The six infant orangutans, packed into small crates labeled “birds,” were covered in vomit and feces. A Thai veterinarian who examined the baby primates said that they had been drugged, were starving, dehydrated from lack of water to drink and were suffering from otitis media, conjunctivitis, pneumonia, intestinal parasites, ringworm, anemia, and fear. They screamed whenever a human went near them. Two of the older ones appeared to have had some of their teeth removed, probably to prevent them biting. They had been in the crates about 24 hours and because there was no indication on the crates of the right side up, one crate had traveled upside down. All the animals in that crate later died.
This was an account from Leonie Vejjajiva, operator of a sanctuary in Thailand, regarding the illegal shipment of baby orangutans uncovered at the Don Muang Airport in Bangkok in February 1990. “The Bangkok Six,” as the case became known, received international attention. Matthew Block, an importer and dealer in primates principally for the laboratory supply trade and then CEO of Worldwide Primates, Inc., was implicated for his involvement in the thwarted smuggling attempt. Thanks to the stalwart efforts of Dr. Shirley McGreal of the International Primate Protection League, Block was prosecuted. After pleading guilty to felony conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act and the Endangered Species Act, he was sentenced to 13 months in federal prison and fined $30,000. While this wasn’t Block’s only run-in with the federal government related to his involvement in the primate trade, it certainly received the most attention.
Today, 20 years later, one has to wonder if people are aware of Block’s sordid past or if they choose to ignore it. Because of his felony conviction, Block cannot be licensed as an importer by the US Fish and Wildlife Service so the names of his mother and wife are used instead. Block is still the face of Worldwide Primates; he certainly appears to be the one most actively engaged in representing the company. We are unable to determine details of primate sales to non-governmental research facilities, but we do know that Worldwide Primates has been awarded government contracts—including more than $2.4M from the Department of Defense since 2000. This past year alone, Worldwide Primates imported more than 1,000 primates.