Bloated raccoon? A human/animal hybrid? Whatever it is, the Montauk Monster washed ashore on Long Island, NY, and subsequently broke the internet in half when its picture began circulating online. Newsday, a Long Island news outlet, quoted one of the locals who found the creature, Jenna Hewitt, saying:
We were looking for a place to sit when we saw some people looking at something... We didn't know what it was... We joked that maybe it was something from Plum Island.
And she's not the only person who thinks that scary things come from Plum Island.
Former Minnesota governor and WWE Hall of Famer Jesse "The Body" Ventura recently shot an episode of his television show Conspiracy Theory at Plum Island Animal Disease Center, where he expounded on its possible connection to secret bio-warfare experiments. Ventura was particularly concerned with the degree of surveillance surrounding the island as his team approached the facility, furthering suspicion.
What is really going on at Plum Island? Here are the facts.
Where do the urban legends come from?
Plum Island is home to a state of the art animal research facility, the Plum Island Animal Disease Center. In the past, the Plum Island Animal Disease Center was involved in the creation of anti-animal biological weapons, and this was supposed to end when President Nixon discontinued the program in 1969. Cold War era speculation suggested that clandestine biological weapons research continued, with those suspicions proving correct. However, in 1994 a group of Russian scientists inspected the facility and found the Plum Island Animal Disease Center free of biological weapons. Additionally, the facility's separation from the mainland only increased suspicion amongst locals about the installation.
What is really being researched at Plum Island?
Current research at Plum Island Animal Disease Center revolves around protecting livestock from diseases that have been eradicated North American, but exist elsewhere in the world, with most research involving Foot and Mouth disease. Dr. Luis Rodriquez is the current head of the Foreign Animal Disease Research Unit at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, with the unit's goal to develop detection methods, antiviral drugs, and vaccines for not only Foot and Mouth Disease, but other foreign diseases that might infect livestock.
Eradicated amongst the mainland US in 1929, Foot and Mouth disease affects cattle and swine, primary food sources for many North Americans and a reliable export commodity, as livestock contributes $100 billion annually. Within three days of infection, signs Foot and Mouth disease can be seen within affected livestock. The disease leaves the animal with blister-like lesions that lead to erosion in the tongue, lips, mouth, teats, and between the hooves due to rupturing vesicles that subsequently discharge body fluids. Most animals recover, but the animals that do are no longer a reliable milk or meat source and their reproduction rates are decreased. Foot and Mouth disease cannot, however, be transferred to humans. Two major outbreaks of Foot and Mouth disease occurred in the United Kingdom in 2001 and 2007, resulting in the slaughter of millions of animals, and showing that the disease is not confined to the Third World.
Safety and security precautions
The Plum Island Animal Disease Center is a Biosafety Level 3 Ag (agriculture) facility, certified to perform research on potentially lethal agents that can be spread by inhalation. If this concerns you, then you should be scared feces-less when you realize that there are Biosafety Level 4 facilities spread throughout the world and the US, with many less than 100 miles from major cities. Biosafety Level 4 is the highest level of preventive security; reserved for research into diseases for which vaccines or treatments are not currently available (a map of world facilities can be seen in the associated image). The Plum Island Animal Disease Center, because of its BSL-3 Ag certification, applies many of the Biosafety Level 4 security precautions due to the high consequences that would come along with a safety breach. The Plum Island Animal Disease Center considered attaining Biosafety Level 4 certification, but has since rescinded that application, possibly in part due to plans to move the facility in 2012.
In addition to biosafety precautions, the Department of Homeland Security took control of maintaining Plum Island in 2003 due to the island being a possible terrorist target. In 2008, one suspected Al-Qaeda member was arrested with notes detailing a "mass casualty attack", listing Plum Island listed as a possible location.
What it's like to work at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center
Working at Plum Island isn't your typical research job. Researchers are brought by boat to the island each day. Safety and contamination prevention precautions call for researchers to disrobe and put on plastic laboratory garments prior to entering the facility. Researchers are also required to take a decontamination shower prior to putting back on their "street clothes" and returning home by ferry each night.
In addition to researcher precautions, any mammals found on the island are killed by security forces as a precaution to prevent spreading of disease despite numerous fail-safes.
Information about the work going on at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, however, is not nearly as guarded, with the contact information of its fifty plus researchers listed online. The facility produces published academic research, giving insight into the operations of the facility. 131 peer-reviewed journal articles have been published by researchers tied to the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in the past five years, including articles in Virology , the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association , and the Journal of Immunology in 2011.
Plum Island - Cryptid Creator?
So, while former Governor Jesse "The Body" Ventura may be in two of my favorite dual-governor movies (The Predator, Running Man), he may want to aim his conspiracy hunting eye elsewhere - the Montauk Monster had a better chance of dying on Plum Island than being created there.
Images courtesy the Associated Press, the Federation of American Scientists, and the Independent.
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