South Georgia monkey-breeding project sparks legal action amid outcry

FILE - A long-tailed macaque kept for use in clinical research sits in a cage, May 23, 2020, in Saraburi Province, north of Bangkok. Some residents and an animal rights group on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024, protested plans to build a $400 million facility in the southwest Georgia town of Bainbridge to breed long-tailed macaques for medical research. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit, File)
FILE - A long-tailed macaque kept for use in clinical research sits in a cage, May 23, 2020, in Saraburi Province, north of Bangkok. Some residents and an animal rights group on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024, protested plans to build a $400 million facility in the southwest Georgia town of Bainbridge to breed long-tailed macaques for medical research. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit, File)

A court battle has begun amid public outcry in southwestern Georgia over the planned construction of what has been billed as the largest monkey-breeding facility in the country.

On Tuesday, Decatur County commissioners walked back an offer of millions of dollars in tax benefits for the facility. Then, hours later, the proposed facility's owners filed a motion seeking a preliminary injunction in the matter.

That's after authorities in Bainbridge and Decatur County, about 30 miles north of Tallahassee, voted unanimously in Decemberto offer tax abatements and other incentives, seemingly clearing a path for the estimated $400 million complex in a sprawling industrial site there.

The company behind the proposed facility, Safer Human Medicine, has said the macaque monkeys raised there would be shipped elsewhere for use in research. It estimated the facility would bring more than 260 jobs to the rural area.

But some locals, unaware until recently of the plans, are irate. "Stop Monkey Farm!" signs have sprung up. Public meetings have been jammed with opponents of the plan.

Some residents who have spoken out say they're worried the facility and the estimated 30,000 monkeys eventually housed there — roughly double Bainbridge's human population — would foul the environment along the Flint River and Lake Seminole.

They also fear the project would sink property values and drum up bad publicity to their corner of the state, which is known as the "Bass Capital of Georgia."

After weeks of public opposition, the Development Authority of Bainbridge and Decatur County on Feb. 2 voted to revoke its approval of a bond resolution for the project.

On Tuesday, the Decatur County Commission disavowed its approval of terms of the deal, which included $300 million in revenue bonds. Commissioners said their agreement had come at a mid-December meeting that violated open-meetings law because it had not been properly publicized.

At Tuesday's meeting, county attorney Bruce W. Kirbo Jr. said the commissioners' latest move does not necessarily kill the project, but served notice that now "the county has made no promises" of tax relief or other incentives.

In a statement afterward, Safer Human Medicine said it intends to "move forward" with the project. The company blamed opposition on a "smear campaign" by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

At a Jan. 16 Bainbridge City Council meeting packed with about 50 people against the project, a PETA primate scientist described what in her view were some of the perils of a breeding facility, including "an unmanageable amount of biological waste — monkey urine, monkey feces, blood, saliva and other bodily fluids."

"Monkeys are not furry little humans with long tails," the scientist, Lisa Jones-Engel, said, adding that their presence in a breeding environment like the one proposed was "much more likely to trigger the next pandemic than it is to do anything else."

Safer Human Medicine has said that the monkeys pose no disease threat to people in Decatur County and that any animals entering the site will have undergone a "rigorous quarantine program." They also said that "if animals are not well-treated, the science and knowledge gained from animal-based studies will not be trustworthy."

The company filed a motion in U.S. District Court in Albany on Tuesday seeking a preliminary injunction, contending that the development authority had breached financing agreements in the project.

The company, in its court filing, said it decided to build the facility in the Bainbridge area after a nationwide search, citing Georgia's "revenue-bond laws and significant tax advantages being made available by the Authority and other local parties."

The local development authority's executive director, Rick McCaskill, declined to comment late Tuesday, citing pending litigation.

During public remarks at Tuesday morning's commission meeting, a real estate broker told how "not one" person she has talked to is in favor of the monkey-breeding site.

"The real estate market is already responding negatively," the broker, Lacey Shepard, said. "We refuse to have something so horrific forced on us, and we are being left holding the bag."

Pete Stephens, the county commission chairman, said by phone on Wednesday that when officials signed off on plans for the project in December, "we did not have all the information in front of us."

"I wish I'd never heard of a monkey," he added.

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