island facility.

The use of animals, particularly primates, in research drew heavy scrutiny after an upswing in the work as part of the anti-terrorism effort the last decade. Primates largely are used for drug testing.

Researchers demand pathogen-free animals, and “there are very intensive laws and regulations” governing their handling, said Michael Swindle, laboratory animal resource and comparative medicine chairman at the Medical University of South Carolina. “If you don’t follow them, you cannot get federal funding.”

Kathleen Conlee, of the Humane Society, worked at the Yemassee facility under a former owner, and is concerned about the incidents, she said. The society also will ask APHIS to take strong action.

For larger facilities such as Alpha Genesis and aggressive animals such as monkeys, “it’s a cost of doing business to lose animals, to some degree,” she said. But while the goal is to see animal testing replaced by more innovative methods, the society’s immediate focus is to prevent animal suffering, she said.

The Stop Exploitation group monitors incident reporting at various animal research labs and breeding facilities. Budkie last tracked deaths at the facility in 2008.

“Our ultimate goal is the elimination of using animals in research,” he said. “We can get more humane and better results other ways.”

The numbers of most animals used in research, besides mice and rats, have been declining, Conlee said, but the numbers of primates have been increasing. Harvard University recently closed a research center holding 2,000 primates, saying it was too costly, and is moving to computer-chip research, Conlee said. She hopes that will become a trend.

“Primates are only used if they are the only model” suitable for the research, Swindle said. For certain drug studies and other types of research, “there isn’t any substitute.”

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