Monkey See, Monkey Do, Monkey Sue
She is an ordinary three-pound monkey, a brown Java macaque (also known as a crab-eating macaque), languishing in a cage at a veterinary clinic just over the Dade County line in Pembroke Park. She arrived in mid-July after Pedro Diaz, who had stopped with his wife and daughter in Homestead to change a flat tire, spotted the monkey in a tree and coaxed her down with crackers. Diaz says he decided to call authorities to have the monkey taken away because he didn't have the required permit to keep her.
So here she is at the Pembroke Park Animal Clinic, which the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission uses almost exclusively as a holding facility for primates confiscated in South Florida. Like thousands of other macaques sold each year in the U.S. for use in medical research, this monkey carries identification: a microchip embedded in her upper body and a hole in her right ear from a now-missing metal tag. But she has acquired an added distinction: During the past three weeks, she has become the object of an odd legal skirmish between the clinic owner and controversial Miami animal trader Matthew Block.
The primate dealer, who gained notoriety in the early Nineties for his confessed role in an unrelated orangutan-smuggling plot dubbed the Bangkok Six case, claims the macaque at the clinic is his. He says he's certain she is one of 33 females stolen a year ago from his South Dade breeding facility, Worldwide Primates. Soon after a professional acquaintance informed him of the monkey's presence at the Pembroke Park clinic, Block and his insurance broker went to Broward Circuit Court and obtained a temporary injunction against the clinic's owner, veterinarian Terri Parrott. The court order prohibits Parrott from moving, selling, or "performing any surgical procedure" on the monkey, and allows Block to confirm the animal's identity through an electronic scan of the microchip, which he says is broken and will have to be surgically removed before it can be read. (The microchip was extracted from the monkey this past Friday and shipped to the manufacturer to see if it can be deciphered.)
But this fight is about more than a single $1500 monkey. Block has discovered that in the past four months, two other macaques he had reported as escaped or stolen also have been taken in by Parrott and later disposed of without anyone informing him. His insurance broker, Mitchell Kalmanson, who says he has paid Block thousands of dollars for lost or stolen monkeys, is furious. "There may have been another five or ten or whatever for all we know, who have been stolen and gone to her facility that she has sold and we never had access to," complains Kalmanson, president of the Lester Kalmanson Agency in Maitland, near Orlando.
Last week Block himself began inspecting files on primate confiscations at the regional Game and Fresh Water Fish office in West Palm Beach in an effort to determine if other seizures of his animals have occurred without his knowledge. As for getting back this particular monkey, Block says, she now legally belongs to his insurance company, and returning her to his breeding colony after a year would be very difficult anyway. "I don't want the monkey," he asserts. "Our principal goal in this matter is to work out a policy [with game and fish officials] so this won't happen again."
Maj. Kyle Hill of the state commission's law enforcement division in Tallahassee acknowledges that the agency's policy on animal confiscations is being reviewed in the wake of Block's vociferous complaints, which have been echoed by other South Florida primate specialists. Hill says "minor changes" may be forthcoming. In addition, the commission's chief of internal affairs says he recently launched an investigation into the current dispute over the macaque in Parrott's clinic and of the two earlier confiscations Block says took place without his knowledge.
But Dr. Parrott and Lt. Patrick Reynolds, the sole Game and Fresh Water Fish inspector for Dade and Monroe counties, say Block just wants special treatment. They point out he has an unusually high number of thefts and escapes from his facility (for which he is rarely cited, Reynolds adds), but just because he loses a lot of macaques doesn't mean every one running free or that shows up illegally in a pet store or a private home is his. Parrott, in fact, isn't convinced the macaque now sitting in her office is Block's. "We see a lot of monkeys that come in from other places that have been microchipped," she says. "Once [state game inspectors] release them to me, I assume they've done their investigation to try to find where they came from. And believe me, the ones who come in are not all Mr. Block's." In any case, Parrott says, "He has to show it's his. The burden of proof is on him."
Reynolds, the commission inspector who brought the macaque to Parrott's clinic in the first place, isn't willing to concede the monkey to Block, either. "His opinion is, 'Any animal that's loose is mine,'" Reynolds says with some irritation. "Any Java we come across he wants us to run it by him. We don't run a service just for him."
But Block and other South Florida primate handlers and veterinarians find it incredible in this case that Reynolds -- who in the past has searched for and returned dozens of lost monkeys to Block -- didn't immediately suspect it could be a Worldwide Primates escapee. "Anybody in this area who knows anything about primates would know if they had a macaque, they should call Matt Block," remarks Robert Cooper, a primate veterinarian and adviser to the DuMond Conservancy for Primates and Tropical Forests at Monkey Jungle in South Dade. (Block claims that Worldwide Primates is one of the nation's largest breeders of macaques, though he will not say how many of the monkeys he houses.)
