By Kyle Swenson Thursday, Jul 25 2013
On a scalding Saturday afternoon, nearly a dozen Miami Beach Police cars are jammed up on the lawns of a shady residential street near Mount Sinai Hospital. Cops lean against their cruisers as a mangy group of about 20 protesters spills out onto the overgrown lawn before a white, single-story house.
The group waves placards with pictures of emaciated primates clutching the bars of their cages. Some protesters hide their faces behind black bandannas. Others wear monkey masks.
“Helpless monkeys have no choice,” the group answers.
“There will never be an excuse,” he yells.
“For animal abuse!” they echo.
For the past three years, the bespectacled MC, Gary Serignese, has captained an effort to torpedo the monkey distribution industry. He has ditched the old activist playbook for a more aggressive style. Case in point: The tiny house where he’s leading the charge today doesn’t belong to a business titan or controversial scientist but to the 93-year-old mother of Matthew Block, owner of a Miami-based company called Worldwide Primates that peddles animals for sometimes-gruesome experiments. It’s Block’s first brush with Serignese and his group, Smash HLS.
“They’re harassing a 93-year-old lady,” the primate dealer says. “She’s not active in the business.”
Traditionally, animal rights crusaders in Florida have played it safe. They have pressured municipalities like West Palm Beach to snip ties with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus or filed lawsuits on behalf of endangered sea turtles. Only in the past few years has a more radical fringe come alive inside the movement.
That spirit is best exemplified by Camille Marino, a former investment banker from Wildwood, Florida, who is responsible for “Negotiation Is Over,” a website devoted to publishing information on animal researchers. After threatening to strap a Michigan professor “into a monkey restraining device and use industrial pliers to crack your testicles like walnuts,” Marino landed in prison last year for stalking. She’s still inside, but her attitude took Sunshine State activism to a different level of hostility.
Serignese isn’t quite that aggressive, but he has changed the protesting dynamic in the subtropics. The Kant-quoting, Elvis-adoring grad-school dropout grew up with a single mom who paid the bills as a nurse in Boca Raton. He spent his formative elementary years in a Lutheran school, where ideas of right and wrong were stressed. After graduating from Olympic Heights Community High School, he headed to Florida Atlantic University to study ethics. “I like the philosophy of personal responsibility,” he says.
He entered graduate school at Purdue but dropped out after a bad breakup. Back in South Florida, he began to read up on social movements and activism. He wanted to stop animal testing. No exceptions. As a toddler, he had cried when he saw people fishing, and fur coats had always upset him.
But the conventional animal rights movement didn’t sit well with Serignese. Passing out leaflets about the evils of Monsanto and tossing paint at celebrities wearing mink all seemed a waste of time. Groups should target specific businesses like suppliers, he says.
His model became Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC), a campaign that got off the ground in 1999 in England by honing in on one company, Huntingdon Life Sciences, the country’s largest animal-testing lab. In 2010, Serignese started a local group with the same agenda along with friend Nick Atwood, a balding and soft-spoken veteran campaign coordinator with the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida (ARFF). They called it Smash HLS — “Smash” in reference to a punk rock song by the British band Active Slaughter, “HLS” in homage to the Huntingdon group.
“There’s a big part of the animal movement that’s just about education,” Atwood says. “They have the idea that what they’re doing is going to change minds ten years down the road. [Smash’s tactics] allow you to put a face to an evil enterprise.”
At first, Serignese gathered followers from activist groups such as Occupy Wall Street and Food Not Bombs. But soon, the group developed a base of about 150 people who ranged in age from high schoolers to 80-year-olds. They decided to demonstrate regularly and seek concrete results.
The group’s first target was Primate Products Inc., an Immokalee-based company that regularly ranks among the top five primate importers in the country. According to the latest figures submitted to USDA, between August 2011 and May 2012, the company imported 1,521 monkeys; the previous year saw 1,818. Its major clients include large testing firms and schools such as the University of Maryland and the U.S. military. It’s unclear specifically what kind of mistreatment — if any — is common in those places, but according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), primates at research institutions sometimes have pharmaceuticals pumped down their noses and throats or are used to test military-grade chemical weapons. Some have holes drilled into their heads to track motor functions.
“It’s extremely abusive,” says Nanci Alexander, founder of ARFF. “Some live; some don’t. If they don’t, they’re probably better off not living.”
The company’s location also made it an easy target. Primate Products had a facility in Doral on NW 53rd Street. There, Smash officially launched with a demonstration in May 2010.
