How Monkeys Became Big Business in Florida

The breeders are proud. The activists are mad. The neighbors are confused. And the monkeys still have good aim.

Susan Campbell first heard about the monkey farm from her neighbor William Stephens. It was the summer of 2013, and Stephens explained to her the troubling news. Someone had purchased a plot of land in their rural neighborhood in south-central Florida and was about to begin construction on a farm to breed, of all things, monkeys.

The details were hazy. But as her neighbor rattled off what he knew—the county had already approved a plan to have up to 3,000 or so monkeys live on the premises—Campbell listened anxiously. She recognized the site he was describing, a patch of land by Bedman Creek, where the main road hits a dead end, roughly a mile from her home. How much noise could 3,000 monkeys make, she wondered. Her two wolfdogs, Diablo and Apache, were going to “flip out,” she later recalled thinking.

Campbell, 62, and her husband live on the outskirts of LaBelle, a small town on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River. It’s the seat of Hendry County, a muggy, agricultural region just north of the Everglades, about an hour’s drive inland from Fort Myers. The area’s low-lying fields are crisscrossed by drainage canals and studded with citrus groves, hog farms, pepper plantings, llama ranches, watermelon patches, cattle pastures—and in recent years, as Campbell learned, monkey farms. There were already two such businesses operating in the county, importing and breeding monkeys for sale to biomedical research institutions. A third breeder would soon open outside the town of Immokalee. The proposed farm near her home would make four. That July, Campbell, who’s in the technical support team for the South Florida Water Management District, e-mailed the county’s commissioners, demanding more information. “Seems like a pretty well-kept secret,” she wrote. Nobody responded.

Before long, however, Campbell and her neighbors found a powerful ally in their quest to keep their neighborhood monkey-free. For decades, animal welfare activists had been fighting a public-relations battle against companies that supply the scientific community with monkeys, arguing it is unnecessary and unethical to use monkeys for testing. Recently, they had scored some victories, managing to get several major airlines, including American Airlines, United, and Delta, to commit publicly to stop transporting research monkeys into the U.S. Now, they’ve shifted their focus to Hendry County.

In the months that followed, a coalition of mainstream and radical animal rights groups took up the cause. Activists wearing T-shirts that read “Stop Hendry County Monkey Business!” disrupted a local economic development hearing. They claimed the county was turning into the monkey-cruelty capital of the U.S. They warned that monkeys might overrun the Everglades, already under siege from invasive pythons. Robbyne Kaamil, a New York-based actor, wrote a song and shot a music video about the plight of the Hendry County macaques. “Florida rise up,” she sang. “Don’t let them turn paradise into hell on earth for primates and all of us. … Free the monkeys. Let them all go. Free the monkeys. Let them go home.”

In November 2014, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a group based in California, filed suit in state court against Hendry County on behalf of Campbell’s neighbors. The lawsuit alleged that officials had approved the new monkey farm in violation of certain zoning restrictions and without a public hearing as required by Florida law. County officials replied that they had done nothing wrong and asked the judge to dismiss the case. This March the judge made an initial ruling, allowing the suit to proceed to discovery.

Each year, roughly 20,000 or so monkeys are flown from tropical regions worldwide into the U.S. Many wind up at stateside farms. Despite the relatively small number, the monkeys play a huge role in basic scientific and medical research, says Matthew Bailey, the executive vice president of the National Association for Biomedical Research. Before a new drug or vaccine can go on the market, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires safety testing using animals. The use of monkeys has been essential, says Bailey, in developing cures for everything from typhus to polio and is integral to the study of currently incurable diseases such as Alzheimer’s and AIDS. “My suggestion is that if you agree with the animal rights narrative, open up your medicine cabinet and throw out all your pills, including your child’s pain reliever,” he says. “Because without animals in preclinical research and testing, we wouldn’t have them.” Clients of monkey farms won’t describe what happens to the animals they purchase. Activists allege every dark scenario from death by Ebola virus exposure to experimental surgery.

If the new farm is built, Hendry County could house up to 10,000 monkeys, making it a hub in the nation’s supply chain. But activists now see it as an increasingly weak link in an otherwise well-armored system. They’re hoping to make the whole thing come to a grinding halt. As a result, what started as a small skirmish in rural Florida has now escalated into a drama with potentially negative repercussions for the nation’s multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical industry. Yet many of the companies involved have chosen to remain silent. PreLabs, the private Illinois-based company that proposed the monkey farm at the center of the Hendry controversy, has said almost nothing in public about its plans or what inspired them. Similarly, the Mannheimer Foundation, which since 2005 has operated a monkey farm in the county, has remained mum. Neither responded to multiple interview requests.

