Meet Dr. Larry Barrett, Plum Island’s self-proclaimed ‘mayor’

09/06/2013 10:00 AM |

CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | Dr. Larry Barrett, director of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, speaks with reporters during a media tour of the island Aug. 25.

Every morning, Dr. Larry Barrett rushes to Orient to catch a boat to work.

Once he passes through security, he boards the Plum Island Ferry for a 20-minute ride to his job as director of the island’s animal disease research center.

While director is Dr. Barrett’s title with the federal lab, he goes by another unofficial title to support the many responsibilities associated with his job.

Larry Barrett is the island’s self-proclaimed mayor.

“I’m the mayor in the sense that I’m the face of Plum Island,” he said following a recent media tour of the lab.

As director, Dr. Barrett, who holds a doctorate in veterinary medicine from Oklahoma State University, oversees everything from the delivery of rare and highly contagious livestock specimens to the island’s 24-hour ferry service schedule.

“I may start the day at an operational meeting or we may be talking about special agents like foot-and-mouth disease,” he said.

The Plum Island Animal Disease Center, which has been housed on the 840-acre island since 1954, is a village in its own right.

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The island has its own wastewater treatment plant, electric station and roadways — and Dr. Barrett is responsible for making sure everything operates smoothly at the center, which employees nearly 400 people.

Plum Island even has its own fire department. Staffed with 60 trained firefighters, the men and woman are volunteers with credentials at the lab, Dr. Barrett said.

Much of Dr. Barrett’s job, which he has held since Sept. 6, 2007, involves improving the public’s perceptions of the lab, where scientists study strains of foreign livestock disease with the goal of protecting America’s food supply from various illnesses that run rampant among cattle, pigs, horses and goats in other countries.

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The animal disease lab has been at the heart of a number of conspiracy theories, most notably for spawning mutant creatures like the Montauk Monster, which they were accused of in July 2008, when a carcass Dr. Barrett believes to have been a decomposing pit bull, washed ashore in Montauk.

“The public has a misperception of Plum Island, but at the same time science doesn’t do a great job at public relations,” he said.

“We’re not doing anything secret,” he added.

To help improve the island’s public image, Dr. Barrett appeared in a 2009 episode of the History Channel’s “Monster Quest” to dispel the myth of the Montauk Monster.

Four years ago, he also introduced the first community tours of the property, during which visitors can see the work being done at the lab and make stops around the island. The lab arranges several tours a year for media, students and civilians.

Guests are even taken to view the infamous Building 257, the former research laboratory located at Fort Terry that has been said to be the site of secret government experiments.

Originally intended for munitions storage and explosives testing for the Army, the laboratory became the subject of a 2004 book by Michael Carroll entitled, “Lab 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory.”

The book makes the claim that the federal government snuck Nazi Germany’s top germ warfare scientist onto Plum Island after World War II to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the military. This was the basis for the creation of the lab, according to the book.

Others allegations in the book connect the Plum Island lab with the spread of Lyme Disease and West Nile virus.

Those claims make Dr. Barrett cringe.

“We didn’t have anything to do with any of those,” he said. “We’re trying to protect the country.”

Building 257 was first used for research after the Army left the island in the 1950s and the U.S. Department of Agriculture took it over to conduct livestock disease research, he said. The lab moved to the current facility on the other side of the island in the 1990s.

Last year, lab staffers created a new vaccine that researchers hope will help eradicate foot-and-mouth disease in livestock worldwide. The first advancement in foot-and-mouth research in 50 years, the vaccine makes it possible for farmers to tell vaccinated and unvaccinated cows apart, which allows them to select out infected animals rather than euthanizing the entire herd.

Fittingly, Dr. Barrett is himself the son of a cattle farmer, having been raised on a ranch in Oklahoma.

While attending Oklahoma State, Dr. Barrett received a scholarship to join the U.S. Air Force, he said. From there he went to serve on active duty and in the Air Force Reserve as a public health officer , retiring with the rank of colonel.

While on active duty, he served in the office of the Surgeon General, where he assisted in developing the food security program currently in use by the Department of Defense. The FDA adopted this food security model and awarded him an FDA Directors Award.

While he initially set out to be a veterinarian on his family farm, Dr. Barrett is happy he ended up at the lab, where he feels a personal connection with the work he’s doing.

“This job is important to me,” he said. “It’s not just because it’s food safety and protecting our nation’s food supply … I grew up on a cattle farm.

“When I first got the phone call [to work on Plum Island] it was an honor.”

cmurray@timesreview.com