Among the primates living in one rural Florida county, about 11% aren't human.
The reasons Hendry County contends for the title of monkey farming capital of America are simple. Because Hendry lies below the frost line, the monkeys can live outdoors, which is better for them and the farm operators. The county has available rural land, a workforce accustomed to dealing with animals and an amenable government.
Three companies have located in Hendry and a fourth wants in. All told, based on the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture annual reports and interviews with operators, Hendry is home to 4,216 nonhuman primates — one for about every nine people in the sparsely populated county. Thousands more primates could be coming.
The reasons to be in Hendry might be simple, but monkey farming is a complicated business, made even thornier by controversy spawned by activists.
Medical researchers say using animals is critical to making advances in health. By sheer numbers, the largest owners of wildlife in Florida are research facilities and companies that breed or import animals for researchers. Many of Florida's universities and colleges keep an eclectic mix of animals, from dozens of dogs or cats to rodents by the hundreds. Mount Sinai Medical Center on Miami Beach keeps just over 100 sheep for pulmonary illness research. The University of Florida had around 800 animals as of the last USDA inspection, from marsh rice rats to horses. Phoenix Lab Supply in Plant City, at the last USDA visit, had 2,720 hamsters.
Some of those who hate the idea of using animals for research keep pressure on federal and state regulators and the businesses themselves. Miami-Dade, which also has monkey suppliers, has been the scene of wild protests. A protester last year was convicted of criminal mischief for actions during a demonstration at the Miami-Dade facility of a company known as Worldwide Primates. Protesters targeted not only the facility but also homes of employees and posted personal information about them online.
Primate Products in Hendry last year found itself under investigation by federal offices after an undercover activist from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals got hired by the company, then turned over photographs, video and written evidence alleging inhumane practices at Primate Products' facility.
Three south Florida Democratic congressman called for a federal inquiry. The federal Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare looked into the complaint, made an unannounced visit with other agencies and found that while some "serious and continuing non-compliance" with federal polices had occurred, other issues weren't substantiated. After Primate Products took corrective action, the office declared the company was operating appropriately. The county, meanwhile, found no violation of its land-use code.
Primate Products, a company that's been in Hendry for 17 years, imports from China, Mauritius, Cambodia and Vietnam, holds animals for a quarantine period and then distributes them around the nation, says veterinarian and company President and COO Thomas "Jeff" Rowell. A second monkey farm, Haman Ranch, is run by the Miami- Dade-based Mannheimer Foundation. Primate Products leases space to a third operator, Bioculture.
The fourth company, which is moving in, is SoFlo Ag. Last year, the Animal Legal Defense Fund sued the county, alleging a decision by county administrators to treat SoFLo Ag's proposed facility as a permissible agricultural use violated the state Sunshine Law. The case is pending.