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Monkey Business in Van Nuys

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Monkey Business in Van Nuys

By Julia MacKenzie, Los Angeles representative for Stop Animal Exploitation NOW! (SAEN)
May 2012

I was interested in this case because of my interest in discovering the origins of the primates that were being used in laboratory experiments in what turned out to be a bit of a Pandora’s box. Not only did we discover how nefarious this trade is, the utter lack of laws, the ineffective regulations, how few live animal shipments are physical inspected by anyone but this also led to the lifting of a curtain hiding the corruption of the Guyanese government including the Wildlife Management Division and the Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment, Robert Pisaud.

As the Tamarinds, Capuchins and Squirrel monkeys were removed from the crates all where found to be grossly underweight and dehydrated. Most were just over half the weight of what they should be.  Discovered alongside the surviving monkeys were 8 dead Tamarinds that weighed between 269g and 386g (5 female and 3 male. Tamarinds generally weigh between 470g and 700g. ) The one dead monkey that had been spotted four days previously was already well decomposed.  There were 2 female and 2 male dead Capuchins weighing between 1087g and 1622g (General weight of Capuchins is 2 – 4kg) and three dead Squirrel monkeys weighing between 365g – 521g. (Average weight of Squirrel monkeys is 695g – 829g)

According to USDFWS records from January 1, 2010 through November 16, 2011, 20,895 primates were imported through the port of Los Angeles alone. A majority of these animals were destined for research laboratories like Covance Research Products Inc and Charles River Laboratories who are amongst the most notorious for incidents of animal abuse Primate imports have escalated in recent years as countries like Guyana and Mauritius exploit their natural resources to make a profit. The accelerating trade is contributing to the near extinction of all species of primates.
 
In September 2011 the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the District Attorneys office bought 10 counts of animal cruelty charges against Miami based customs animal broker, Robert Matson Conyers after 15 out of the 25 monkeys he was handling through Miami died in transit.  This was a significant case not only because of the outrageously high mortality rate of this one shipment but because it shone a spotlight on the nefarious live animal import trade, specifically primates captured in the wild destined for research laboratories or breeding colonies where their offspring are sold to laboratories. The case caught my attention when I read about the charges in the press as I had been interested in tracking where the monkeys in labs were being imported from and decided to follow this case and what a Pandora’s box it proved to be.
 
As airline carriers like El Al cease to transport  “wild caught” primates for research animal brokers/sellers in countries such as Thailand, China and Mauritius now first send the monkeys to a breeding facility and sell their offspring to the labs instead or hide the origins of the monkeys and then send them onto labs. The U.S is the largest single importer of primates for research in the world.
 
In this particular case the 25 monkeys were trapped in Guyana and were paid for by a breeding facility in Thailand. They were shipped from Guyana to Miami by a man called Akhtar Hussain, arriving Feb 4th, there is no information as to when or how they were captured, crated or how long they were in the crates prior to departing Guyana. They were originally scheduled to depart Miami on Feb 5th  on Lufthansa to Thailand via Frankfurt. The entire debacle starts for Conyers when the monkeys arrive in Miami and Lufthansa declines the shipment because temperatures in Europe have dipped below 40c. Conyers picks up the monkeys in four crates from Amerijet and takes them back to his warehouse. He eventually ends up keeping them until the Friday Feb 8th, during which he desperately tries to find an airline that will ship them out of the U.S.  He turns to his client, wild animal importer/exporter, Anna Melino who is based in Canada, for help finding a flight and she in turn books them on a China Southern flight out of Los Angeles for th evening of Friday Feb 8th.
 
