19 lab monkeys escape Yemassee facility, all recaptured (copy)

A monkey stared from behind a fence at the Alpha Genesis captive breeding and research facility in 2005. File

Alpha Genesis Inc., an animal research firm based in Beaufort County, has been fined $12,600 after mishandling several dozen monkeys in six separate incidents between December 2014 and February 2016.

About 60 miles west of Charleston, the 100-acre facility off Castle Hall Road in Yemassee specializes in providing disease-free monkeys for biomedical research by clients worldwide. It has drawn criticism from animal rights advocates over the years.

Documents from the U.S. Department of Agriculture highlighted the violations that included an escape of 26 monkeys in December 2014 after their enclosure wasn’t properly secured. In August 2015, one monkey was placed into the incorrect social group and was killed by other monkeys.

Watchdog group Stop Animal Exploitation Now, or SAEN, which monitors research facilities and animal breeders, released the records it had obtained from the federal government. The USDA declined to discuss the case but an Alpha Genesis official confirmed the violations.

The documents listed other incidents, including one in December 2014 in which a monkey ran from its transfer cage while being moved to a medical clinic and was never recaptured. At least six monkeys in February 2015 were treated for dehydration after workers power-washing cages accidentally switched off a water line. Two monkeys escaped a “thin wire” outdoor chain-link enclosure in June 2015, leading to the death of one monkey after it was shot with a dart. In February 2016, a monkey temporarily escaped its cage that wasn’t properly secured.

In a letter to the director of the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Michael A. Budkie, who runs SAEN, slammed the penalty against Alpha Genesis, saying it did not go far enough.

“While it is important that Alpha Genesis WAS ACTUALLY FINED, it is also extremely disappointing that the fine was only $12,600,” Budkie wrote Tuesday in the letter.

Alpha Genesis CEO Greg Westergaard acknowledged the violations and said during an interview the group paid the citation in July 2017. Several of the violations sent to the USDA by SAEN, he said, were also self-reported by Alpha Genesis.

“Whenever we have a (mishap) here ... we voluntarily report that,” Westergaard said, adding that modifications to enclosures were made after the violations. The citations and fines were reasonable, and there was no reason to appeal them, he said.

Previously, at least five monkeys died at the facility between 2011 and 2012, according to the USDA. In 2016, 19 monkeys escaped from Alpha Genesis but were recaptured.

Westergaard said Alpha Genesis is responsible for roughly 6,000 monkeys at any given time. If any monkeys do escape, Westergaard said the animals at the facility do not carry disease and do not pose any significant threat to the public.

“They're purely in our breeding program,” he said. “They pose no danger. They're not aggressive, (and) they’re used to people.”

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Reach Michael Majchrowicz at 843-607-1052. Follow him on Twitter @mjmajchrowicz.

Michael Majchrowicz is a reporter covering crime and public safety. He previously wrote about courts for the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Massachusetts. A Hoosier native, he graduated from Indiana University with a degree in journalism.