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At Alpha Genesis animal breeding facility in Yemassee, amid the screeching, bounding primates inside cages, there's a whole lot of monkey business going on.'
Three months ago, Alpha Genesis began marketing a line of monkey toys to government research facilities, universities and zoos, supplementing its main business of providing research animals to these same institutions. '
The toy sales have been surprisingly brisk, according to company officials, who say orders have ranged from a single monkey ball to almost 1,000 toys.'
"Our goal here is not to just have physically healthy monkeys but psychologically healthy and curious monkeys, too," said Greg Westergaard, president and chief executive officer of Alpha Genesis, who renamed the company after purchasing it from LABS of Virginia in 2003.'
Westergaard, an animal psychologist who started building monkey toys in his apartment in 1984 when attending San Diego State University, said many of the toys are common objects he and his staff have tested with the monkeys, judging interest and safety.'
"Toys give them stimulation and provide them with creative things to do rather than get frustrated with each other," Westergaard said.'
Many of the toys were formerly taken straight off Wal-Mart shelves, such as plastic Easter baskets and traffic cones, but Westergaard grew frustrated when the store was sold out of the items on return trips he made, leading to direct transactions with wholesalers and the eventual decision to market the toys online.'
Although Alpha Genesis is considering manufacturing its own toys soon, most of the private company's revenues are derived from supplying labs with research monkeys from the 6,000-strong population bred in three Lowcountry sites: Yemassee, Early Branch and Morgan Island.'
In October Alpha Genesis was awarded a $1.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease to expand its primate population and research. The company received more than $4 million in federal funds last year.'
Because monkeys' genetic codes closely resemble those of humans', the animals from Alpha Genesis are used in research studies that include investigations of AIDS, diabetes, kidney disease, hemophilia and alcohol intake.'
The company has five types of monkeys -- rhesus, capuchin, owl, cynomolgus and a marmoset -- with the rhesus monkeys selling for about $6,000 each and capuchins for $3,000.'
The species are housed separately in cages similarly littered with brightly colored and sometimes chewed up toys .'
"It looks a little bit like a nursery room before everything is picked up ... because we don't make the monkeys put things away every day," Westergaard said.'
The capuchins imitate nursery-schoolers in play habits, too, sometimes fighting over novel or food-related toys, necessitating that workers make sure there are enough toys for everybody.'
Sue Howell, director of research and a chimpanzee specialist for 15 years, said though some toys only entertain monkeys briefly, others can captivate them for hours.'
"To you and me a scoop isn't anything, but to a monkey, scoops are pretty fun," Howell said.'
The toys, Howell said, can be tailored to specific monkey species and are also dishwasher-friendly. '
Alpha Genesis staff did find that spongy materials and squeaking objects are not good materials for the monkey toys, as the sponges lack durability and could be a shocking hazard and the squeaking noises prompt the monkeys to destroy the toy and remove the insides.'
Retailing for $14.79 is one favorite of Alpha Genesis' capuchin and rhesus monkeys -- a hanging plastic apple contraption developed for horses that emits a carrot, mint, or apple-flavored treat to gnawing monkeys.'
In the rhesus cage, a hanging blue, 30-gallon drum selling for $56.76 is a popular spot for monkeys to "go inside and take a rest", Westergaard said.'
"In the long run we hope it improves the life of captive animals," he said.