During this time Conyers stated under oath that he fed, watered and lovingly cared for these monkeys ensuring they had ample daily sustenance, cleaned the cages, even moved the crates around to provide better air circulation. Trouble is, at a routine USFWS inspection at the American Airlines warehouse the agent discovers a dead monkey in one of the crates.  Conyers had booked the monkeys onto an American Airlines flight out of Miami bound for LAX, there, to connect with China Southern. According to the USFWS testimony it was very hard to determine the health of the monkeys as the crates were so small and dark but he took some photos of inside the crates and discovered the dead, rotting monkey. He immediately raised the alarm and told AA to ground the shipment, called Conyers who, according to Conyers , rushed over with rubber gloves and plastic bin liner in hand, ready and willing to assist the USFWS. Meanwhile, the USFWS agent returned to his office to collect the appropriate inspection gear and a colleague to help and bare witness. Upon returning to the AA warehouse they discover that the airline had ignored the USFWS and loaded the crates onto the plane. At this point neither the CDC nor the USDA appear to have been involved. I am curious to know why Conyers was “allowed” to house un-quarantined monkeys for a week in his warehouse as according to the CDC guidelines “the CDC must review proposed plans for each shipment of nonhuman primates arriving the U.S., and also monitors shipments upon arrival at ports of entry and the quarantine facilities, where imported animals must be kept for at least 31 days after arrival.” Or the USDA who according to their regulations, “is charged with enforcing the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) which includes regarding the handling, treatment, use, and domestic and international transport of certain species used or intended for use in research, testing, education, exhibition, breeding, and sale of pets. The AWA includes minimal standards for carriers and intermediate handlers, primary enclosures used to transport nonhuman primates, mode of transport, food and water requirements, care in transit, transit terminal facilities, and handling.”

These monkeys weren’t meant to be sitting in the U.S but here they were and here they were with a dead monkey in one crate and at that point no one knew what it had died of.
 
The next few days were a calamity of careless neglect on behalf of the responsible parties. Conyers was heard screaming on a later taped phone call between himself and a USFWS investigating officer, “I just wanted to get rid of these goddam monkeys” and “ I lost money on these fucking monkeys.” It is obvious from his testimony that he clearly wants to wash his hands of the shipment as soon as they are on the American Airlines plane.  Anna Melino, the client, is in Canada and barely available.  M.C Cargo in LA is hired by Melino to make the 1. 5 hour transfer of the monkey crates from AA to CSA and is told about the dead monkey but has no idea, no training, no clear instruction on how to go about that. He calls Jet Pets who tell him they are not authorized to remove the dead monkey as there are strict regulations regarding that and advise him to call authorities, which he doesn’t as he feels pressured by Conyers and Melino to “just move along the shipment.”  The USFWS doesn’t manage to connect from Miami to LA as the officer in LA is out of the office, the USDA and CDC are still apparent by their absence and the monkey crates, dead monkey and all are loaded onto the China Southern flight for Guangzhou on Friday Feb 8th. Now here it is interesting to note that to even touch live animal cargo you need a permit which M.C Cargo does not have and didn’t know you needed until this issue came up. Carlos Meraz from M.C Cargo testified that he knows “many people delivering animals to airlines for 20 years with no certificate.”
 
On Saturday night the sales agent for China Southern Airlines who booked the crates onto the Guangzhou flight is contacted by CSA agents on the ground in China and told that there is no one to receive the crates, pay for quarantine, handle transfers, feed them and no instructions with the animals etc so what should they do? The sales agent goes back to her office and proceeds to call everyone she can including Conyers, Melino and Carlos Meraz at M.C Cargo but could not track anyone down. Apparently cell phones haven’t been invented yet. She then told China to water the monkeys and left the office around 11pm LA time, as there was not much more she could do. At this point she appeared to be the only one expressing concern over the animals actual welfare as she had also tried to find out how and what to feed the monkeys. Coming up empty handed, Guangzhou can do nothing but return the crates on the next available flight, which would arrive back at LAX on Sunday around 5am.  On February 10th the USFWS in LA gets a call from Conyers asking them to stamp the airway bill for the monkeys to be returned to Miami. M.C Cargo would handle the crates and would deliver the paperwork to them that afternoon. The USFWS went out to the airport to meet Meraz and was informed by the Public Health Service that there was a dead monkey in the crate and when the USFWS arrived, Jet Pets was already there trying to feed the monkeys through the 2” wire mesh. Upon full inspection the agent discovers that a large number of the monkeys are now dead and confiscates the shipment.  He returns to his office to make arrangements for the shipment to be sent to an appropriate quarantine facility and notifies his supervisor of the event.
 