Their silence has only added to the mystery that hangs over the farms’ proliferation in Hendry County. By midsummer, with the activists appearing to gain momentum, Campbell couldn’t help but wonder how her little neighborhood, which doesn’t have so much as door-side mail delivery, emerged as the center in the global monkey trade. “What is the big draw here?” she asks. “Why did they choose this county?”

Panther Tracks workers train monkeys to be more cooperative with lab workers.

Paul Houghton has the answer. Houghton, the owner and chief executive officer of Primate Products, which is based in Redwood City, Calif., was the first monkey specialist to recognize the potential of Hendry. In 1998, after many years in the monkey business, several spent overseas, he was looking to build a large, isolated farm somewhere in the U.S. Breeding monkeys alfresco, which is much cheaper than doing it indoors, requires consistently warm weather. South Texas is one possibility. South Florida is another. The Florida Keys would be ideal, but Houghton knew folks there had long ago soured on monkey breeders.

In 1973, Charles River Laboratories, a biomedical company based in Wilmington, Mass., purchased two islands in the Keys, which it stocked with more than a thousand macaques from India. The idea was to let the monkeys breed unimpeded, and the company would then occasionally harvest a portion for laboratories. According to press accounts, however, the monkeys eventually overran the islands, stripping bare the mangrove vegetation and fouling the waters. The locals were apoplectic. Litigation ensued. Finally, in the 1990s, the project was discontinued and the monkeys were removed.

Rowell, Primate Products’ president, lives at Panther Tracks.

Houghton looked at a map of Florida. If you follow a line north from the Keys, you hit the Everglades, then Hendry County. Houghton did some research and found that the area satisfied many of his needs: It was largely agricultural with a labor force accustomed to working with animals. It was out of sight from any potentially nervous neighbors. Yet you could still drive to the Miami International Airport to pick up a new shipment within a couple of hours.

Houghton bought a large parcel surrounded by farmland and next to the Big Cypress National Preserve. He says that from the start, everyone in the county was welcoming. “The economic development people from Hendry County overwhelmingly wanted us there,” he recalls. (The Hendry County Economic Development Council didn’t respond to several interview requests.)

In 2000, Houghton opened his monkey farm. He christened it the Panther Tracks Learning Center. It is at the end of a dirt road off a desolate highway stretching between Immokalee and Everglades City, past a former prison. There’s an unmarked gate watched by a security camera, and beyond, on the far side of a lagoon filled with alligators, sits a cluster of buildings. Guests are asked on arrival to produce a driver’s license and reassure a pair of stone-faced staffers that they’re not, say, animal welfare activists working undercover.

The 640-acre site usually houses 1,000 to 1,200 monkeys, a mix of rhesus and cynomolgus macaques native to Vietnam, China, and Mauritius. The company doesn’t sell monkeys to collectors or zoos. It only does business with biomedical researchers. Recent clients have included the National Institutes of Health, Duke University, and AstraZeneca. Houghton runs the business from California, leaving Thomas Rowell, a veterinarian and Primate Products’ president, to show off the Florida facilities. Primate Products is a private company, and Rowell declines to share any financial information, but it’s safe to say there are easier ways to make money. Macaques can be dangerous to handle. Agile animals, they have sharp claws and teeth and can carry serious communicable diseases. A full-time behaviorist at Panther Tracks has to constantly tweak the groupings of cage mates to minimize monkey-on-monkey violence.

Inside the gates at Panther Tracks, Rowell is apologetic about the security. “Look at the people who work at abortion clinics,” he says. “You don’t just walk in. There’s pressure on everybody.”

He’s spent his life working with monkeys, most recently as the director of the New Iberia Research Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Three years ago, he joined Primate Products and now lives at the facility. In his off hours he likes to fish in the nearby wetlands, drifting with the tides in a kayak.

There are about 1,200 monkeys at Panther Tracks.