Serignese and his supporters targeted President Donald Bradford by posting his home and cell phone numbers and then encouraging members to contact him. They staged demonstrations outside his gated community and on the front steps of Pembroke Lakes Country Club, where he was a member. The aim, says Serignese, was to shame Bradford out of the business. (Bradford did not respond to several messages requesting comment.)
“Everybody makes mistakes,” Serignese says. “But some are so far gone that they need some social pressure to say stop what you’re doing.”
In August 2010, Smash posted ten gruesome photographs from within the facility showing monkeys flopped on examination tables with bloody head gashes and other injuries. The pictures were “those our veterinary staff took to document the medical treatment to animals that were injured by other animals,” Bradford told NBC6 at the time in an email response to the controversy. In the same exchange, the Primate Product president referred to the lifeless animals in the photos as “completely healed, healthy, beautiful animals.”
A subsequent U.S. Department of Health and Human Services investigation found that the company complied with standards, noting there were only 80 reported injuries for a then-total animal population of 3,000. But the photos convinced Nova Southeastern University to stop purchasing animals from Primate Products.
A follow-up report by NBC6 linked the firm to another debacle. In 2009, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention delivered 101 monkeys. Primate Products was supposed to find suitable homes. But the company left the monkeys at a nonprofit roadside zoo that didn’t have the proper facilities or expertise. Twenty-one died.
Smash also harassed about a half-dozen companies providing logistical support, from Primate Products’ web hosting service, Southern Data Systems, to its waste hauler, Stericycle.
Amerijet International, a Fort Lauderdale-based airline that transported monkeys for the company, also landed in the crosshairs. Smash pushed the point by picketing company officers’ homes.
In February 2011, after Smash put up an internet post mocking the inspirational speaking business run by the wife of an Amerijet exec, the airline announced it would no longer fly primates. In June, a second local airline, Monarch Air Group, also caved to Smash’s demands to give up the business. (Amerijet and Monarch executives did not return calls requesting comment.)
Serignese claims these early wins helped legitimize his group. “This was new in South Florida — the aggressive chanting, home demos,” he says. “There were some people that wanted to be nice to everybody. Others, I think they liked the chance to directly confront an individual who does something bad.”
Smash’s confrontational style straddles the line between merry prankster and agitator. The group has no problem splashing its website with personal information on targeted company employees. There’s everything from home addresses to photographs of spouses pulled off Facebook to past arrest records. Serignese has even dialed up the daughter of a Primate Products employee at her dorm room in Ohio to discuss how Dad made his living.
This past October, Serignese learned one Primate Products executive, John Resuta, was a fan of 1960s rock. So he paraded marchers costumed like James Dean, Micky Dolenz, and other icons before the target’s house. He says he also dug up Resuta’s Amazon.com wish list and learned the executive was shopping for a book on stomach workouts. At the next demonstration, Serignese blared taunts about abs through a megaphone. “You can probably figure out what it was like on your own,” Resuta told New Times when asked about the demonstrations, before declining to comment.
Though Serginese claims to steer clear of the frothing hate speech of Marino, he’s been arrested four times on misdemeanors ranging from noise violation to resisting arrest (all charges were dropped). Online records show the FBI and other law enforcement regularly stop by Smash’s website.
Serignese claims to have won a victory when Primate Products quietly shut down its Doral location last month. But the company denies Smash forced the closure. “There’s been a downturn for the business here for the last five or six years,” current President Thomas J. Rowell told New Times. “Just recently, we’ve had the quarantine facilities at our West Coast side approved… so it just didn’t make sense to have two sites.” In a follow-up email, Rowell says the company expects the Miami location may be operational in the future. “Many extremist groups make claims of ‘victory’ which should be met with some skepticism at the least.”
Serignese began shopping for a new target and quickly settled upon Matthew Block’s Worldwide Primates. Block served 13 months in federal prison for violating the U.S. Endangered Species Act. He had played a role in the affair of the Bangkok Six, a botched 1990 smuggling operation that left six infant orangutans dead. In a statement released to New Times, the firm contends, “The actions of Smash have only resulted in creating stress on the very animals they claim to care about by increasing travel times. The loss of employees who truly care about the animals they work with on a daily basis should also be a concern to Smash as it makes it more difficult to provide optimum care for these animals.”
But in Serignese’s eyes, both Primate Products and Block’s company make money off an immoral industry. “I think we are going to effectively shut down Worldwide Primates,” he promises.