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Primate sanctuary, JNF swing into action to take 1,100 monkeys off state’s back

Jewish National Fund to provide land to expand forest home of sanctuary, allowing it to take in macaques left in cramped cages for years after Petah Tikva breeding farm shut down

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Monkeys in a cage at the Mazor Farm near Petah Tikva,  in central Israel. (Courtesy, IPSF)
Monkeys in a cage at the Mazor Farm near Petah Tikva, in central Israel. (Courtesy, IPSF)

The Jewish National Fund has agreed to take in over 1,000 monkeys left in limbo for over six years after Israel shuttered the institute where they had been bred to be used for experimentation.

The monkeys will be moved from the Mazor Farm near Petah Tikva, where they have been living in crowded cages, to the Israel Primate Sanctuary Foundation in the Ben Shemen Forest west of the city of Modi’in, the KKL-JNF confirmed Monday during a meeting at the Environmental Protection Ministry.

To make room for the 1,100 macaques, the KKL-JNF will give the Primate Sanctuary land to expand its home in the forest, situated near the center of the country. The Environmental Protection Ministry previously promised to earmark NIS 10 million ($3.2 million) to build new accommodations for the animals.

With the new arrivals, the Primate Sanctuary will become the biggest of its kind in the world.

“We are starting to become optimistic after many years,” said Ori Linial, responsible at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority for wild animals held in captivity.

The monkeys are the offspring of some 600 macaques previously moved to the Primate Sanctuary in 2013 when the environmental protection minister at the time, Gilad Erdan, ordered the BFC Monkey Breeding Farm to be shuttered and its animals sold off.

The farm was established in 1991 to provide monkeys for laboratories in the US, and initially also in the UK, with macaques brought from Israel from Mauritius, where the animals are considered pests and may be legally captured and exported.

Activists had pushed for decades for the farm to be shut down before Erdan decided to end the sanctioned breeding of monkeys for experimentation.

A female monkey originally taken from a forest in Mauritius and used for breeding at the Mazor Farm, enjoys a toy in her home at the IPSF (IPSF)

At the time, the Primate Sanctuary accepted a request from the Environmental Protection Ministry and the INPA to take just over 600 mature breeding monkeys, mainly females. They joined some 200 monkeys that had previously come to the facility after being rescued from the illegal wildlife trade and other abusive situations or adopted for rehabilitation after being released by laboratories.

As the state tried to figure out what to do with the thousand-plus offspring left behind, a non-profit called Monkey Rescue stepped in to take over the farm, using a $2 million donation from Israeli-American animal lover Adi Gil.

Gil funded food and maintenance for two years. After that, Monkey Rescue found it hard to raise funds from elsewhere.

The government stepped in with cash and, following public pressure that included several articles published by The Times of Israel’s sister paper, Zman Israel, stepped up efforts to transfer the animals to Ben Shemen to live out the remainder of their lives.

The life expectancy of a macaque in captivity ranges from 25 to 35 years.

Monkeys at the Israel Primate Sanctuary Foundation. (Courtesy, IPSF)

To save money, Monkey Rescue concentrated its charges in crowded cages of 30 to 40 animals each.

“These animals are very intelligent,” Tamar Fredman, an internationally renowned primatologist who heads the Primate Sanctuary, told The Times of Israel. “But they have had little stimulation for years. And in such cramped conditions, they’ve had no private space either, and that can lead to confrontation and fights.”

On December 1, the INPA formally took responsibility for the monkeys, tapping the Primate Sanctuary to care for them.

Fredman has already instituted several changes to improve the lives of the macaques, who range in age from 8 to 11, even before they can be moved to their new forest home. Aside from hiring a zoologist to oversee the Mazor Farms operations, she has also added a third meal of different seeds to encourage foraging behavior and brought in toys for enrichment.

On Monday, immediately after the meeting at the Environmental Protection Ministry, Fredman took to Facebook to appeal for donations of toys.

עכשיו שיש לנו עוד 1100 ילדים – הקופים הצעירים שעדיין חיים בחוות מזור- אנחנו חייבים עוד המון המון צעצועים! אם יש לכם…

Posted by ‎Israeli Primate Sanctuary Foundation -מקלט הקופים הישראלי‎ on Monday, December 13, 2021

Fredman is also planning to renovate and use some of the old, abandoned cages to relieve crowding and to experiment with woodchips to cover some of the concrete floors.

Linial said that the transfer of responsibility to Fredman from an organization that lacked both experience and money was a “huge step.”

“It’s exciting to see the changes she’s already making and the way the monkeys react,” said Linial. “A few days ago, she took some old worm-ridden planks that had been removed from the cages and put them back in. She understood that this would entertain them. At first, they were wary, then the leader approached, then they understood that there were worms and started to argue over who would get to the planks first. It provided them with hours of activity.”

Fredman is looking to quickly meet with planning authorities to plot out the construction of the new enclosures and to see how quickly it can be done. A total of 40 dunams (10 acres) will be needed to provide 39 groups of macaques with space to run around, pools to swim in, shelters for sleeping and for bad weather, and access paths for staff.

“It just shows what can be achieved when all the relevant bodies come together and decide to act,” she said.

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