A Yemassee facility that breeds monkeys for research has been fined $12,600 by the federal government for six violations including the escape of some of the animals.
Alpha Genesis, Inc., which does genetic testing on the animals, sells them for immunological research and has been in business since 2003, houses 6,000 monkeys at any given time.
The United States Department of Agriculture leveled the fines for six violations that occurred between December 2014 and February 2016, according to a USDA document obtained by an animal rights group.
Four of the violations cite incidents where monkeys escaped from their enclosures. The first occasion was in 2014, when 26 monkeys escaped and all were returned within 48 hours. A single monkey escaped just a week later and was never found. Six months later, two more monkeys escaped and one died because of internal injuries that occurred after it was shot with a dart during its recapture. In 2016, another monkey escaped because its cage was secured with a clip rather than a lock.
The other two violations involved one monkey being placed into the wrong social group enclosure, where other monkeys attacked it causing fatal injuries, and an incident where at least six monkeys suffered severe dehydration.
Alpha GenesisPresident and CEO Greg Westergaard said he thought the fine was fair.
"We're a large organization, and this is a relatively small fine," Westergaard said. "I had the choice to pay it or contest it, and the money went to betterment of animal health. We have a good relationship with the USDA, so we went ahead and paid it."
The company employs about 150 people and brings in $12 to $14 million in revenue each year.
Westergaard said Alpha Genesis hasn't had noncompliant items for the past 2 and a half years.
“When you have monkeys out in open-air corrals, they’re monkeys. Occasionally they’re going to get out, walls fall down; storms come through,” Westergaard said. "They always return, though."
He said these monkeys usually don't stray very far from their homes unless they're spooked and they usually always return very quickly.
He said escaped monkeys pose "zero danger" and are "no public health hazard" because they are not aggressive and are used to people. The animals who live outdoors in the corrals do not have any diseases, he said.
The USDA usually does evaluations at Alpha Genesis two to three times a year, and there is staff on-site to monitor and maintain the monkeys' health, Westergaard said.
An Ohio-based animal-rights group, Stop Animal Exploitation NOW!, has been tracking Alpha Genesis for at least a decade, according to SAEN Executive Director Mike Budkie. The small group of about five filed a complaint as recently as last year.
Budkie said SAEN uses official documents from government agencies, like the USDA, and tips from whistle-blowers to collect information on any illegal activity happening within animal facilities.
In a letter to the USDA, Budkie said the fines Alpha Genesis received were "extremely disappointing," and based on SAEN's research, the fines should have been closer to $370,000. Budkie argues facilities like Alpha Genesis may receive up to a $10,000 fine per infraction or animal, so Alpha Genesis was only charged 3.4 percent of what the maximum penalty could have been.
“We’re not going away, we do not intend to let this issue rest," Budkie said. "We won’t be satisfied until Alpha Genesis is closed.”