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Wisconsin’s first monkey sanctuary is on the path to open in one to two years in the town of Springfield in Marquette County, according to Amy Kerwin of Primates Incorporated, a nonprofit organization that in June received a $50,000 donation from Bob Barker’s animal welfare foundation, DJ&T.

The planned facility at W8782 County M, near Westfield, would house retired research monkeys like the rhesus macaque in structures built on 17 acres of property, purchased by the organization in 2013.

Donations like DJ&T’s have allowed Primates Incorporated in the past year to build a driveway, parking lot and nature trail, and the recent fundraising success has Kerwin “optimistic” that construction of indoor-outdoor structures for monkeys will begin next summer.

“Few people know how many monkeys are being used in research, and that there’s a need to give back to them,” Kerwin said regarding the purpose of Primates Incorporated, which benefits monkeys retiring from laboratories, pet ownership and the entertainment industry.

“There are monkeys in research centers that sometimes get tested to death,” said Terri Holznecht, the organization’s director of philanthropic affairs. “When the tests are over, why not allow them to have a life of dignity in their last years? For some, it’s 20 years when they’re done being tested.”

The Madison-based organization, which Kerwin founded in 2004, has raised more than $210,000 of its $500,000 goal and recently hired two staff members to do funding development. Primates Incorporated has $48,000 in its reserves and plans to raise all of the $500,000 plus enough for six months of operations to ensure sustainability before opening, Kerwin said.

Once developed, Primates Incorporated hopes the sanctuary will serve as a “prototype” for other communities to establish monkey sanctuaries, of which there are only nine in the U.S.

Primates Incorporated’s first indoor-outdoor structure — estimated to cost about $250,000 — will house five to 15 monkeys on a quarter of an acre, Kerwin said, with a long-term goal of building up to eight total structures over a 20-year period. Once facility construction begins, Primates Incorporated will pursue U.S. Department of Agriculture licensing, as well as accreditation from the National Association of Primate Sanctuaries and the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries.

The public is welcome to park and walk the nature trail when weather permits, though the trail will be closed during hunting season and throughout the winter, Kerwin said. Once Primates Incorporated starts housing monkeys, visitations and tours for the public will be limited to appointments, up to five people daily, to ensure the encounters aren’t stressful for the monkeys.

Addressing concerns

Primates Incorporated will plan for all worst-case scenarios and will have protocol in place for the “extremely rare” possibility that a monkey escapes, Kerwin said.

Monkeys in the sanctuary will be indoors from 5:30 p.m. to 9 a.m. each day, and will also be indoors 24/7 during the winter season. Monkeys will also be housed during inclement weather, such as during tornado conditions.

Enclosures will involve chain-link fencing surrounded by concrete enclosures with sky lights, and at least one person will be on site at all times in a house that will be constructed for animal care staff. Security cameras will also be utilized, Kerwin said.

“Our enclosures will be completely shut, including the top,” Kerwin said, noting over the past couple of years she has met with Marquette County and town of Springfield officials to discuss her plans.

“They don’t pose a threat to humans,” she said, noting the monkeys on site will weigh between 7 and 20 pounds. “They will be given a clean bill of health (before arrival), with no terminal diseases.”

Kerwin said the only instances she’s ever heard of a monkey biting a human are pet situations. Primates Incorporated discourages pet monkey ownership, she said, due to the “many sad pet monkey stories,” where a bite has led to authorities stepping in or owners sending a monkey to a sanctuary because it “became too much work.”

See the need

Kerwin first saw the need for monkey sanctuaries more than a decade ago in her work in the primate lab at University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she got to know 97 research monkeys and learned there were no plans to retire them.

Scrapping her plans to become a veterinarian, she enrolled in business school, originally believing it would only take four to seven years for the sanctuary to materialize.

“I didn’t anticipate all the funding rejections. There just aren’t a lot of monkey foundations out there,” she said.

Not every research lab believes in monkey retirement programs, Kerwin said, and on top of that, the issue of animal testing is controversial.

That’s changing, she said, noting three upcoming primate research conferences regarding retirement programs in the U.S.

Still, knowing some labs have retirement programs in place while others label such programs as activism, Kerwin wants the success of Primates Incorporated to help people get through all the “rhetoric” and “divisive labeling.”

“If these monkeys are being tested on in the name of helping human kind, the least we can do is give back to them, whenever possible,” Kerwin said.

Kerwin said she hopes to present success stories at UW-Madison, involving students in the facility to help them gain experience in programs like pre-veterinary studies.

“I hope that one day UW will come up and start retiring the primates as well. There are 105,000 (research monkeys) nationwide and 8,000 in Madison, and I just felt we needed to be nearby,” Kerwin said.

“We can only help up to 100 monkeys (at the sanctuary), so we want to serve as an example for other facilities, so we don’t see monkeys rejected for retirement.”