LAJAS, Puerto Rico — The easy life is over for hundreds of monkeys — some harboring herpes and hepatitis — that have run wild through southwestern Puerto Rico for more than 30 years.
Authorities launched a plan this month to capture and kill the monkeys before they spread across the island, threatening agriculture, native wildlife and possibly people.
Some animal experts and the farmers who have complained for years about the rhesus and patas monkeys think it may be too late.
"I don't honestly believe they will ever get rid of the patas monkeys in Puerto Rico," said Dr. Mark Wilson, director of the Florida International Teaching Zoo, which has helped find zoos willing to take some of the animals. "They may go deep into the forest, but they will never go away. There's just too many of them, and they are too smart."
Patas monkeys are the species that escaped after former Lowry Park Zoo director Lex Salisbury brought them to his Safari Wild park in Polk County, setting off the controversy that led to his resignation on Thursday.
In Puerto Rico, at least 1,000 monkeys from at least 11 distinct colonies populate the Lajas Valley. After a year of study, rangers began trapping them in steel cages. Two of 16 monkeys were released with radio collars for further tracking. Each of the others was killed with one shot from a .22-caliber rifle.
Officials determined shooting the monkeys was more humane than lethal injection, said Secretary of Natural Resources Javier Velez Arrocho. He said he regrets having to kill the animals, but had no choice after 92 organizations rejected them.
The scourge of nonnative animals is particularly acute in Puerto Rico because of its lush climate and lack of predators. Snakes, crocodiles, caimans and alligators — imported, kept as pets, then released — now flourish in more than 30 rivers, said Sgt. Angel Atienza, a ranger who specializes in exotic animals.
The Lajas monkeys arrived in the 1960s and '70s after escaping research facilities on small islands just off the mainland. They adapted easily, fueled by plentiful crops, including pineapple, melon and the eggs of wild birds.
The creatures cost about $300,000 in annual damage and more than $1-million in indirect ways, such as forcing farmers to plant less profitable crops that don't attract the animals, according to an analysis by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other agencies. The monkeys are also blamed for a dramatic drop in the valley's bird population.
The patas, natives of Africa, are not considered desirable for research, and there's little demand from zoos. The rhesus monkeys, from Asia, are believed to be infected with a variation of the herpes virus and hepatitis, making them potentially dangerous to humans, Velez said. Patas can also harbor the viruses.