For the agents at the USFWS this becomes one of the worst nights of their lives, the CDC won’t allow them to move the crates unless they go to a quarantine facility and the only one around is the L.A Zoo which is full. Where was the CDC when Conyers was holding them in his warehouse for five days? They didn’t appear to be so strict then! The poor monkeys wind up sitting in the crates on the tarmac at LAX overnight until all of the “red tape” has been cleared to move them and house them. The story grows exponentially sadder here as the full plight of these creatures is revealed at the quarantine center of the LA Zoo the next day.
 
As the Tamarinds, Capuchins and Squirrel monkeys were removed from the crates all where found to be grossly underweight and dehydrated. Most were just over half the weight of what they should be.  Discovered alongside the surviving monkeys were 8 dead Tamarinds that weighed between 269g and 386g (5 female and 3 male. Tamarinds generally weigh between 470g and 700g. ) The one dead monkey that had been spotted four days previously was already well decomposed.  There were 2 female and 2 male dead Capuchins weighing between 1087g and 1622g (General weight of Capuchins is 2 – 4kg) and three dead Squirrel monkeys weighing between 365g – 521g. (Average weight of Squirrel monkeys is 695g – 829g)
 
The L.A Zoo veterinarian team administered emergency care to the surviving monkeys and started to make arrangements with the San Diego Zoo for more permanent housing and care for them as their quarantine was full. Both the L.A Zoo vet and the San Diego Zoo vet testified at the trial that they were shocked and extremely concerned for the remaining nine monkeys whose very survival was unsure at that point. All were emaciated and had been subjected to at least five days of starvation. Wait…hadn’t Conyers said he had been feeding and watering them well the previous week? Why yes he had, so how did the monkeys get into such a deplorable condition? Could it have been their ordeal to China and back? Well, the veterinarians appeared pretty convinced that if the monkeys had been adequately fed and watered for the five days prior to their arduous journey to China, they would not have seen such a high mortality rate and emaciation in the animals.  One of the surviving Tamarinds had in fact been in such horrible condition when they pulled her out of the crate she was unresponsive and the decision was made to euthanize her. Approximately a week later another monkey succumbed to the ordeal and had to be euthanized leaving just 8 monkeys out of 25 that made it through hell and back.
 
After necropsies were performed, the cause of death was determined to be chronic starvation and dehydration. Meaning they didn’t just not eat for a few days, this was over an extended period of time. The dead monkey that was noticed by USFWS on Friday Feb 8th was so decomposed by then that the cause of death was unidentifiable. The monkey was thought to have been dead around 5 days due the autolysis of the body. According to the veterinarians the crates the monkeys were transported in was also a problem, they were way too small and monkeys who are not familiar with each other or from the same family group, should apparently never be housed together. In such a small confined crate where there are limited resources like food and water, monkeys will fight. Monkey families work out a complicated hierarchy over time and being captured in the wild, crammed into crates, having limited access to food and water is obviously an extremely stressful situation to be in already without putting monkeys together who are not familiar with each other. Interestingly enough one of the alternate jury members told me after the case that he knows that animal “traders” use smaller crates to save money on transport costs.
 