The controversy began this past April when Parrott euthanized a macaque brought to her clinic after it was cornered in a tree less than a mile from Worldwide Primates. When Parrott ran blood tests on the monkey (her routine procedure), she found it tested positive for the herpes B virus. While 70 to 90 percent of all adult macaques carry herpes B, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the virus can be transmitted to humans only when it is in an active state in the monkey, and then only by contact with blood or other bodily fluids. But once contracted by humans, the virus is almost always fatal; those who survive suffer permanent neurological impairment. Parrott says she felt her only alternative was to euthanize the infected monkey. "I don't have an isolation facility," the veterinarian explains. "And here's this animal right in my office, right next to my staff. I don't need that risk."
Macaques, according to primate experts, are strong, usually ill-tempered, and surprisingly adept with their teeth. Parrott checked with HRS in Tallahassee and was informed of a state law allowing diseased animals to be put to death for the public safety. "So I put it down," she says. "No one told me I had to tell Matt Block. As far as I knew this monkey did not have an owner." Then Parrott had the carcass incinerated. (Volunteers who keep seized animals for Game and Fresh Water Fish aren't required to obtain commission approval before carrying out medical procedures, according to Maj. Kyle Hill; they're generally allowed to operate according to their professional judgment. If an animal is not returned to an owner, it becomes the property of the commission, which then normally signs it over to the volunteer in lieu of monetary compensation.)
Block says he learned of the death after an unidentified caller left a message on his answering machine. When he contacted inspector Reynolds, he was given the tattoo number of a monkey Reynolds said was at Parrott's clinic. Block identified the number as that of a macaque he had reported as having escaped this past April 3. Reynolds then told him the animal had been killed several days earlier. Block complained to Parrott and fired off letters to Game and Fresh Water Fish officials calling for a review of commission policy on seizures.
The incident quickly caught the attention of South Florida's small community of primate breeders and specialists. Many of them have a low opinion of Block because of his involvement in the Bangkok Six affair (he has been sentenced to thirteen months in federal prison but is currently free on bond while awaiting the outcome of his appeals) and because of past citations from state and federal inspectors for wretched conditions within his holding compounds. But this time Block got support from his peers.
Dr. Joseph Wagner, director of the University of Miami's division of veterinary resources and medical director at the Mannheimer Foundation, a local biomedical research facility that also breeds primates, joined Block's calls for clarification of the state's policy on confiscations. "If such an incident had happened with a University owned animal, I would be most unhappy," Wagner wrote on June 9 to Allan Egbert, the commission's executive director. "Since the animal killed was reported to FGFWFC as being escaped and displayed a tattoo ID on the chest, it would seem reasonable that the animal be returned to the owner or at least they be contacted."
Later in June, Block got a call from a South Florida primate collector who had just bought a macaque from Parrott. Reynolds had confiscated the monkey from an elderly woman in Key West, along with other wildlife she possessed. (Eventually she was charged with three violations of wildlife laws.) Reynolds says he found no identifying signs on the animal, so he took it to Parrott's clinic, his usual practice when he doesn't know the legitimate owner. After a month, Parrott asked Reynolds for permission to place the monkey with a private owner; Reynolds says he gave her the go-ahead after being told -- incorrectly, it turns out -- the case against the Key West woman had been resolved.
Parrott then called Christine Scott, the collector who owns several macaques, two of which she had bought earlier from the veterinarian. Scott's husband drove up from their home on Grassy Key, paid Parrott $650, and took the monkey home. The $650 price tag, Parrott explains, was no more than the amount she had spent to keep the animal at her clinic. She never "sells" the confiscated animals, she says; they are "placed."
In any case, when Scott's husband arrived with the monkey, she saw, among the papers Parrott had provided, information that the monkey had tested positive for the hepatitis A virus (also common in macaques and dangerous to humans). Parrott's clinic was closed by then, Scott says, so she called Matthew Block for advice on handling the animal. Later she took the monkey to Block's facility, she says, after he offered to run another blood test. When Block examined the monkey, he found an ID-tag hole in its right ear, and when he scanned it, he discovered a microchip identifying the macaque as one of the 33 females stolen from him in July of last year.
Both Reynolds and Parrott insist they saw no hole in the monkey's ear and felt no microchip under its skin.
The macaque remains with Scott while Game and Fresh Water Fish investigates. Mitchell Kalmanson, Block's insurance broker, thinks the commission is dragging its feet. "We've caught [Dr. Parrott] with a smoking gun -- selling a stolen animal," fumes Kalmanson. "We're out a lot of money, he's out a lot of money, and our question is: Why did the damn Florida Game and Fish Commission not even say where our monkey was?