In a letter delivered November 30, AWI urged the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Defense (DoD) to “re-evaluate their reliance on, and support for, providers of animals for research that have demonstrated an inability or unwillingness to ensure that those animals are treated humanely and are not the product of illegal trafficking operations.”
This follows a November 16 announcement by the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida (USAO-SDFL) that two Cambodian forestry officials and six representatives of Vanny Resources Holdings, Ltd. and related entities (Vanny) were charged with multiple felonies stemming from an alleged conspiracy to smuggle thousands of wild-caught long-tailed macaques into the United States for research. According to the indictment, the conspirators acquired the monkeys through black market suppliers and falsely reclassified them as captive born—“laundering” them to erase evidence of their illicit origins.
One Cambodian official was arrested that same day at New York’s JFK Airport. Incredibly, he was en route to Panama to participate in the 19th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP19) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the latest in a series of triennial gatherings of nations aimed at strengthening CITES’ international trade protections for vulnerable wildlife. Long-tailed macaques are among the species protected under CITES. Earlier this year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature changed its classification of long-tailed macaques from “vulnerable” to “endangered,’’ noting that “the demand for non-human primates in research is threatening the species.”
The indictment also describes, without naming, two unindicted co-conspirators (UCCs)—US entities alleged to have received over 2,000 monkeys at sites in the Southern District of Florida and Alice, Texas. A review of primate dealer inspection reports suggests that Worldwide Primates may be the only primate dealer in the Southern District of Florida with sufficient size to take in the number of monkeys alleged to have gone to that location. Worldwide Primates founder Matthew Block, it should be noted, is a convicted felon who served 13 months in federal prison for attempting to smuggle six infant orangutans into Russia in 1990.
Over 1,000 of the monkeys were allegedly delivered to the Alice, Texas, UCC in 2019 and 2020. A review of available records indicates that the only licensed dealers listed by the US Department of Agriculture as operating in Alice Texas, are Envigo Global Services Inc. and Orient BioResource Center—companies acquired by industry giant Inotiv in 2021 and 2022, respectively.
One day after the indictment was announced, in fact, Inotiv disclosed to the Securities and Exchange Commission that Cambodian officials and employees of its “principal supplier” of primates had been criminally charged with conspiring to illegally import monkeys. One week later, the journal Science named Inotiv as one of two companies that received the monkeys referenced in the indictment.
According to USDA inspection reports, Inotiv is the United States’ largest commercial monkey dealer, with Worldwide Primates ranked third. These two companies currently house over 13,500 monkeys, most of them long-tailed macaques. Inotiv subsidiary Envigo describes itself as the “world’s largest and most trusted source of nonhuman primates.”
The alleged shipments of laundered monkeys to Alice, Texas, occurred before Inotiv acquired Envigo and Orient, but prior issues at the Alice sites should have set off alarm bells for any acquiring company. Indeed, on February 16, 2022, Inotiv disclosed to the SEC a June 2021 grand jury subpoena to Envigo from the USAO-SDFL related to primate imports from Cambodia, China, and/or Vietnam. Inotiv subsequently reported primate-related subpoenas to Orient and Envigo. Moreover, at least three members of what Inotiv calls its “Accomplished Senior Leadership” are Envigo holdovers.
Worse still, Gary Tucker was an Orient vice president in August 2021 when he pleaded guilty to willfully lying to investigators during a prior wildlife trafficking investigation regarding the laundering of monkeys from Cambodia. Tucker remained Orient’s vice president until January 2022, when Inotiv acquired the company. According to his LinkedIn profile, he was previously site director at another of the Alice, Texas, sites, when it was owned by Envigo predecessor Covance. During this timeframe, abuses of imported long-tailed macaques resulted in a $31,500 fine levied against Covance.
Of course, all this comes less than six months after nearly 4,000 beagles were rescued from abusive conditions at Envigo’s now-shuttered Cumberland, Virginia, breeding facility after months of horrific USDA inspection reports prompted emergency intervention by the Department of Justice (see AWI Quarterly, fall 2022). Federal records indicate that HHS has purchased dogs from Envigo, and that HHS and the DoD have purchased significant numbers of primates from Envigo and Worldwide Primates. Records show that, since 2019, the departments have spent tens of millions of dollars on long-tailed macaques.
Cambodia’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries said it was “surprised and saddened” to learn of the arrest of one its officials—but not because of any chagrin over his alleged criminal activity. Rather, it asserted that long-tailed macaques “are not caught from the wilderness and smuggled out, but farmed in decent manners [sic].” In the Science exposé , AWI researcher Eric Kleiman responded by stating, “‘If this is the reaction from the supply side, then we think there needs to be much stricter controls on the demand side.’”
Institutions that fund or conduct research should be held responsible for ensuring that they are purchasing from legitimate sources that prioritize the care of the animals. At a minimum, HHS and the DoD should halt all dealings with Inotiv (and subsidiaries), Vanny, Worldwide Primates, and all other entities that have relied on their animals, at least while they determine whether these companies can ensure that they provide animals that are well cared for and lawfully sourced. The USDA also has tremendous unused authority to revoke licenses of dealers who fail to comply with animal welfare requirements.