The farm gives off the inquisitive vibe of a biological field station. Young workers in medical scrubs mill about, gravitating to shady spots away from the midday sun. In the administrative buildings, monkey-themed art hangs on the walls. On one side of the compound, there’s a lecture hall with a dais outfitted with white boards and diagrams of primate anatomy. Next door is a warehouse piled high with merchandise sold by the company—transport boxes, colorful plastic chew toys, monkey hammocks, gloves, nets, and mirrors.

The monkeys live in two dozen outdoor cages, each about the size of a tennis court, that are strewn with toys and stray food pellets beneath the shade of green canvas tarps. Rowell says the group enclosures are designed to facilitate social interactions, withstand hurricanes, and minimize the risk of escapes.

The monkeys, identified with numbers marked on their chests or legs in dark ink, have big curious eyes and spiky hair. They move silently around the cages, swaying on plastic swings, dangling from perches, and splashing around in small pools. Some are young and frisky, others are aging and mellow. If not for the absence of snow-cone-splattered children and their bedraggled parents, the place could pass for a particularly well-stocked zoo.

Primate Products owns fewer than 10 percent of these monkeys. The rest belong to dealers, mostly from overseas. The company imports the animals on behalf of its partners, completes the six-week quarantine required by federal law, and then breeds, markets, and sells them. The going rate for a monkey is $3,400. The company also sells monkey blood, tissue samples, and other biological materials; manufactures equipment, such as cages and restrainers; and conducts training workshops on site for outside monkey handlers.

The “willing worker” training program is designed to teach monkeys to be more cooperative with scientists in a lab. In the warehouse, a Primate Products employee—who declines to provide her name out of fear of activist reprisals—demonstrates some training techniques on a big, fluffy stuffed-toy monkey. She clamps it into a proprietary macaque restrainer and rewards it with an imaginary treat. Once in his restrainer, a monkey is primed for a technician to draw its blood, for example. “Instead of using sedation, we train the monkeys to work with us,” she says. “These are very smart animals. You can have a positive working relationship with them.”

Dave Johnson, the president of Cascades Biosciences Consultants, says Houghton is one of the industry’s leaders in creating ways to procure, handle, and transport lab monkeys. He says Houghton has made the entire process better, not just for researchers but also for the animals. “The animal rights people go after everybody in this field indiscriminately,” Johnson says. “In truth, Paul is out there to promote the advancement of biomedical research and to do it in the most kind, caring, and comfortable way possible for the animals.”

Panther Tracks workers train monkeys to be more cooperative with lab workers.

Houghton got into the monkey trade in the 1970s. Shortly after graduating from college with a degree in biology, he landed a job at the Stanford Research Institute, which had recently opened a primate observation facility that collaborated with primatologist Jane Goodall. As an entry-level hire, Houghton did whatever grunt work was needed. “At one point, they handed me a pair of gloves and said, ‘grab that monkey,’ ” he recalls. “It was a total rodeo.”

At the time, lab technicians typically restrained the animals by overpowering them, which could result in inadvertent injuries to the monkeys. At the very least, it agitated them, making them difficult to work with. Over the next several years, as Houghton moved between a variety of jobs at the institute, he tried to develop a better methodology. In 1980 he opened Primate Products and began selling lab equipment and services to research institutions.

One of Houghton’s first innovations was a technique for moving monkeys in the lab. With the Primate Products system, the monkeys are trained to wear a collar around their neck that connects to a device with a long handle held by the worker. Houghton says the “pole and collar” method keeps monkeys calm and makes it easier for technicians to work with them. More inventions followed. In the mid-1980s, a client asked if Houghton sold monkeys. He didn’t, but the question made him curious. He began visiting dealers overseas. What he found was an inefficient system. At the time, he says, trappers would follow loggers into the rain forest, catch monkeys, and hastily transport them to the U.S. Large numbers, still in shock from capture, died in transit. Those who survived often carried diseases, resulting in several outbreaks among U.S. and European lab workers of serious illnesses, including those caused by Marburg and Ebola viruses.

Over the following decade, Houghton, working with biologists and veterinarians, developed a more fastidious model. Monkeys were captured, given individual medical records, and raised on farms in the country of origin for long stretches before being transported to the U.S. Houghton says the farm system allows monkeys to acclimate to humans, reducing the percentage that die in transit. It enables vets to treat monkeys for diseases before they board a plane. And it encourages local farmers to breed the animals, generating a sustainable income and cutting back on the number of monkeys taken from the wild.

