“They’re not thinking about the people like us”: Neighbors express anger and concern over primate breeding facility

Published 6:43 pm Tuesday, January 30, 2024

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Safer Human Medicine’s planned primate breeding facility has not only drawn attention from organizations like PETA and the Flint River Keepers, but the most vehement outcry against it has been from local citizens, especially those who live near the project site. Citizens have taken to organizing in a Facebook group against the facility, with their efforts garnering attention in both national and international news media.

Prior to last Tuesday’s county commissioner meeting, as well as Safer Human Medicine’s Q&A sessions on Thursday, the Post-Searchlight sat down with some of the residents who live around the site to hear their perspectives.

Johnny Reynolds has lived in Bainbridge for much of his life. He and his wife Penny’s property is immediately next door to the facility construction site on one side. To the other side sits the property of his nephew Chad Dollar; both have been outspoken critics of the project.

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Both men recalled seeing the land being cleared, but said they were not informed of what was coming to their backyard until just a few weeks ago.

“We knew there was something going on, but we didn’t know what,” Reynolds said. “Nobody said anything about what it was.”

Dollar was critical of the secrecy of the project, dubbed “Project Liberty” by officials, saying, “There’s no information given in a codename like that. No one said Safer Human Medicine, or anything about a breeding or holding facility for primates, it was ‘Project Liberty’. What is that?”

According to officials Reynolds spoke with, there is planned to be a 300-foot buffer between his property and the actual facility.

“But what’s 300 feet with 30,000 monkeys?” Dollar asked.

Reynold’s proximity to the property has him concerned about the possible smell from the primates.

“It’s gonna be open, screened… open where all the smells can come out,” Reynolds said. “You take 30,000 monkeys, it’s gonna create an awful smell.”

The pair also expressed concerns about the potential for sewage and waste from the facility to escape the facility and get into the groundwater.

“They say they’re gonna wash it down and it’s going into the city sewer,” Reynolds said. “But all of it might not get washed out and get in the city sewer. Cracks come in the concrete, pipes burst.”

“I’ve worked in chemical plants, paper mills, I know leaks,” Dollar said. “I know what happens when it gets through the concrete, the EPA gets involved. I’ve seen it happen, things that ‘can’t leak’, I’ve seen them leak.”

The risk of disease was a pressing concern on the pair’s mind.

“The reason they’re breeding them and raising them is to sell them to be tested, because humans and primates have a lot of similarities in the diseases they can both carry,” Dollar said. “That’s why they use primates… You put anything in captivity, together in close confinement, when they get sick, they all get sick. Let’s say a vet tech, or a kennel worker, is working and the monkeys are sick, they get sick, take it home, the next thing you know, the whole county gets sick.”

Dollar cited the case of Morgan Island in South Carolina, also known as “Monkey Island”, as cause for concern. Between 1979 and 1980, Morgan Island had over 1,400 rhesus macaques, a species of primate, delivered from a Puerto Rican primate research facility, due to concerns over primates infected with herpes B escaping.

“Those are all concerns we have,” Dollar said. “What’s the probability of that? I don’t know, I really don’t know… But can you look me in the eye and tell me there’s not a possibility of that?”

Hurricane Michael and the threat of severe weather destroying or damaging the facility and allowing primates to escape was also brought up. “Let’s say, just half the buildings get torn down. There’s roughly 15,000 monkeys loose. You will never stop the breeding, you will never catch them or kill them all.”

Reynolds, who has lived at his current residence for decades, recalled the flood of 1994, during which point he said the neighboring property flooded, with the water coming close to his own house.

Another issue many neighbors have raised is the negative impact the facility will have on property values, as well as the community’s reputation. “They’re gonna plummet. Who’s gonna want to live next to a monkey facility?” Dollar asked. “‘The River City’, ’The Bass Capital of the World’, all the hard work that the officials have put in the last decade, they have just thrown it all away. And they’re not thinking about the people like us that live here, right next to it… They don’t care. There’s no way they can tell me they care.”

David Sandlin, another local who lives roughly a mile from the facility, also expressed concerns over property values. “I own 80 acres here,” he said. “I don’t know what percent it will decrease it, but it will decrease it. Nobody wants to be too close to a research farm.”

On the topic of the damage to the community’s reputation, Reynolds questioned how this would affect other businesses’ desire to come to Bainbridge. “This park is 760 acres. They are dedicating 200 acres of it to the monkey farm. Now is anybody else gonna want to put an industrial complex beside a monkey farm?” He asked. “What effect is that gonna have on other industries coming?”

Sandlin, who previously worked in the food processing industry, shared those concerns. “Do you think for one minute that there’s gonna be a food-grade company that’s gonna get beside a monkey farm?” he said. “They will not ever sell another piece of land on that industrial park if this thing goes in. What they’re doing, they’re jeopardizing the whole industrial park. They’re jeopardizing the whole of Decatur County.”

Concerns over the prior employment of Safer Human Medicine’s executives were also concerns. Company President David Johst previously worked at Charles River Laboratories, and CEO Jim Harkness previously worked at Envigo, with both companies finding themselves embroiled in federal investigations into illegal Cambodian primate smuggling. Envigo’s Virginia beagle mill also found itself shut down under Harkness’s tenure due to poor conditions.

“Who’s to say they won’t do that again?” Dollar said. “This whole thing stinks to high heaven.”

One resident who asked to remain anonymous expressed criticism of the secrecy of the project and how it was handled by local officials. “My concern is, I feel like Decatur County has been sold out,” they said. “There’s no positives here for us. A few jobs? A few jobs, for what it’s going to do to our county? It’s not worth it.”

David Davis echoed those criticisms, also mentioning the tax abatements and incentives offered to Safer Human Medicine. “I didn’t get a break last year on my taxes,” he said. “I don’t bring a whole lot to Decatur County, but I have lived here most of my life… what is the positive for the taxpayers and the citizens of Bainbridge and Decatur County in this project?”

“I think that people that are elected to office should be accountable for it,” Davis said. “The people that were appointed on the Authority, that should be brought in front of everybody else, before the elected people… I think we, the Decatur County people, have been kept in the dark, far, far too long.”

“There’s a lot of poor people in this county that can’t stand up against people like this,” Sandlin said. “But there’s sometimes when you need to stand up and be counted.”

“I’m not a huge fan of PETA,” Dollar said, “but in this instance, I hope they do come and help us put up a fight for this, because this is unacceptable.”

Reynolds, a hunter and outdoorsman, enjoys watching the deer that come through his back yard. He now fears they won’t stick around due to the presence of the facility.

Dollar fears the future of his family. “I’m worried for the safety of my children, my family, my property. What’s the future hold, for my place particularly, but what about our county? They’re worried about the economic impact of making money. For peanuts, what have they given up?”