One morning in September, Trent Meador was heading out to feed his cows when he noticed something queer. It was big and reddish, rustling in the tall grass.
The 43-year-old rancher and power lineman put his truck in park and pulled his rifle from behind the seat. The thing darted behind a clump of wild palmetto.
Meador peered through the scope.
The beast seemed to be peeking at him through the brush. He saw a flash of white on its face.
That's not a coyote, he thought. That's a coon.
Another white flash.
He pulled the trigger.
• • •
The monkeys didn't stay on the island long.
Two days, tops. Then all 15 made their escape.
This was in April, before most folks had ever heard of Safari Wild, the private game park in rural Polk County built by former Lowry Park Zoo chief Lex Salisbury.
They swam across a 60-foot moat, scaled a fence, and disappeared into the Green Swamp.
When the news of the monkey escape broke, other primates showed up carrying notebooks and television cameras, and flying in helicopters. This frightened the escaped monkeys, which split into two groups and disappeared deeper into the swamp.
Salisbury and his crew tried to lure them back with bananas and apples. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission was called to action.
Weeks passed, then months.
One by one the monkeys were captured. Alive. Unharmed.
All but one.
• • •
Patas monkey (species Erythrocebus patas)
Long-limbed and predominantly ground-dwelling primate found in the grass and scrub regions of West and Central Africa and southeast to the Serengeti plains.
Top speed: 35 mph
Weight: Males average 27.5 pounds
Build: Like a greyhound
• • •
The reports about the corpse were cold and bled big-city mystery.
"The last of the 15 monkeys that escaped from Safari Wild have been accounted for," reported the Lakeland Ledger. "The four Patas monkeys were caught by trappers in North Lakeland, not far from where they escaped. The fifth was found shot to death near the Polk County wildlife park."
Shot to death?
Fish and Wildlife spokesman Gary Morse told reporters the monkey was killed by "some unknown person."
Homicide. No witnesses.
• • •
Trent Meador climbed out of his truck and walked toward the … whatever it was.
"He was laying on his side," he says.
He didn't really want to touch it. Thought it might have AIDS or something.
He carefully picked the creature up by the tail. He held it up beside him. Must have been about 6 feet long.
He put it in the back of his pickup and called his wife.
"Shot a what?" she asked.
"Shot a monkey," he said.
"You didn't either," she said.
"I'll show you," he said.
He drove to the Lakeland Post Office. His wife and a co-worker came outside and found proof tucked inside a feed sack.
When the gravity of the situation hit Meador a few days later, he anonymously phoned the game commission.
"If I saw one of those monkeys, and I shot it, would I be in trouble?" he asked.
No, they said.
"They're nonnative, and they're not protected in any way," says spokesman Gary Morse. "There will be no charges."
Meador snapped photos of the monkey with his cell phone. He showed his 10-year-old.
"Cool," the boy said.
He showed his friends. His friends told other friends.
"I had people calling," he says. "Can I come by and see your monkey?"
Meador is asked if he felt remorse.
"Not at all," he says. "You seen the teeth those jokers got on 'em? Teeth an inch and a quarter long."
• • •
Meador has a game room in his home, with a pool table. The walls are covered with deer heads, hog heads and bass, all frozen in time, each linked to a story of man vs. beast.
In the next few months, they'll be joined by another creature from another continent with another story.
Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or 813-310-6066.