Kokua Line

June Watanabe

Blue Tropix seeks new
permit for monkey display

Question: Why on earth would a nightclub be permitted to keep live animals on display behind the bar, as the Blue Tropix has done since 2001? Three squirrel monkeys are kept in a glass enclosure and I understand the club does not even have a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) license to do this. This is a totally unnatural environment for primates, or any animal for that matter, and a form of animal cruelty. The monkeys are exhibiting signs of severe stress, yet the club owners continue to exploit them and no government agency intervenes to help.

Answer: There are no federal or state laws to prevent the monkeys from being kept where they are, if the nightclub's owners have an exhibitor's license issued by the USDA and if there is no evidence of abuse or mistreatment.

That's why, despite past protests by Animal Rights Hawaii, Blue Tropix has been allowed to house the monkeys in the establishment.

However, the exhibitor's license -- which is to be renewed annually by the USDA -- did expire. Exactly when is unclear, although Animal Rights Hawaii members allege it had expired long ago.

Both the USDA and the Hawaiian Humane Society said the monkeys were not being mistreated, at least in the eyes of the law, but officials told us last week they are investigating the situation.

Because of the lack of a valid license, the club's owners could be fined an unspecified amount per animal, per day, USDA spokesman Larry Cooper told us in a telephone interview from Fort Collins, Colo.

The state Department of Agriculture has already moved to increase the required state bond from $1,000 to $2,000 per animal, but would reduce it again if the club obtains a new license, said spokeswoman Janelle Saneishi.

She also said that's the only involvement the department has in the matter -- that it is not responsible for overseeing the welfare of the monkeys.

The nightclub first obtained an exhibitor's license in 2000 and had been renewing it every year, Cooper said. But he said he couldn't get into specifics, including when the license expired, because of the ongoing investigation by the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

The investigation deals with the expiration of the license and "does not entail the care or abuse of animals," Cooper emphasized.

The USDA issues an exhibitor's license under the Animal Welfare Act, which, according to the USDA, provides "minimum protection for handling, care, housing, treatment, ventilation, lighting, shelter, veterinary care and separation by species."

For example, minimum standards require an animal's cage size "to provide them only the ability to turn around." However, it does require license holders to "develop, document, and follow an appropriate plan for environment enhancement adequate to promote the psychological well-being of nonhuman primates."

Cooper told us that if animals are exhibited in Hawaii without the required federal license, "then it becomes an issue for the state of Hawaii, which would have jurisdiction at that point."

Outside of issuing a fine, he said the only other way the USDA might become involved is if the animals appeared to be unhealthy or not properly taken care of, under guidelines of the Animal Welfare Act.

"At that point, the federal government does have the authority to give (the owners) 24-hours notice and confiscate the animals if corrective action isn't taken immediately," he said. But, from the USDA's standpoint, "the monkeys have been inspected and it appears they are getting adequate care."

The state maintains it's up to the USDA to take any punitive action.

"Our stand is that the USDA issues the exhibitor's license," Saneishi said. "State law only requires that the monkeys be adequately contained to prevent escape. It doesn't require that they have an exhibitor's license."

The only thing required on the part of the state under the exhibitor's license is the posting of the bond, she said. The license allows the state to reduce that bond by half.

"So since (the USDA) confirmed last week (week of Aug. 9) that the exhibitor's license has expired, we're contacting Blue Tropix to tell them that we will raise the bond amount to the required $2,000 per animal," Saneishi said Wednesday.

She added that an inspector from the department previously checked the monkey's enclosure, "but it didn't have to be approved by us."

At this point, "We are going to continue to confer with USDA because they have the enforcement power of the Animal Welfare Act," Saneishi said.

Meanwhile, Blue Tropix co-owner Darren Tsuchiya told Kokua Line last week that an application for a license renewal had been submitted last month and he was awaiting a new license.

Tsuchiya said the monkeys are in a well-ventilated, sound-proof environment, with running water, and insisted "they're in perfect health, well fed, happy."

He described the environment as being no different from a zoo. He said one employee is "dedicated" to checking on the monkeys daily, while either a federal veterinarian or a private one has checked on them regularly.

"We couldn't (renew the license) immediately, because the vet who was taking care of our monkeys had moved and it's not easy to find caretakers for monkeys," Tsuchiya said. Despite that, he said, "We meet all the criteria put out by all these various organizations."

The Hawaiian Humane Society, in previous inspections, did not find any evidence of animal cruelty. But it is conducting an investigation because of two recent complaints, spokeswoman Jacque Smith said. Based on those complaints, investigators did another site inspection, but a report had not been completed, she said Thursday.

Before the current investigation, Smith said the humane society does not believe that wild animals should be used in exhibits, but that its investigators "have thoroughly inspected the site and have not witnessed conditions that would be considered cruel in the eyes of the law."

Still, noting that wild animals have "well-established psychological, behavioral and environmental needs," Smith said the humane society "is opposed to the exploitation of animals when the welfare of the animals is not a priority. These events have a desensitizing effect, causing people to be unsympathetic to animals' needs for a quality life."

Linda Vannatta, a member of Animal Rights Hawaii and a bird/primate keeper at the Honolulu Zoo, said her group is not complaining about the monkeys being physically abused.

"But it's psychological torture," she said of their environment, contending "the worst kind of abuse is psychological abuse."

Keeping the monkeys without a valid license is akin to driving without a driver's license, she said.


See the Columnists section for some past articles.

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