PETA asks Fort Detrick lab to check whether it received monkeys from smuggling scheme

Dec. 21—Animal welfare activists suspect that a medical research laboratory in Frederick may have received poached endangered monkeys from a recently unveiled international primate smuggling ring.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is asking the Army's lead medical biodefense research laboratory — which is based at Fort Detrick — to check whether any of the long-tailed macaques it has used in research over the last several years were a part of illegal shipments to the U.S.

In a letter on Dec. 12 addressed to Col. Constance Jenkins, commander of the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, PETA asked the laboratory to conduct a thorough audit of all the long-tailed macaques it has used since 2018.

If any of the long-tailed macaques were a part of illegal shipments to the country, PETA asked USAMRIID to transfer the animals to reputable sanctuaries and pay for them to be cared for until they die.

In an emailed statement on Monday, USAMRIID did not say whether it would be conducting the requested audit.

"The U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases continually works to reduce and replace animal use by exploring alternative models whenever feasible," read the statement, which was emailed to The Frederick News-Post by USAMRIID spokeswoman Caree Vander Linden.

"In cases where no alternatives exist, USAMRIID uses animal models in compliance with all Department of Defense and Federal regulations — including those pertaining to animal procurement. The Institute is inspected and accredited by AAALAC International, a private, non-profit organization that promotes humane treatment of animals in science," the statement continued.

When asked in a follow-up email on Tuesday whether the laboratory would be conducting an audit, Vander Linden replied that she did not have additional information to provide.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice charged several people — including two Cambodian wildlife officials — for their role in a scheme to poach monkeys from the wild and send them to America with forged paperwork claiming they were from breeding centers.

Members of the group were indicted for smuggling and conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act and the Endangered Species Act, according to a Nov. 16 news release from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Florida.

The trade of long-tailed macaques is governed by an international treaty drawn up in 1975 to ensure that the global market for certain plants and animals doesn't threaten their survival.

Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, shipments of long-tailed macaques entering the U.S. must have an export permit that explains whether the monkeys were bred in captivity or taken from their natural habitat.

Falsely declaring the source of even one animal on an export permit is illegal and would allow the entire shipment to be seized, according to PETA's letter to Jenkins.

In a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on Nov. 17, the Indiana-based pharmaceutical company Inotiv said it had received word that employees at its main supplier of non-human primates were criminally charged in the smuggling ring.

According to documents that PETA said it obtained through public information requests, USAMRIID received monkeys from a shipping facility run by Inotiv on at least one occasion — June 20, 2018, when it received 24 long-tailed macaques from Alice, Texas.

When asked in an email on Tuesday whether the shipment took place, Vander Linden wrote that she did not have additional information to provide.

Due to a mismatch between the scant supply of laboratory monkeys and the colossal demand for them, the smuggling of monkeys caught in the wild is believed to have been a problem well before the recent federal indictment.

The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic and the race to discover a vaccine only tightened the market further, according to reporting from NBC News and the Pulitzer Center's Rainforest Investigations Network.

The long-tailed macaque plays a critical role in forest ecosystems by dispersing seeds. It also plays a key role in drug studies and is the most commonly used monkey in U.S. laboratories.

At the height of the pandemic, a single long-tailed macaque could be sold for up to $40,000, according to reporting from NBC and the Rainforest Investigations Network.

The species became endangered relatively recently. The International Union for Conservation of Nature changed the designation for both the long-tailed and pig-tailed macaque in July, putting the blame partially on the role the monkeys play in research.

If nothing changes, the IUCN has said, both species are expected to suffer catastrophic population losses in the coming decades.

Follow Angela Roberts on Twitter: @24_angier