While federal researchers will no longer conduct medical experiments on chimpanzees, the monkeys on Morgan island will continue to be used to help find cures for a wide range of diseases.
Morgan Island, also known as Monkey Island, is home to more than 3,000 monkeys that make up one of two rhesus monkey colonies in the United States.
Since the monkeys arrived on the nearly 2,000-acre island— just north of St. Helena Island— in the 1970s, they’ve been used for research.
The monkeys are owned by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and leased by Charles River Laboratories, Inc., as part of a contract with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.
Each year, approximately 200-500 monkeys are moved from the island to specialized laboratories for research that helps develop life-saving preventions and treatments for diseases, such as Ebola, HIV, other respiratory viruses, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
No research is conducted on the island, according to the institutes, and the colony is provided food, water and veterinary care in compliance with federal laws.
Similar research on chimpanzees in the U.S. is coming to an end.
In 2011, Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, said the group would not fund new biomedical research using chimps, which he described as “our closest relatives in the animal kingdom” deserving of “special consideration and respect,” according to the New York Times.
By 2015, the Fish and Wildlife Service classified all chimpanzees as endangered, and the National Institutes of Health decided to retire all chimps it owned, retaining none for potential emergency use — in case of a human epidemic, for instance.
According to the New York Times, the agency owns about 220 chimps outside of those in sanctuaries and supports another 80, which are in the process of being retired to sanctuaries.
When asked if the rhesus monkeys on Morgan Island would be retired from biomedical research projects, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said the policy applies specifically to chimpanzee research.
Rhesus monkeys have aided medical and scientific research for decades. For instance, molecules found in their blood enabled doctors to identify the different human blood groups.
Morgan Island’s rhesus monkey colony was originally located at a research center in Puerto Rico. After several monkeys infected with a virus escaped and caused outbreaks among locals, South Carolina offered Morgan Island for research. About 1,400 monkeys were originally brought to Beaufort County.
Beyond the colony’s scientific value, the monkeys also offer a source of entertainment for locals in boats and kayaks. Federal law strictly prohibits people from stepping foot on the island, but those passing by can often see the animals walking on the beach, eating plants and taking a dip in the water.