Dead On Arrival, 119 Times Over

Indonesian crab-eating macaques are favored by medical researchers. But if Miami primate dealer Matthew Block's late-August shipment was bound for the lab, it never got that far.

The forward cargo bay of the Boeing 747 model B-200 used on the flight normally maintains an in-flight temperature between 70 and 80 degrees, explains Elwood Hunt, unit chief of environmental control systems for Boeing in Seattle. The compartment isn't air conditioned and there's no way for the crew to monitor any changes in its environment, but Hunt says the cargo bay could not have lost pressure without the entire craft also losing pressure, which would have required the pilot to descend to a lower altitude. "If that had happened, we would have been aware of it," he says.

According to Hunt, the temperature in the cargo bay might have climbed enough to endanger the monkeys, had the animals remained on board while the plane was on the ground for more than an hour. Even then, he adds, it would depend on the outside temperature. Ventilation, while reduced when the aircraft is on the ground, always should have been sufficient for the monkeys.

Hunt says he wasn't informed by Lufthansa about the deaths of the Miami-bound monkeys. "No one has bothered to report this to us. It would normally come to our attention. I had a discussion [recently] with my live-animal-carrying expert with Lufthansa in Frankfurt, and it didn't come up in the meeting."

Dan Lewis says Lufthansa is awaiting the final determination of the cause of the monkeys' deaths before deciding how to respond to the fatal mishap. "Our intention is," Lewis says, "based on the findings, to determine whether we need to change our procedures to make sure it doesn't happen again, or to consider discontinuing these shipments."

The importer, Matthew Block, says he's working with the airline to see what both of them can do to prevent the tragedy from recurring, and he's not planning any legal action against the carrier. Block's Worldwide Primates is among the world's largest animal-brokering businesses, importing about one-fourth of all monkeys annually brought into the U.S. He declines to estimate the amount of his loss on August 20, but the Fish and Wildlife import declaration for the shipment lists the total value of all 110 monkeys as $34,750. After importation, crab-eating macaques can fetch prices from about $700 to as much as $2500 apiece.

Nearly 10,000 primates were imported into the U.S. in 1990, according to Fish and Wildlife. The animals usually are destined for medical research laboratories; some go to schools or zoos. Mark Albert, a spokesman for Fish and Wildlife in Washington, D.C., says it's impossible to determine how many of those monkeys died in transit; there's no place on the service's forms to note such information. Even though agents are supposed to record deaths, Albert says, the stats don't always make it into the service's computer system. And while the International Primate Protection League published CDC data showing hundreds of primate deaths during and after import in the Seventies and early Eighties, since 1985 importers are no longer required to file reports of shipping-related mortalities. "Deaths in shipment are a dark, dirty secret between governments, dealers, and airlines," McGreal asserts. Block contends such accusations are false, that they rely on data that are out of date or inaccurate.

A virulent critic of Block and animal dealers as a species, McGreal was instrumental in spurring a federal investigation last year in an unrelated matter that led to Block's indictment. The case, involving an orangutan-smuggling conspiracy, was chronicled in a New Times article last November. But McGreal says she has no reason to think Worldwide Primates was negligent or had anything to do with the deaths of the macaques.

New, stricter regulations governing primate importation went into effect September 15, though opinions differ as to whether they will result in substantial changes in the treatment of animals or in the number of shipping-related deaths. No one knows, or is saying publicly at this point, if the new regulations would have made any difference in the lives of the 110 crab-eating macaques that died on August 20.

"It's a tragedy from an animal welfare standpoint. It's also a tragedy from the standpoint of the value of the animals and the contribution they make to science," says DeMarcus of the CDC. "It was negative on both sides of the fence. Although I would say just as with any kind of vehicle travel, there's always the possibility of unavoidable incidents not necessarily related to negligence.

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