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No monkey business in Levy County: Primate research lab plans get nixed

There apparently will not be any monkey business in Levy County.

Plans for a primate research lab in this rural north central Florida county have been shelved. And many residents, still harboring anxieties about the idea, say good riddance.

“It’s bad enough that it’s gonna be a monkey lab, and it’s even worse because it’s a monkey lab from China,” said Clevy Watkins, who has lived off County Road 326 for 69 years and was concerned about his new neighbor earlier this year.

“It could be another Wuhan,” said Watkins, who lives just a six-minute drive from the site.

This and other somewhat xenophobic alarms sounded last August when the Chinese-owned JOINN Biologics bought 1,474 acres of land near Williston for $5.5 million. Prior to the purchase, the Richmond, California-based biomedical company made informal inquiries to the county commission about building a primate quarantine and research facility on the land, according to a detailed statement issued by the Levy County Commission.

“The county has not received any land use, zoning or building permit applications for such a facility, nor has the county granted any approvals for such a facility,” said Levy County’s self-described “statement of facts.”

But the county did acknowledge that in June and August it “received informal inquiries about siting a primate quarantine facility and/or primate research laboratory on parcels of land in Levy County." As it turned out, the land was not zoned for such use, and the county added that applications for zoning changes “would not receive a favorable staff recommendation.”

For the most part, the company refused to speak on the record about its plans. But on Nov. 18, after many inquiries, WUFT News received a call from a JOINN Biologics phone number, from a man who said he was a manager at the company.

The man tried to discredit months of rumors about proposed primate facilities. He would not give his name or title and asked to be only identified as a manager. An online search showed the business phone number was assigned to a general manager and former executive at JOINN.

He said he was apprehensive about talking to the news media and declined to respond to questions about JOINN’s inquiries to the county commission.

He simply said that the land would be a farm — with “cows and sheep” on it — and that the company would not proceed with a plan without government approval. He said they were in the process of registering a “farm company” in Florida that would manage the facility.

Efforts to contact other phone numbers associated with JOINN were unsuccessful.

But days later, in a second conversation, the same manager laughed, refused to comment but called the whole episode “fake news,” a term he said he heard from other people.

“I don’t know how that came up, it’s just the media,” he said.

The company’s inquiries, confirmed by the county, did stir up media attention and plenty of opposition.

Facebook group posts fueled more angst by residents wary of a “Chinese monkey lab” coming to Levy County. Online posts contained angry face emojis and expressions of indignation.

All this drew the attention of the national animal rights advocacy group PETA, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The group sent more than 4,000 Floridians letters asking them to contact the governor’s office demanding plans be blocked.

In September, Gov. Ron DeSantis added his voice to the controversy. The governor’s office issued a statement, reminding Floridians he has been consistently opposed to the Chinese Communist Party’s growing influence in the state.

DeSantis supports legislation that would bar the purchase of agricultural land and property near military bases.

“(Chinese companies) pay a lot more than it’s worth,” the governor said at a Sept. 22 news conference.

“A lot of times, they’ll be companies that will put themselves as private,” he added, “but if you peel back the onion a little bit, they’re basically controlled by the Chinese government.”

Lisa Jones-Engel, a primate laboratory expert at PETA, thinks widespread racial prejudice could have stimulated some of the public outrage in Levy County. But she also emphasizes the threat perceived by the community and PETA backed the governor’s opposition.

“JOINN’s facility, which could house thousands of monkeys a year, could introduce monkey urine, feces and other bodily secretions into the environment where other animal species would be affected,” PETA said in a prepared statement last month.

News of the primate lab came to light in the aftermath of the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the exact origin of the COVID-19 virus was never confirmed, World Health Organization scientists concluded that animal-to-human transmission to be the most likely scenario.

With only two years since the onset of the pandemic, communities still fear possible infectious diseases from animal contact — especially in their own backyard.

North central Florida already faces a monkey problem of its own. Reports of herpes-infected macaques resurface periodically in the region, and residents worry about what it might represent for public health.

PETA’s Jones-Engel blames the industry for the health risks.

“Monkeys in their natural habitat are not an infectious threat to humans,” Jones-Engel said. “But when you stuff them in this monkey wildlife trade chain pipeline, you’re asking for the next pandemic.”

Rumors of a monkey laboratory agitated opinions on an already tense issue.

“There is concern, there’s skepticism, there’s worry,” Jones-Engel said. “There’s certainly, unfortunately, xenophobia. It is rampant in this country.”

Watkins thinks “China is the enemy” and expressed his concerns regarding the property being sited within a hundred miles of a military base. He says he has read that the company is tied to the Chinese Liberation Army.

The company still hasn’t released a public statement regarding the issue and media communication has been minimal. County authorities have made efforts to alleviate concerns, but the topic still remains clouded with doubt and anxiety lingers in the community.

“We just want to find out what’s going on,” Watkins said.  “I don’t think we've got enough information.”

Kristine is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.