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Monkeys raised for research wreak havoc in Florida Keys

Rhesus monkeys  
July 10, 1998
Web posted at: 7:19 p.m. EDT (2319 GMT)

From Correspondent Natalie Pawelski

LOIS KEY, Florida (CNN) -- One end of Florida's Lois Key looks like a mangrove-laden island should -- lush and green, fringed with healthy trees.

But on the other side of a fence that divides the key, the mangrove trees are sick or dead. And in some places, nothing grows anymore.

The reason? Monkeys -- specifically, rhesus monkeys, which are natives of Asia.

Lois Key and nearby Racoon Key are owned by Charles River Laboratories, the world's biggest producer of lab animals. For decades, the company raised rhesus monkeys on the islands and allowed them to range free on Lois Key.

CNN's Natalie Pawelski reports
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"They ate the trees, they ate the coastal mangroves and actually killed the trees," said Ed Davidson of the Florida Audubon Society. "The shoreline eroded, and the monkey droppings wash out into the public waters. This is really a mess."

Charles River Laboratories is a subsidiary of the optical giant Bausch and Lomb. It sells the monkeys raised on the keys to researchers studying AIDS, Alzheimer's disease and other afflictions. The animals cost up to $4,000 each.

After years of lawsuits, a judge finally has ordered all free-roaming monkeys off the island within the next couple of years. Charles River has also agreed to remove all caged animals from the keys by early next century and turn the land over to the state of Florida.

But Davidson and other critics of the company's operations take little consolation in that donation.

"They're going to give us a bunch of dead islands after doing decades worth of damage to public resources that they never owned," Davidson said. "That's no kind of a deal."

In some parts of Lois Key, nothing grows anymore  

Indeed, both islands are inside the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, 2,800 square miles of bays, reefs and islands that are supposed to be protected. While Charles River owned the islands, the shoreline where red mangroves grew remained state property.

And red mangrove trees, which stabilize shorelines and provide homes for dozens of species, are protected by law.

Some area homeowners don't understand why the company has been allowed to let the trees be destroyed.

"I own the land that I live on here, and yet I am not allowed to cut or trim the mangroves," said island resident Michael Vaughn. "That's public land out there, and a private corporation, for the sake of making money, is able to destroy the fringe mangroves that none of the rest of us that own them can touch."

Company officials declined CNN's request for an interview. But in the past, they have acknowledged the environmental damage done by the monkeys, and they say they've taken steps to repair it.

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