Houghton says he operated “like an overseas cattle buyer,” sourcing animals from various farms and connecting them with buyers. He published papers in several scientific journals, often focusing on the genomics of macaque populations—information that helps scientists use monkeys more efficiently in research trials. “Nobody had really bred cynomolgus monkeys before,” says Houghton. “There was a lot that wasn’t known.”

Last year, he provided some spare acreage to a private Mauritius-based company called Bioculture Group, which has since opened a second farm on the opposite side of the property.

Panther Tracks workers train monkeys to be more cooperative with lab workers.

For a while, even as activists descended on Hendry County, Panther Tracks avoided the melee. Then, last September, a young woman secretly employed by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals applied for a job at the facility. Rowell, who’d previously been burned by a similar operation at New Iberia, again inadvertently hired a spy. For the next eight months, she covertly videotaped her Panther Tracks colleagues.

In June, PETA released the results in a film entitled Inside the Hub of the Global Monkey Trade. By the extreme standards of the genre, the images are fairly mild. At one point, a worker roughly pulls a monkey by its tail. Another clip shows a cluster of groggy monkeys apparently waking up from medical sedation, sprawling in a heap on a concrete floor. The video created the desired effect. More than 80,000 people have since used PETA’s website to send automated e-mails to Hendry County officials expressing outrage. The subject line: “Please shut down Primate Products.”

Alka Chandna, a senior laboratory oversight specialist at PETA, says it chose Panther Tracks based largely on opportunity. The group saw a job listing and pounced. Sifting through government expense reports and scientific papers, PETA has since compiled a list of more than 30 Primate Products clients. In June, the group sent letters to each, imploring them to dump Primate Products over its “systemic neglect and violent handling” of monkeys. PETA also sent its video to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Shortly thereafter, the USDA cited Primate Products for various hygienic and safety violations, such as spraying monkeys with water while cleaning their cages. Rowell says that Primate Products takes excellent care of its monkeys and that the PETA video is intentionally misleading.

Animal rights activist Madeleine Doran left, is filmed by Jane Velez-Mitchell during a protest against Hendry County monkey farms on May 11 in Fort Myers, Fla.
Photographer: Sarah Coward/News-Press

Chandna says activists have a good chance of snuffing out the monkey trade in Hendry County. And whatever PETA can do to squeeze the supply chain, she says, will help the group’s overall mission, which is to end the use of all animals in laboratory science. If you can disrupt the availability of lab monkeys, she argues, the cost will increase, ultimately creating more economic incentive for scientists to develop alternate methods of developing medications. “The problem is that, as cheap monkeys have come into the United States, the motivation for seeking non-animal methods has mostly evaporated,” Chandna says.

For months activists have said that Primate Products is conducting research that goes beyond what’s allowed under its agricultural zoning designation. In August, however, Hendry County officials completed a zoning inspection, which found that Panther Tracks is in compliance with the code.

In the wake of the PETA video, the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare conducted an extensive, monthslong investigation of Primate Products’ operations. In September the feds concluded that following corrective measures, Primate Products is now “operating appropriately” and in full compliance with the animal-welfare regulations. In a letter to Houghton, the regulators thanked him and his “dedicated and caring staff for promptly and thoroughly addressing all of the noncompliant items.”

Houghton says that despite the stepped-up regulatory scrutiny and persistent vilification, he’s never once considered closing up shop. “What we’re talking about is basic morality,” he says. “Is it right to try and help people who are sick? Is it right to try and cure disease? Or is it right to let people suffer and die? That’s the basic decision that you’re talking about. Either you fight the battle against human disease and suffering or you don’t. I’m absolutely committed, body, mind, and soul, to what we do.”

“They’re zealots,” Houghton says of his opponents. “But honestly, so am I.”

Not long ago, Campbell hopped on an all-terrain vehicle and drove to the site of PreLabs’ proposed monkey farm. In the past, she’d occasionally gazed at Google’s satellite views of the site. Now, she wanted a closer look. Down a dirt road, she passed several “no trespassing” signs and came to a fence surrounding the site. Campbell gazed in. With the lawsuit ongoing, there were no new signs of construction. Still, Campbell felt anxious about the uncertain future of mankind and monkeys in Florida and beyond. She would like to stop working soon, sell her house in LaBelle, and put some mental and physical space between her and the monkey farmers. “We’re not going to retire down here,” she says. “Hell, I’m going to run from Florida as fast as I can.”