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Plans to build a monkey-breeding facility becomes a flashpoint in south Georgia

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A small south Georgia community has become a flashpoint in the battle over animal testing for science. A plan to build a monkey breeding facility that could eventually house up to 30,000 macaque monkeys for medical research is inflaming the small town of Bainbridge. From WFSU, Lynn Hatter reports.

LYNN HATTER, BYLINE: There are medicines that likely wouldn't have made their way to market had it not been for the ability to test those drugs on animals, like the COVID vaccine. But good luck finding any person doing such research to talk about it on record.

COLLEEN MCCARTHY: This isn't mice that we're talking about. These are highly intelligent, larger mammals. They require a lot of work.

HATTER: That's Colleen McCarthy, a veterinarian who now practices in Tennessee. She specializes in exotic animals like macaque monkeys - the animal that would populate a planned facility in South Georgia. McCarthy is against animal testing, but understands it's needed.

MCCARTHY: If there's ever a way to do without it, I think, especially in the U.S., we would pursue that. But unfortunately, I do not think that there are any models or anything to date that could really replace a live subject.

HATTER: The company Safer Human Medicine wants to create a U.S.-grown supply of research monkeys. In December, officials in the town of Bainbridge, just across the Florida line, OK'd a deal to give the company tax breaks and 200 acres of land to build a facility. David Johst is the president. The plan is to build up the supply to 30,000 monkeys over 20 years.

DAVID JOHST: So we will not grow so fast that we cannot take very good care of the animals that are entrusted to us, so that's important.

HATTER: But in January, the deal fell apart when PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, got involved. Lisa Jones-Engel is a researcher with PETA.

LISA JONES-ENGEL: They are shedding, in their urine, their feces, their saliva, their blood, everything from Ebola-like viruses and campylobacter, shigella and yersinia, salmonella - all of these pathogens have been documented in the monkeys who are landing here in the U.S.

HATTER: The organization has been in Bainbridge protesting against the breeding facility, and some residents have been speaking out against it at council meetings.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

LACEY SHEPARD: I've spoken to other realtors who have lost offers and contracts because of this monkey breeding facility.

YVENA MERRITT: Monkeys are screaming for their lives to be spared - not at a sanctuary, but at a place that causes the pain.

ELISE BOYD: You've got the square, but this monkey issue is pushing people away.

HATTER: That was local realtor Lacey Shepherd, animal lover Yvena Merritt and business owner Elise Boyd. They worry the large facility would lower property values and pollute local waterways. The company says its monkeys are clean versus having monkeys imported to the U.S. in often dubious and unethical ways, like poaching. Johst, Safer Human Medicine's president, says the company has a lot of support but not the kind residents are willing to back publicly.

JOHST: You know, people are telling me they're getting accosted, you know, on their way out of church or the grocery store or at the gas station by people who are really very upset about this. I think there are - there's certainly not a majority. I would call them a vocal minority.

HATTER: Safer Human Medicine is now suing Bainbridge to stick to the deal. Two other lawsuits are aimed at getting rid of it. Through it all, the company says it plans to stay with Bainbridge whether the community wants them or not. For NPR News, I'm Lynn Hatter in Tallahassee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lynn Hatter
Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.