Saturday, June 13, 2009

Sausages in suitcases: A visit to the Plum Island Animal Disease Center

Dr. Kristen Jensen is a long-time friend of LoS. The following text recounts a visit to Plum Island while she was a veterinary student at Cornell University. Although not quite as notorious as Area 54, the place does have a kind of cult status. Think X-Files meets All Creatures Great and Small.

This account was written in 2002, and although Dr. Jensen considers it "not quite done", we think it's perfect. She quibbled a bit about tidying things up and finishing the tale but hell, after 7 years maybe it's just better to let it fly and let the chips fall where they may. The juxtaposition of weird and slightly terrifying details with those of a more human and banal nature make it an account worth reading; it's charming, informative and pretty damn funny. It's also a real glimpse into the kind of place most of us will never visit and thus subject to any number of wild speculations.

In 5 years time, though, Plum Island may be just another Martha's Vineyard or Kennebunkport, as all the research activity located there is slated to be Kansas. The NYT lays it out here.

And now, without further ado, a glimpse behind the curtain....


SEC. 12.(4) live virus of foot-and-mouth disease may be introduced for any purpose into any part of the mainland of the United States (except coastal islands separated therefrom by waters navigable for deep-water navigation and which shall not be connected with the mainland by any tunnel)... (the) Secretary shall promulgate to protect animal health...the Secretary of Agriculture may transport said virus in the original package across the mainland under adequate safeguards.

The above somehow reminds me of the words of some kind of fairy tale, travel to a place separated by moats and dragons. The Culture of White Coats and One Thousand Acronyms. Of course I’ve worked up the mystique of this place considerably in my head. An island patrolled by armed guards where government hired virologists and immunologists work under the secrecy provided by surrounding fog and artillery. Cattle housed in discarded bomb bunkers, hundreds of pigs in stainless steel cages. Loading on the ferry for the 45 minute trip off into the horizon, I’m surrounded by scientists toting Dunkin' Donuts and wearing clogs and blue jeans.

By the time we reach the island, I’ve heard it described by at least 4 different people as "the shape of a pork chop". This becomes exponentially funnier each time I hear it. Perhaps the obvious silliness of USDA hired folks relating a piece of land to a slab of meat, the fact many of them work with swine regularly, but I’m not sure—its absurdity somehow strikes a deeper chord.

The ferry docks with waves crashing under the supervision of a tall lighthouse and fog bell from the 1800’s. We all load immediately onto a big white school bus. Everyone is extremely orderly and cheerful. I sign multiple waivers and I’m ushered into a lobby and trade my blue visitor’s pass for a yellow. A portrait of George Bush hangs on the wall surrounded by photos of happy livestock.

The morning is filled with lectures and discussion of foreign viruses, especially foot and mouth disease. A likable virologist named L---- tells us about using new PCR techniques for quicker diagnosis. Polymerase Chain engineered DNA probe is used to seek out telltale sequences of viral DNA in host samples. The probe binds, and the segment is amplified to readable numbers using heat and Taq polymerase. Some genius isolated polymerase from thermophilic bacteria living in the depths of hot springs out west. By using this protein at high temperatures, you can be sure that only the DNA you’re after will be transcribed. Now they’ve figured out how to incorporate a fluorescent dye into the whole process for quicker recognition. He shows us a choppy video that they shot on location in rural Uruguay. Thirty-five-thousand-dollar pieces of equipment loaded onto rotting canoes and then onto a horse-drawn cart. One shot of some Uraguayan cowboy-type with boxes stacked higher than his head trotting off into a pasture. Cut fast to shots of dozens of cattle in green pasture with thunderstorm and lightning. Night shots in Blair Witch fashion of jubilant chaps pipetting over glowing PCR machine. Apparently they've hooked these machines up with GPS units, so not only is data beamed immediately to Washington, but an exact geographic location is implicit. All these codes boiling down to positive attracted to negative...molecular, even atomic interactions...nucleic acids (adenine to thymine, guanine to cytosine), antibody to antigen, receptor to protein...then manipulated into some sort of binary code and beamed into space towards a satellite. I have no idea really how satellite transmission works but I have this image of these codes being transformed into light or some other sort of energy and sent up past our atmosphere. Long chains of viral DNA up into the sky and stars.

It’s beautiful and disconcerting all at once.

In the back someone fiddles with the AV equipment to load up powerpoint for next lecturer and suddenly the front screen becomes a mirror...we’re looking at ourselves. For a minute, I’m completely disoriented and must move my arm and watch the arm move on the’s dark in the room and all we can see are our silhouettes, so the effect is very bewildering. No camera obvious anywhere. More coffee, please.

We watch videos of huge piles of burning cloven-hoofed animals. We talk about the politics of vaccination. Viral ancestry. Using the P gene as a molecular clock. Genetic distance. Ecology of disease. Sausages in suitcases and other illegal pork. How to keep it out of pig’s feet. The laboratory director changes voices when he speaks from his official governmental perspective. Wink wink, nudge nudge...we all know the real story. Cracks jokes like "RNA polymerase is like using a typewriter without a back-key". Gets up and makes a huge concept map of how the different governmental organizations are related while making references to Eskimo genealogy. Lunchtime comes and I think I may get a breather.

I approach the lunch-counter and find a cute little wax paper wrapped sandwich that says "K. Jensen". This is endearing and intimidating. Sit down and proceed to eat my funny little sandwich. The professor who chaperoned our trip worked here in the 1970’s and is telling stories. To enter the research rooms with the animals entails a second shower in and out and you must strip down outside the door, walk into the shower, and wear some little paper robe thing on the inside. If you’re going room to room, this can take a considerable amount of time. In the early seventies, it was a predominantly male crew, so apparently clothing became optional in the face of time constraints. A bunch of PhD’s running around naked from cage to cage drawing samples. Hallways filled with swinging appendages.

