Primal instinct

Posted on June 18, 2011

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When an explosion at a chemical plant in Louisiana happened on Tuesday, thousands of primates housed just a mile away at the New Iberia Research Centre had nowhere to go.

Rhesus monkeys who were outside in cages when the chemical plant exploded

There are more than 7,000 primates (monkeys and chimps) on site. These animals however were one step ahead of their human relatives and knew  instinctively what to do.

As thick plumes of smoke filled the air and the heat from the explosion could be felt on site; the animals came off their high perches in their outdoor cages and got as low to the ground as possible to avoid over heating.

The centre says there were 120 of them in a bank of cages along the fence closest to the plant, Multi-Chem. The oldest monkeys are about 12 years old; the youngest are just months old and there were several are expectant mothers too.

New Iberia Research Centre (NIRC) director Thomas Rowell said: “The animals nearest the incident were down at the bottom of the cages, eating and milling about.

“The intensity of the heat, if you were standing … was overwhelming. At ground level, there was little, if any heat. They were smart enough to squat on the ground and not expose themselves to the intense heat.”

Researchers say they are keeping a close eye on them, and will do so for the next 160 days. They’re checking for signs such as sickness, deaths, still births and spontaneous abortions, which would mean they were exposed to chemicals from the plant.

Staff are also monitoring the monkeys for stress after their routine was interrupted for three days while the area was being evacuated. Stress related behaviour includes pulling their own hair out and unusual pacing. Thankfully there have been no signs of stress or illness.

cages where the primates are kept at the New Iberia Research Centre

The researchers say they will not be carrying out any tests on the monkeys for the moment because it will only add to their stress to have humans enter the cages, sedate and remove some from the family group in order to take blood. If the primates begin to show signs of illness, only then will tests be carried out.

Doctors say they are confident that none of the primates were contaminated by chemicals and they appear, so far, to be in good condition.

In a statement Multi-Chem said: “We are very grateful that there were no serious injuries in this situation, but we do regret that the incident caused an evacuation among the immediate area and concern among the local community.”

The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality is monitoring air quality from a number of locations, and all tests have shown levels are safe.

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Posted in: Captivity