Animal activists donned full hazmat suits Friday to protest the conditions of monkeys at monkey facility north of Mesa that has come under fire for monkeys dying of disease and being fed contaminated water.
About 20 activists from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals protested in front of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality offices on West Washington Street.
They carried signs and sang chants denouncing the Washington National Primate Research Center which operates the 21-acre monkey breeding facility north of Mesa on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.
The protest was just as much for social media as anything else and PETA broadcasted the protest on Facebook and made Tik Tok videos with the activists dressed in hazmat suits set to the sound of the Brittany Spears song “Toxic.”
Read The Republic’s 4-part series:Sickness and death at Mesa-area monkey farm threaten primate center viability
They were responding to a recent investigation by the Arizona Republic that found that Valley fever, a common flu-like illness caused by a fungus from the soil in the desert around Phoenix, has run rampant among the macaque colony, resulting in higher than expected rates of sickness and death.
At least 47 monkeys have died from the illness over the past eight years at the 21-acre facility run by the University of Washington.
The illness also threatens the results of tens of millions of dollars in research aimed at finding cures and vaccines for some of humankind’s most serious viruses and diseases: HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, Zika, Ebola and even COVID-19. That’s because the fever can come back during research and threaten the results.
The monkeys at the Mesa breeding facility are drinking well water tainted with perchlorate, a contaminant leached from ponds containing rocket fuel runoff from an adjacent defense contractor. Despite recommendations that a water treatment system be installed at the breeding facility in 2016, no such precaution has been taken.
What’s more, the primate center has run afoul of state and local regulators. It was cited in May for failing to alert Washington state regulators that macaques imported into the state had Valley fever. And it has been cited by federal regulators for conduct detrimental to animal welfare. At least five monkeys have died since 2017 because of poor care or improper oversight.
One monkey died from dehydration after not being given water for several days because a water line was not properly affixed to its cage. Another strangled itself on a chain connected to a foraging device. A third asphyxiated after surgery because scientists did not have it fast properly ahead of time. The macaque vomited in the recovery room and died after inhaling the vomit into its lungs.
Lisa Jones-Engel, a a senior scientific adviser for primate experimentation at PETA who was quoted in the Republic’s series, said the PETA held the demonstration to call on ADEQ to “get this deadly toxic monkey facility shut down.”
“The monkeys are dying, monkeys are being compromised and we need people to see that,” Jones-Engel said.
ADEQ has no real jurisdiction over the monkey facility because of its location on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community land. The department asked the Environmental Protection Agency to join enforcement actions because the EPA has jurisdiction to compel environmental clean up on and around the site.
The University of Washington, which would only communicate with The Republic in writing, said last month that it has gotten Valley fever outbreaks under control by installing HEPA air filters at its Arizona breeding facility and by treating monkeys with an antifungal agent. It also argued that its research has not been compromised and the water drunken by monkeys in Arizona is not contaminated.
With regard to the deaths of five monkeys, the university said that “any adverse event that occurs at our facility whether in Seattle or Arizona is devastating.”
“The staff at WaNPRC who are responsible for the care of the animals on a daily basis have dedicated their careers to ensuring that animals that are used in scientific research receive optimal care at all times,” its statement said. “This includes the veterinary staff, behavior management staff and the husbandry staff — when an adverse event occurs everyone is impacted.”
On Friday, activists held signs that read: Primate Center: Cruel and Out of Touch,” “Toxic Water, Dead Monkeys, Dirty Science,” and “UW: Close the Cruel Primate Research Centers.”
They chanted things like: “Vivisection is a lie, how many animals have to die,” “There’s no excuse for animal abuse,” and “It’s not science, it’s violence.”
Geraldine Torrellas, a 26-year-old from Chandler, donned one of the yellow full-body hazmat suits complete with a rubber mask in the more than 90-degree heat.
She said she did it because she is very passionate about liberating all animals.
“What’s happening in labs is atrocious,” she said. ” Animals shouldn’t be bred into the world to be tortured.”