LABELLE, Fla.- Hendry County officials say monkey-farm company Primate Products is not violating county zoning restrictions by leasing part of its facility to a foreign monkey-breeder; but officials say the company could be violating restrictions if newly-discovered USDA documents are correct.
WINK News obtained the USDA’s 2011 annual inspection report of Primate Products which states the company performed a total of 234 tests and experiments on monkeys. One page of the document states 213 tests were performed on the monkeys without sedation, 21 were performed with sedation.
Inspectors did not find that certain tests that would have required sedation were performed on the monkeys without using proper tranquilizers. Regardless, Hendry County’s administrator said he was never aware of any testing of the monkeys, and that sort of activity would not fall within the county’s agricultural zoning guidelines.
“I was not aware of that,” Hendry County administrator Charles Chapman said. “If you would be so kind as to share that contact information with me, I would love to be able to see that. I would like to take a look at the source and determine if there is further action required there.”
Primate Products, LLC operates the “Panther Tracks Research Center” in southern Hendry County. The facility is the county’s first and largest monkey farm, which sits on more than 620 acres of land near Immokalee. The USDA last reported the facility was home to more than 1,700 exotic monkeys, though the number fluctuates from year-to-year.
The facility got significant attention this week after animal rights activists and angry Hendry County residents disclosed Primate Products’ internal business documents revealing a deal between the company and foreign monkey-breeder BioCulture.
Hendry County officials confirmed BioCulture is operating on leased property on the “Panther Tracks” property in a March 23 press release. The release was issued to news media outlets requesting a retraction after some media outlets called the BioCulture venture another “secret monkey facility.” County officials say BioCulture’s new operation on the Panther Tracks property should be considered an expansion of Primate Products’ preexisting business.
Hendry County stood by its position on Tuesday, stating that property owners have the right to lease their land to whomever they want, so long as the tenants abide by the existing zoning guidelines. Officials say the knowledge that BioCulture would be renting monkey-breeding space did not require a public hearing.
Neighbors disagree and say they were once again left in the dark by county officials who may have known about the deal.
Residents lined up to speak at the podium before Hendry County commissioners on Tuesday morning, voicing their dismay for how the local monkey business is continuing to grow.
“Nobody wants Hendry County to be known as the ‘monkey-breeding capitol of the world,'” a 50-year Hendry County resident said.
Commissioners refused to discuss the topic in their meeting and would not comment to WINK News, citing a current court case still in litigation.
Last month, a judge ruled a lawsuit filed by neighbors living near a monkey-breeding farm will proceed. The neighbors claim Hendry County officials violated Florida Sunshine Laws when a county department head approved the permit plans for a new monkey-breeder to build a facility in the county, under the current agricultural zoning code.
The plaintiffs argue the plans should have automatically been passed up to the board of commissioners for review because breeding exotic monkeys should not be considered to be the same as breeding domestic livestock. Open-government regulations would have required public discussion of the permit had it been elevated for evaluation by commissioners.
The company approved to build a monkey farm, SoFlo Ag, owns more than 30-acres of land on the Lee-Hendry County line and plans to breed 3,200 monkeys, according to a county permit.
Unlike SoFlo Ag, a county spokesperson stated Primate Products’ Panther Tracks, LLC has a long history with Hendry County. A county press release states the company has operated with the required permits since 2001 and is up-to-date with all of its building permits.
Primate Products’ facility has received a handful of violations since it started operating in the county. WINK News obtained USDA site-inspection documents revealing inspectors found evidence of rodents in the buildings that house the monkeys, stagnant waste water beneath monkey enclosures as well as minor structural issues.
During a walk-through last year, a USDA inspector reported a thermometer in one of the monkey quarters housing 120 primates was broken. She reported the 87-degree temperature combined with high-humidity levels amounted to a heat index of 96. The monkeys were kept in the area for several hours during the inspector’s visit at this temperature, which she reported to be unsafe for the monkeys. The report states the thermometer was later fixed as were all of the other violations.
Neighbors who oppose the continued operation of the monkey-breeding facilities say the sites pose serious health concerns. Some experts have found that diseases carried by non-human primates are easily transferable to humans because of the similarities between the species.
Neighbors claim they are more fearful now that evidence of rodents have been identified in some of the monkey-housing facilities. They say mice and rats could carry bacteria from the monkey-facilities to the nearby orange groves, potentially transmitting disease to the greater food supply.
Activists and neighbors also question the effect of the mass quantities of monkey excrement produced daily by the thousands of primates on local the ground-water supply. They have also asked about the effect of water runoff from the Panther Tracks facility on the nearby preserve and the Everglades.
Managers and owners of Hendry County’s monkey farms have not responded to requests for media interviews.
Primate Products praised Hendry County in its March 13 response to media coverage of southwest Florida’s monkey-breeding facilities. The company stated it selected Hendry County to establish its facility for three reasons: the tropical climate is similar to the climate of where the primates originated; the area’s labor force of knowledgeable farm workers; and the region’s accessibility to workers experienced in dealing with agricultural regulatory agencies.
Primate Products’ March 13 web post states:
“In early 2000 PPI was solicited and encouraged to open the operation in Hendry County by the Hendry County Economic Development Council. During the review process, in front of the County Board of Supervisors, there were concerns expressed by some animal activist groups from outside of the county. At open meetings many members of the Hendry County Cattleman’s Association and local farmers and business owners appeared in support the project. Ultimately it was approved, and for the last 15 years we have worked closely with the county and the local community of which we have been welcomed into and have their full support. We promote the interest of our county and local region through both our employment practices and by insuring we buy products and services from our local businesses whenever possible.”
There are three known monkey-breeding sites in Hendry County: “Panther Tracks” (owned by Primate Products), “Haman Ranch” (owned/operated by the Mannheimer Foundation), and “Oak Creek Hammock” (owned/operated by SoFlo Ag/Primera/Prelabs/Rock Enterprises).
Recent USDA inspection documents show there were at least 4,000 monkeys at breeding facilities in Hendry County last year.
WINK News has filed an open records request with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission requesting the total number of captive non-human primates currently in Hendry County, the number of monkeys that have escaped or been captured in Southwest Florida in recent years, as well as the names of all of Hendry County’s licensed monkey breeders. FWC is still researching the request.