Politicians and environmentalists are jockeying with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) over the fate of Plum Island, made famous in the movie “Silence of the Lambs” as Hannibal Lecter’s “vacation retreat.”
With a proposal on the table to sell Plum Island, elected officials and environmentalists are lobbying hard to ensure it is preserved as a natural habitat for the wide variety of wildlife and threatened and endangered species that have made a home there on Long Island Sound.
“Eight-hundred-and-forty acre, federally-owned Plum Island, with seven-and-a-half miles of natural shoreline, offers the most extraordinary opportunity to preserve Long Island Sound wildlife habitat, ecological services, and public open space in many generations,” said David Sutherland, director of government relations for The Nature Conservancy in Connecticut. ”We must not squander it. The undeveloped portions of Plum Island should not be sold for development but protected as part of the public trust.”
The island is the site of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, located in the former Fort Terry, and is also the location of the historic Plum Island Light and its automated replacement.
The center was mentioned in the movie “Silence of the Lambs” by FBI agents who offer Dr. Hannibal Lecter a transfer to it in exchange for his help locating a serial killer. Lecter reads over a report on the location, sarcastically saying, “Plum Island Animal Disease Research Center…sounds charming”, then, rejecting the offer, Lecter refers to Plum Island as “Anthrax Island.”
Plum Island is owned by the US Government, which was considering sale of the island as part of a debt-lowering package, but scrapped the plan in February 2012. Access to the island is controlled by the United States Department of Homeland Security.
In 1954 the United States Department of Agriculture established the Plum Island Animal Disease Center. The center conducts research on animal pathogens to protect farmers, ranchers, and the national food supply. During the Cold War, a secret biological weapons program targeting livestock was conducted at the site. Because of the nature of the research, access to the island and the research facility is restricted.
In 2003, the Department of Homeland Security took ownership of the island and facilities; the Department of Agriculture continues to work on the island.
Plum Island was considered a potential site for a new high-security animal disease lab, NBAF (National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility). In September 2008, the U.S. Congress passed a law that directed the General Services Administration to close the animal disease center and to sell the island to the public, and to use the proceeds towards the construction of NBAF, if it were decided that NBAF would be built elsewhere.
In January 2009, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security chose the city of Manhattan, Kansas, as the site for NBAF, and decided to move the animal disease center there as well. However, the decline in real estate values stemming from the subprime mortgage crisis and late-2000s recession caused the sale of the island to become no longer viable. Because the proceeds from selling the island were needed to construct the new facility in Kansas, the project was effectively cancelled for the short term when the 2013 federal budget request contained no funding for the new facility.