By Dustin Waters
It was in the summer of 1979 that Morgan Island, nestled in St. Helena Sound off the coast of Beaufort, first welcomed its newest residents: a free-roaming colony of what would initially amount more than 1,400 rhesus monkeys, the descendants of a Puerto Rican primate research center. In the years that followed, that number would eventually balloon to almost 4,000. And those monkeys would fill a valuable research need.
By the time of Morgan Island’s first arrivals, America’s supply of rhesus monkeys was dwindling, according to a 1989 report in the Puerto Rico Health Sciences Journal. Then came India’s ban on the export of viable research specimens to the United States. In response, the U.S. government established a plan to create self-sufficient breeding programs within the nation’s borders. Morgan Island was selected to be one of these new sites.
And in the years that followed, the Beaufort County island and its inhabitants became the source of myth and mystery. It even earned a new nickname: Monkey Island.
Since 2002, Morgan Island has been the property of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR). Although the monkeys that inhabit the breeding colony are property of the U.S. government, various contractors over the years have leased the 370 acres of the island that contain the primate population. Currently, that responsibility belongs to Charles Rivers Laboratories, a Massachusetts-based life sciences firm with a location in West Ashley.
In 2017, the S.C. Joint Bond Review Committee and the State Fiscal Accountability Authority approved the terms for a new lease for Morgan Island. In a letter of support for the renewal, SCDNR Director Alvin Taylor wrote to the committee, “While this lease does temporarily preclude public access to the island, the surrounding tidelands are still accessible, and the net benefit of supporting important biomedical research with adequate financial compensation to the SCDNR and its programs is of great public value.”
So what exactly constitutes “adequate financial compensation”? Under the proposed terms approved by the State Fiscal Accountability Authority, Charles Rivers Labs would lease the island for a five-year term beginning in 2018, with options to extend the lease until 2032. For allowing access to the island and its inhabitants, the SCDNR would receive more than $1.4 million annually for the first three years with that annual rate nearing $1.5 million by year five. If Charles Rivers Labs chooses to act upon the two five-year extensions outlined in the lease, the total profit for the SCDNR over that 15-year period would be $22,018,562.
In late 2018, Charles River Labs announced a $10.9 million expansion of its Charleston County operations, which would lead to the creation of 180 new jobs for the area. Responding to the announcement of the local expansion of the drug-discovery and development company, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg stated, “The success of Charles River Labs in West Ashley highlights the biomedical industry growth in Charleston. We are proud that they’ve chosen to invest in our community.”
In the 2017 fiscal year, research facilities across South Carolina used 2,997 animals in regulated activities. This total includes 158 cats, 285 dogs, 127 guinea pigs, 230 pigs, 394 nonhuman primates, and 1,676 other species.
While this initial figure might seem sizable at first, it makes up less than one-half of one percent of the almost 800,000 animals used in laboratory research in the United States that year.
In South Carolina, research facilities that utilize animal subjects and are overseen by the USDA include the Medical University of South Carolina, Clemson University, the University of South Carolina, several veterinary technology programs at technical colleges across the state and the former leaseholder for Morgan Island, the primate research firm Alpha Genesis Inc.
Of course, the use of animal test subjects in medical research remains controversial. While the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine have estimated that nearly half of all biomedical investigations conducted in the U.S. would have been impossible without the use of laboratory animals, there remain many vocal organizations who oppose such practices and serve as vigilant watchdogs for animal testing.
Alpha Genesis and the company’s Yemassee primate facility are no strangers to such groups.
In 2017, Michael Budkie, executive director of Stop Animal Exploitation Now, filed a formal complaint to the USDA alleging the mistreatment of primates under Alpha Genesis’ care, demanding federal regulators revoke the company’s animal dealer license. A 2014 inspection report from the USDA lists several primate deaths at the Yemassee facility, which were attributed to lack of proper heating and other housing concerns. A follow-up inspection later that year found no problems, but in December two Alpha Genesis employees were fired after accidentally allowing 26 animals to temporarily escape their enclosure. One week later saw the escape of another primate.
Other USDA reports from 2015 show several additional incidents occurring that year. These include the death of a monkey placed in the wrong social group, the dehydration of several primates due to a closed water line and three animal escapes resulting in the death of a primate. Following these incidents, Alpha Genesis received a federal fine of $12,600 and has since passed inspections with no significant complaints, maintaining full accreditation from the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care.
As of an April 2019 inspection, Alpha Genesis’ South Carolina facility in Yemassee housed more than 5,000 primates. This sizable population is likely necessary as the firm is in the early years of a seven-year contract—with a potential maximum value of $48 million—funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to maintain colonies for government research programs.
In response to news of the contract, Alpha Genesis’ senior management thanked the company’s more than 150 South Carolina employees, saying in a joint statement, “This award is made possible by the extreme dedication of our experienced and highly qualified staff, who work tirelessly on behalf of the animals we care for, and provides a strong basis for continued investment and expansion of our operations in the coming years.”