Front Page of the Sun-Sentinel: Use of primates pits animal rights group vs. researchers

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About three dozen demonstrators held signs showing monkeys strapped into restraining chairs or covered with bloody wounds, as they yelled slogans toward a fenced, two-story white building in a warehouse section of Doral.

As a woman emerged from the building, the protesters surged toward her, shouting, “Shame! Shame! Animal abuser!” Six police officers waved them back and formed a wall in front of her until she got into her vehicle and drove away.

The confrontation Wednesday in front of a company called Primate Products was typical of tactics used by South Florida Smash HLS, an animal rights group engaged in a personal — and often effective — campaign to shut down the trade in live monkeys for scientific research.

The group does not advocate violence or law-breaking, according to its leaders. But its tactics mirror a growing aggressiveness on the part of animal rights groups around the nation, as scientists, universities and corporations face protests, threats and vandalism. The Florida Legislature next year may consider a proposal to keep confidential the names of researchers in the state university system who deal with animals.

Since beginning the campaign about a year and a half ago, South Florida Smash HLS has demonstrated in the Pembroke Pines neighborhood of the president of Primate Products. Activists held several protests at the Homestead house of its chief veterinarian, shouting “Animal abuser!” through megaphones at her door and windows. They pressured three Fort Lauderdale air cargo companies into refusing to ship monkeys, holding demonstrations at the homes of some of their executives, organizing phone and email campaigns and posting messages on the Facebook page of an executive’s wife.

The group’s leaders say such tactics are justified against a system that inflicts needless suffering on intelligent, sensitive animals who deserve better than a bleak cage in a laboratory and a succession of frightening, sometimes painful, experiments.

“We believe monkeys, like all animals, have a right to live their lives without being exploited or killed by humans,” said Gary Serignese, of Boca Raton, the group’s executive director. “Animals do not exist for us. Monkeys sold by Primate Products are subjected to tests that cause pain and suffering. Most will be killed at the end of the experiments.”

Donald Bradford, president of Primate Products, said the company has endured threats — including on his own life — and two firebomb attacks in the past 15 years, although he didn’t attribute these to this particular group. He said the company works hard to improve the lives of laboratory primates, but he defended the trade as vital in the fight against diseases that cause human suffering.

“Humans are the only species on earth with the ability to recognize, investigate and do something about the disease, death and suffering it causes on all living things on earth,” he wrote in an email response to questions. “To have the ability to do something but choose not to would be morally wrong.”

As for the company’s veterinarian, he said, “She is a courageous woman who knows she has done nothing but things to be proud of. She is a compassionate caring veterinarian.”

Around the United States, researchers have organized to resist attacks by animal rights groups.

J. David Jentsch, professor of psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles, founded the group Pro-test for Science after his car was firebombed in 2009. He still faces regular protests at his home over his drug addiction research, which involves injecting methamphetamines into monkeys, euthanizing them and examining their brains. He said aspiring scientists know they may have to accept threats and harassment.

“Any graduate student now is forced to confront this question. Am I willing to take the risk?” he said. “That’s an awful decision, whether to engage in noble work that will help people or worry about your own physical well-being. But what you’re seeing is people saying, yes this small group of wackos isn’t going to stop progress.”

Because primates’ brains and immune systems are similar to those of humans, he said, they are crucial in the fight against Parkinson’s disease, AIDS and other illnesses.

But animal rights groups say needlessly cruel research takes place on primates. According to The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which opposes most animal research, these experiments include screwing electrodes into the brains of monkeys strapped into restraining chairs, injecting acid into the brains of live monkeys to study the impact on their ability to learn and addicting monkeys to drugs and alcohol.

“The suffering it causes non-consenting non-humans is wrong,” said Ghazal Tajalli, South Florida Smash HLS’s outreach coordinator. “It’s not that we don’t care about children or people with Alzheimer’s, but we think the pain it causes millions of animals is wrong.”

At the University of Florida, an animal rights group has distributed leaflets at buildings, picketed alumni meetings and protested at the homes of scientists, said Janine Sikes, spokeswoman for the university. The Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system, plans to ask the state Legislature to create an exemption to the public records law to keep confidential the home addresses of researchers who work with animals.

The fight against the Fort Lauderdale air shippers, which also involved the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida and overseas animal rights groups, led Amerijet International Inc., IBC Airways Inc. and Monarch Air Group to halt primate shipments over the past year.

David Gitman, Monarch’s president, said the company gave in to avoid further bad publicity.

“They were making calls, sending emails,” he said. “I strongly disagree with what they’re doing, but we are a commercial enterprise and we can’t have anything to do with that.”

dfleshler@tribune.com, 954-356-4535

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