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After a year on the lam, is wily monkey too smart to capture?

Hudson, Temple Terrace, Town 'N Country, Clearwater, Gulfport, St. Petersburg. One wily monkey's yearlong tour of Tampa Bay is drawing legions of curious spectators and adoring fans.

Vernon Yates is not one of them.

For the lead trapper who gets a call every time someone spots the monkey, the novelty and adrenaline rush have worn off. He has gotten hundreds of calls about the creature in the past year, and a half-dozen more Thursday from people who thought they saw it.

"The excitement's over, the frustration's over, the anger's over," Yates said. "Now it's just, 'Here we go again.' "

Yates, who owns the Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation sanctuary in Seminole, has caught many monkeys in his life. This little rhesus macaque, he said, is by far the most elusive.

The unnamed monkey's latest escape act was performed before dozens of spectators, trappers, police officers and news media helicopters Wednesday night near 22nd Street and 54th Avenue S.

The monkey was seen hopping a fence during a 6:30 p.m. service at Bethel Community Baptist Church. "He was on the roof," said church maintenance worker Curtis Sykes. "He came to worship."

Authorities have tried luring him into traps with fruit and on Thursday shot him with tranquilizer darts — twice.

But this monkey apparently is smart enough to run somewhere to sleep off the darts' effect, Yates said. Then it skips town.

"I have no fear for this monkey at all," Yates said. "He's too intelligent."

Yates has some theories about the monkey. It likely came from Silver Springs in Ocala, site of the only known breeding area for rhesus macaques. It likely was run off by dominant members of a group it was once with and is now looking for other monkeys to join.

The rhesus macaque can cover vast distances very quickly, which explains why it has been seen in three counties and covered hundreds of miles in a year. But it's shy and not considered a threat to humans.

Still, it's a wild animal and could attack if it feels threatened, officials warn. Trappers are trying to capture the monkey mostly for its own protection.

But being a nonnative species, the monkey also harms Florida wildlife, Yates said. Besides raiding garbage bins and bird feeders, the monkey will eat lizards, snakes, plants and bird eggs.

If caught, Yates said, the monkey likely will go to a zoo or some other educational sanctuary.

That would disappoint scores of monkey fans.

At least three Facebook pages have been started, including one called Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay, which drew more than 1,300 fans on its first day. (That page lists the monkey's personal interests as bananas, swinging through trees, the theory of relativity and postmodern art.)

Those rooting for the monkey seem to outnumber those trying to catch him. Michelle Turner, who lives in Lakewood Estates across the street from where the monkey was last seen Wednesday, thinks the search should be called off. "If it's been wandering around for a year and it hasn't harmed anybody, then just let it be."

Mary Drayton of Clearwater took a special interest in the search. In January last year, a monkey just like the one seen Wednesday was snacking on the bird feeder in her front yard. She snapped a photo of it staring at her as she stood at her living room window. The monkey hung around for two weeks. Then it disappeared.

"I have no idea if it is the same monkey that has been all over the place," Drayton wrote in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times. "Hope they catch him so he will be safe."

Yates says it is indeed the same monkey. He tried to catch it then, but had no luck. He believes the only way this monkey will be caught is if it makes the mistake of running into a home and someone shuts the door.

For anyone thinking of trying this, Yates has one tip: "Close the door with you outside the house. We don't want anyone trying to confront him by themselves."

If you see the monkey, you can call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission toll-free hotline at 1-888-404-3922.

The mobile monkey swung by the Clearwater home of Mary Drayton in January 2009. It stayed for a few weeks, then moved on.

Photo courtesy of Mary Drayton

The mobile monkey swung by the Clearwater home of Mary Drayton in January 2009. It stayed for a few weeks, then moved on.

After a year on the lam, is wily monkey too smart to capture? 03/04/10 [Last modified: Thursday, March 4, 2010 11:31pm]
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