Federal wildlife officials found themselves in a tricky situation after they flagged recent shipments of research monkeys as improperly imported into the U.S.
The more than 1,000 long-tailed macaques were imported by Charles River Laboratories, a research company based in Massachusetts. Since being flagged by wildlife officials, the monkeys have been under the company’s care, a Charles River spokesperson said.
Over the past six months, officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have contacted at least two animal sanctuaries to inquire about the cost of housing and feeding the primates for the rest of their lives.
One sanctuary quoted a price tag of $125 million — to cover staffing costs, the purchase of land and building infrastructure — before communication with government officials stalled last week.
The federal government then decided to ship the monkeys back to Cambodia, according to PETA, but the animal rights groups are fighting back.
“We know that the monkeys are not going to be safe at the other end,” said Liz Tyson, programs director at Born Free USA, the organization that provided the $125 million quote to wildlife officials.
PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo said the group is urging Fish and Wildlife to “do the right thing and send these gentle beings to worthy, willing sanctuaries.”
It’s not clear what prompted Fish and Wildlife to block Charles River from using the monkeys. An agency spokesperson said the monkey shipments were refused clearance as a result of an ongoing investigation but did not provide more details.
The importation of monkeys used in medical research is strictly regulated, requiring paperwork that attests that the primates have come from breeding facilities.
The Justice Department has for years been investigating whether American companies, including Charles River, were involved in the smuggling of monkeys poached from the wild and brought to the U.S. with falsified paperwork.
A spokesperson for Charles River acknowledged that “a number of shipments” from the company’s Cambodian supplier were recently denied clearance by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“We have operated under the belief that all shipments of [monkeys] … satisfied the material requirements, documentation and related processes and procedures of CITES,” a 1975 treaty designed to ensure that the global market for certain plants and animals doesn’t threaten their survival in the wild.
The company said it has voluntarily suspended future shipments of Cambodian monkeys “until such time we and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can develop and implement new procedures to reinforce confidence that the [monkeys] we import from Cambodia are purpose-bred.”
The company added that it “continues to care for” the Cambodia-sourced monkeys, but it did not specify the location.
Charles River announced in February that it had been subpoenaed in the Justice Department probe.
“We are fully cooperating with the U.S. government as part of their investigation and believe that any concerns raised with respect to Charles River are without merit,” the company said in a statement at the time.
Angela Grimes, the chief executive of Born Free USA, said the organization was first contacted by Fish and Wildlife in September. The agents were looking for a home for 360 monkeys.
Fish and Wildlife officials called back in February and said the number of monkeys had ballooned to 1,200, Grimes said.
“There’s no place with space for 1,200 monkeys,” Grimes added. “The government was struggling with that. We were also struggling with that.”
Grimes said she was hoping to work with the federal government to come up with a plan to arrange for the necessary funding to set up housing for the monkeys. But then she felt like the rug had been pulled out from under her when PETA announced it had information suggesting that the government planned to ship the monkeys back to Cambodia.
“We were not given the full opportunity to engage in a serious conversation to come up with solutions that would possibly work,” Grimes said.
Krystal Mathis, executive director of Primarily Primates, a sanctuary outside of San Antonio, said she received a call from Fish and Wildlife in February.
“It sounded like they [the agents] were trying to find out what all their options were,” Mathis said. “We said we could definitely take some of the females to start, and maybe more as we learned additional information.”
Primarily Primates and Born Free USA both said a new structure for housing a dozen rescued monkeys can run more than $100,000. The animals also need daily feeding and frequent veterinary care requiring staff and resources.
On Monday PETA supporters flooded the Fish and Wildlife Service with thousands of emails and phone calls urging the agency not to ship the monkeys back to Cambodia, the group said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson declined to provide any information about its plans for the monkeys.
"Disposition of shipments that are refused clearance varies based on circumstances, and we are unable to comment further on these shipments at this time," the spokesperson said.
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In November, two Cambodian wildlife officials were among eight people charged with running an international monkey smuggling ring that allegedly shipped primates to the U.S. that had been poached from the wild and falsely labeled as coming from breeding facilities.
The smuggling of monkeys caught in the wild is believed to have been going on for decades due to the colossal demand for laboratory monkeys in the U.S. and the limited supply at breeding facilities at home and abroad.
NBC News reported in December that the Covid pandemic and race to find a vaccine squeezed the market even further, setting off a mad scramble for the animals that fueled a spike in monkey poaching and contributed to the endangerment of the species most commonly used in drug studies — the long-tailed macaque.
“It’s gotten out of hand,” Malene Friis Hansen, the director of the Long-tailed Macaque Project, a Denmark-based nonprofit group focused on conserving the primates, said at the time.