Upon entry:

1. Completely disrobe in the zone 1 of the exterior locker room. Place your clothing in lockers.

2. Remove all jewelry including rings, watches, earrings, neck chains, body piercing, etc.

3. If you wear a corrective appliance, contact the Safety Officer at extension 3204 prior to entering containment. The Safety Office will make the necessary arrangements for disinfecting the appliance upon leaving the containment area.

4. Proceed in the nude through door labeled "Zone 2" in building 101 to the interior change room.

5. Put on your laboratory-issued clothing and shoes in the interior change room and wait for your escort.

This leads to a fair amount of giggling and pillowcase fight comments from my classmates, as you can well imagine. We’re pretty close, but did not imagine being herded naked through various hallways with fluorescent lighting. Our escort is sure to remind us that the security cameras are watching. I strip and enter Zone 2 and find another pile with "K. Jensen" taped to it. All my size, including the autoclaved underwear. We dress and proceed to the immunology labs. It’s a maze of endless white corridors with bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling. I feel like I’m in a ship or underground. I expected it to be clean and sparkly, but find chipping paint and piles of old equipment line the hallways. Posters that still say "Happy Valentine’s Day" or feature baskets of piglets with bows on their necks. I pass signs that say "Condemned Autoclave", "long term sera storage", "No food or drink to be stored in this refrigerator" "infected cell culture"...we must go through airlocks to enter some of the labs. Our guide spends the majority of the time quizzing us on immunological diagnostics, which is somewhat annoying. We’re told that the entire building is under forced ventilation which somehow, just the suggestion that the building is under negative pressure makes it difficult for me to breathe. She tells us that occasionally the electricity will be shut off and everyone has to gather in one room where there’s a generator so they can breathe. No viral particles can escape to float downwind somewhere. Foot and mouth apparently being the most contagious disease known.

Upon exiting:

1. Completely disrobe in the interior change room. Place all used clothing in the laundry hampers.

2. Blow your nose in a tissue or paper towel, clear your throat and expectorate to remove mucus material which may contain trapped particles inhaled while in the laboratory building.

3. Clean underneath your fingernails using the nail files hanging by wash basins. Scrub your hands and arms with soap using a brush, paying particular attention to cleaning your fingernails.

4. Enter the shower and wash your entire body with soap and shampoo. Especially wash those parts of your body that were exposed, i.e. hands, face, neck, hair, and upper chest. Rinse for at least three (3) minutes.

5. After completing your decontaminating shower, step into the clean locker room, dry off and dress. Hair dryers are provided.

I walk completely naked and dripping through another series of doors over slatted floors. I’m thirsty and had a difficult time mustering enough spit and snot to be deemed satisfactory. I retrieve all my jewelry from a balled-up piece of tissue and am somewhat irritated that my classmates can’t stop giggling. My arms are raw from scrubbing.

We all emerge with token jokes about t-shirts saying "I got naked at Plum Island" and load back on the bus for a tour of the island.

Originally purchased from Native Americans, Fort Terry was established during the Spanish-American war. More than half the island is wetlands and I’m amazed that they permit the numerous geese and seagulls to tromp around oblivious to what’s around them. We head down a dirt road past the old building 257 which is now vacant. Another scientist is our tour guide and is full of stories. We pass the only grave on the island, Thomas Gardiner, a Revolutionary War Captain who died of smallpox and is rumored to haunt the island. We come to an old blimp hanger past dilapidated laboratories and old buildings used to house mines. There’s an old railroad track ("shortest railroad in the US") that brought mines from the shore to this building. The engine was around for a while, and when Dr. S--- asks what happened to it, the story is that about 20 years ago a scientist he calls "Cupcake" flaked out and went and buried the engine in the middle of the night and wouldn’t tell anyone where.

We continue on with tales of how deer occasionally swim to the island. USDA hunters are hired, apparently good "Georgia boys" and got 20 deer last month. Past old officer’s quarters and barracks from 1895, supposedly not touched since then, still full of old furniture and things. We round a hill that is supposedly concrete and full of tunnels, that houses disappearing rifles that shoot shells the size of small Volkswagens with a 10-mile range. We come to the tip of the "porkchop" and it’s narrow and overgrown. We slow down to see barracks crumbling into the sea. Small birds fly in and out, and I’m reminded of exploring the old Pueblo ruins on top of the mesas in Jemez. These however look out onto sea and fog instead of blue sky and clouds.


  1. What a wonderful and beautiful post!

    Are we experiencing technical difficulties? I posted a comment a few days ago ... but it's not showing up here.

    Anyhow, to repeat my previous unrecorded ranting:

    "Germ warfare! Pork-chop Island! Naked women! South America! Buried trains! DNA beamed to space! Sausages in suitcases!"

    And of course I love this cryptic and probably unintentional haiku:

    His head trotting off
    Into a pasture cut fast
    to shots of dozens

    I hope you'll post more soon here, K!

  2. Gid, Blogger did announce a planned site outage a few days ago, something to do with maintenance, so this might be what happened.

    Your comment captures my sentiments exactly. Some of the weird anecdotes are pure absurdity, like something from a surrealist satire or a sci-fi novel.

    Dr. J is a really good writer, writing a straight story but with such amusing and curious details, always informative, never seeming superfluous.

    She's a great poet too!


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