JANUARY 1984 - VOLUME 5 - NUMBER 1
U.S. Tangled Up In Oregon Monkey Business
by Kathleen Selvaggio
They were hardly the usual picture of corporate tycoons: an Italian-American food broker, a veterinarian with a strange professional record such as feeding animals rose petals and spider webs, and two brothers who ran trade shows.
Yet this odd cast of characters, who ran a monkey import business out of Portland, Oregon, last year sued the government of Bangladesh for breaking a contract to export monkeys. What's more, they were able to rally the U.S. Department of State, two prominent senators, and the White House science advisor to their defense. The high-level officials even suggested that American aid to the impoverished country would be cut off if it did not reinstate the contract. But curtains closed on the bizarre international drama last August when a federal court threw out the case.
The story begins in 1976, when the four entrepreneurs created MOL Enterprises for the sole purpose of importing live rhesus monkeys to the U.S. for use in biomedical research. (Rhesus monkeys are highly sought after as a laboratory model because of their anatomical and behavioral similarities to humans.) In 1977, Bangladesh awarded MOL exclusive rights to export its rhesus monkeys - a contract that became a virtual a world monopoly the following year when India banned sales of the monkeys under pressure from wildlife conservation and religious groups. India has a large population of Hindus, many of whom regard the monkey as sacred.
Under the terms of the contract, Bangladesh agreed to export as many as 71,500 monkeys over a 10-year period if MOL took certain steps to guarantee the humane treatment of the animals and to assure the conservation of the country's monkey population. Within a short period of time, however, conservation and religious groups began pressuring Bangladesh to discontinue the shipments, charging that the monkeys were being irradiated in weapons-related research conducted by the U.S. military. In addition, several primate experts, upon learning of the contract, objected to the volume of exports called for by the agreement.
"There are just not that many rhesus monkeys in Bangladesh," says Ken Green, a Washington, D.C.- based primatologist and the last scientist to survey rhesus monkeys in the country. "The population just could not sustain the level of exports." Green ventures that Bangladesh could afford to capture only "500, maybe a thousand" monkeys for export a year and concludes that "monkeys were probably being smuggled across the Indian border" to meet MOL's contract numbers.
In January 1979, amid strong criticism from international wildlife groups, Bangladesh cancelled the contract with MOL. MOL raised a ruckus over the action but, apparently reluctant to stop there, moved quickly to escalate the relatively minor commercial dispute into a major diplomatic conflict. The company hired Jack Faust, a Portland attorney and political campaign organizer with considerable influence in Washington, D.C. Faust enlisted the support of close friend Senator Robert Packwood, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, and Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker. Within a short time, high-level officials of the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Bangladesh and the White House Science Advisor were doing MOL's bidding.
"The Embassy would request that you carefully consider ... the possibility of reaching a mutually satisfactory agreement with MOL Enterprises in order to avoid a conflict with U.S. legislation bearing on the treatment of U.S. firms operating abroad," warned a diplomatic note delivered to a Bangladesh government official.
"The United States is approaching a critical situation in its supply of rhesus monkeys for medical research and testing. These programs are ... vital to the health and well-being of all mankind," stressed another.
Senator Packwood issued what he described as a "strong letter" to Bangladesh, urging an end to the monkey embargo, while the U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh referred to her obligation to "protect American property" in the country. The matter was brought before a State Department committee that considers expropriation of American property and the agency reportedly notified Bangladesh that a law that provides for cutoff of aid to countries that "mistreat" American firms could be invoked.
These appeals carried on for several years, but Bangladesh was unmoved. It did not respond to most of the diplomatic warnings and several visits by MOL attorney Faust produced little action. In June 1982, prior to filing a lawsuit against Bangladesh, Faust tried another tactic.
"I must advise that our [legal complaint] ... will allege that the contract was terminated because certain officials of the government of Bangladesh, whom we will name, were bribed," he notified a Bangladesh government official.
No individuals were identified in the eventual lawsuit, however, leading critics to conclude that Faust's threat was a bluff. "Faust should either put up or shut up," says Shirley McGreal, chairperson of the South Carolina-based International Primate Protection League, which has been active in the case. "This kind of threat is of doubtful ethics and should be investigated."
McGreal also noted that Bangladesh's refusal to export monkeys cannot correctly be regarded as "expropriation," since the monkeys are not "American property" but belong to Bangladesh.
The U.S. federal court for the District of Oregon apparently agrees. On August 18, 1983, it ruled that the Bangladesh government's regulation of its wildlife is "a sovereign activity not subject to challenge in foreign court."
MOL officials could not be reached for comment on the decision. However, sources say that the company has acted to appeal the ruling. And in the meantime, MOL appears to have gotten out of the monkey business. MOL now calls itself a "trading firm" dealing in "the import of commodities" - though it won't say which ones.
There have been no comments from the monkeys - but they are no doubt happy at their apparent reprieve.