Now Conyers had also said in his testimony that he had hired a man called Mike Lilly to help him feed and look after the monkeys during the week of Feb 4th – 8th. Mike Lilly, whose contact details were never shared nor could be found by law enforcement, was said to come on a daily basis helping Conyers feed the monkeys an assortment of fruits, vegetables and cereal, change the paper in the cages and give them water. Conyers himself says he checks inside the crates 3-4 times a day, sees food on the bottom of the crates but not a dead monkey. Unlike everyone else who appears to be extremely tentative about opening the crate doors to feed and water them lest the monkeys escape, Conyers says that he did this to feed and water them stating that “They’re not going to bum rush you. They’re more scared of you then you are of them”.  The veterinarians also stated they did not believe that housing the monkeys in crates, in a van inside a warehouse would provide enough air circulation so Conyers counters this with a statement saying he moved the crates out of the van on a daily basis for that reason.
 
By this time the trial had lasted five days and the Defense began with their witnesses on Monday April 2nd. In comes “Transport specialist and Importer/Exporter of Wild Animals,” Anna Melino. Melino has a long list of associations she belongs to as well as being a certified groom. Well that should prove helpful with monkeys. I’m sure that most of these associations are paid membership types so are not professional character references by any means. Ms. Melino testifies that she has worked with Conyers for 10 – 15 years and has never had a problem with him. It’s obvious Ms. Melino is a trader in wild animals and has no hands on dealings with the shipments besides the fact she resides in Canada so is just part of the money making machine. The Defense calls two more character witnesses one of whom testifies that he saw Conyers feeding the animals but his testimony doesn’t quite match up with the evidence. He says he saw Squirrel and Marmosets (Tamarinds) in one crate but they were housed separately so he couldn’t have done. He also doesn’t much remember what the van looked like but he does remember seeing exactly what fruits and vegetables they were being fed and even lists them off exactly as Conyers and Melino had done.
 
Conyers himself chooses to testify which is a surprise to all involved. He is very careful and deliberate with his choice of words. He describes what he was hired to do and seems to infer that it was Lufthansa’s fault because they canceled the shipping deal. The fact that the freezing cold weather in Europe was the reason didn’t seem to move the needle. He says he collected the primates from the airline and bought them to his warehouse where he daily fed and watered them with “his friend” Mike Lilly. Conyers was encountering problems finding an airline to ship the monkeys to Thailand because they generally all fly through Europe, which was not taking exotics at that time so he called Melino to tell her of the situation. It took another day or so to book them on the China Southern flight. On Friday as they prepared to move them Conyers called her to tell her of the dead monkey but she only called M.C Cargo to have Jet Pets remove it but did not appear to call anyone official. The Defense went into great detail of the feeding and watering of the primates and even presented two receipts showing purchase of the food. The receipts, strangely enough, were never entered into evidence so no on else saw them. He again stressed that he checked the crates 3 – 4 times a day, opened the doors to feed and water them but never saw the dead monkey, that in fact his belief is that American Airlines killed the monkey during transit on Friday Feb 8th. The only problem here is that there is no damage to the crate and the monkey photograph and the necropsy report shows the monkey in a decomposed state so was clearly dead prior to Friday.
 
When the DA cross-examines Conyers he seems to be holding back. His face is a mask of contempt as he testifies that he did not call a veterinarian or any other officials in LA to take care of the dead monkey in the crate on Friday. He repeated that he did more then his fair share of the deal by taking care of them in Florida and once they left Miami they were no longer his concern or responsibility. At this point the judge in the case decides to enter a “causal element” in which Carlos and Anna Melino could be considered accomplices and cites “an act or omission that causes danger to an animals life” from Penal Code Section 597 (b) cruelty to an animal. The jury apparently, will decide this.
 
The Defense closes their arguments emphasizing that the condition of the monkeys was unknown in Guyana, that animals coming from Guyana are known to be “of poorer quality”, again the handbag analogy pops into my mind. Conyers attorney, Murrey insists that the “fact” the monkeys starved to death is a “theory” and tells the jury they have to convict him “beyond a reasonable doubt” over and over again. He talks about how the USFWS is really to blame and that ONLY Conyers showed any concern for the animals as evidenced by his eagerness to show up at AA once the dead monkey was discovered armed with rubber gloves and a plastic bag. The image of Conyers running to airport eagerly brandishing rubber gloves and bag runs through my mind again in cartoon strips. Murrey infers the L.A Zoo and San Diego Zoo veterinarians aren’t experienced enough with their combined  50 years of working with exotic animals to determine really how the monkeys died. Again, this baffles me. He points out that neither the USFWS, Anna Melino nor M.C Cargo was charged for anything only the poor victim Robert Conyers. Conyers sits in his chair with the hangdog expression looking as much like the innocent victim as possible.
 
We are all biting our lips; the jury looks like they’re watching the washing dry. We have our fingers crossed that the DA rouses them with his final comments and for all intensive purposes it sounds like he does. He produces a masterful final speech that would make Hollywood cry but not this jury. He is careful and pronounced in his urgings for the jury to once again listen to the taped USFWS phone conversation, especially the parts where Conyers seems to jokingly state that he didn’t think that even 9 would survive the ordeal. He emphasizes the veterinarian testimonies that the monkeys had been starved for days, not just for the past three days of travel to China and back. He even states with some humor that if they had been fed the amount Conyers testified he did they should be so fat as to not fit through the doors of the crates! He talks about how Conyers is eager to blame everyone else but the fact remains, the monkeys were starved to death and were under his care for five days out of seven prior to being discovered dead and dying. He questions why he didn’t sound the alarm with officials and Conyers responses of, “I didn’t know the phone numbers” being woefully inadequate. His final words of expressing to the jury why the DA’s office is so intent on prosecuting a case with about “just” monkeys were,  “The reason we are here, it’s important the wildlife on this planet is protected from predators. Not the kind that kills for food, we are here to protect these animals from predators that kill for money.”
 
I wanted to applaud and cheer, give him a standing ovation. We were all convinced the jury could not ignore all of the facts in this case, the obvious contradictions of the defense witnesses, the damming testimony of the veterinarians but just under two hours later a laughing jury returned the “not guilty” verdict. I felt like I had been punched in the guts. It was stunning. Never once did I hear Conyers regret the incident, feel sorry for the outcome, say it was sad, bad, horrible….nothing. He showed absolutely no signs of remorse whatsoever. In fact the opposite, was still clearly infuriated that the charges had been bought against him and him alone.
 
Most of the jury would not speak to the DA or us afterwards but did remain behind to congratulate Conyers, a sight that made me so sick I had to leave. A few of the jury did stop to explain their verdict; the two alternates were clearly very unimpressed and thought he was guilty. The others felt like “he had done his best” and “my dog sometimes refuses to eat” and “even the vets said they had to have been given some food otherwise all of them would be dead”. The Defenses chaotic ramblings had worked. Another twelve jury members and we may have had a different outcome and at that point I was fully indoctrinated into the failings of the legal system.  And then again, there is always “the bloody glove.”
 
The DA and the USFWS in LA did an outstanding job and put together the most careful and articulate case whereas the Defense often lost his papers, couldn’t remember names, couldn’t work equipment, got facts wrong and had to be cut off by the judge on more then one occasion but somehow this worked with the jury.
 
I was interested in this case because of my interest in discovering the origins of the primates that were being used in laboratory experiments in what turned out to be a bit of a Pandora’s box. Not only did we discover how nefarious this trade is, the utter lack of laws, the ineffective regulations, how few live animal shipments are physical inspected by anyone but this also led to the lifting of a curtain hiding the corruption of the Guyanese government including the Wildlife Management Division and the Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment, Robert Pisaud.  They even went so far as to defend Aktar Hussein who was, alongside Conyers, charged with 10 counts of animal cruelty but conveniently disappeared never to be heard of again.  The corruption travels right up the food chain to the World Bank apparently whose involvement in profiteering of the exploitation of the natural world is currently well underway in Guyana:
http://www.guyanachronicleonline.com/site/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=41283%3Awmd-clears-the-air-on-misleading-articles-on-wildlife-trade&Itemid=12