ST. PETERSBURG — For much of past year, the monkey was unavoidable.
Tampa Bay's elusive rhesus macaque made headlines the world over, was featured on Comedy Central's Colbert Report, appeared in a National Geographic television special. He amassed more than 81,000 fans on Facebook.
But over the past six months … nothing.
Did he leave? Get hit by a car? Eaten by a coyote?
Actually, calls of monkey sightings are still pouring in to Vernon Yates, a local trapper who tried to capture the monkey for years. He knows exactly where the monkey is, but it seems no one wants him to do anything about it.
In fact, many insist he stay away.
Wildlife experts say the monkey, who appears to be a young male in good health, is most likely lonely and needs to be in a safe place with one or more female companions.
Instead, he continues to spend his days in solitude, living off of the kindness of neighbors who prefer to keep the monkey under wraps.
A couple of weeks ago, some guy called Yates to say he saw the monkey crossing the street. Yates asked for the address. The guy balked.
"He said, 'I'm not giving you my address,' " Yates said. "I said, 'Then why did you call me?' He said he just wanted to let me know the monkey was crossing the street."
"There's no end to it," he said.
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The Facebook version of Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay, created by local entrepreneur Bill McArdle when the monkey was at his hottest, is a fun-loving character. He wears Photoshopped Tampa Bay Rays hats and cheers on the Lightning. He drinks banana daiquiris and, according to his bio, just wants "to be FREE!"
Yates and other state wildlife officials have long warned that feeding or housing the monkey is wrong, and that a life in captivity with other macaques would be much healthier than a life on the streets.
But it may be too late. The monkey has taken on a life of its own, whether it resembles the real monkey or not. And tens of thousands of fans around the world have bought into it.
"He was in my yard last night, and NO I'm not telling where I live," one fan wrote on the Mystery Monkey's wall. "I don't believe he should be caught … he doesn't hurt anyone or anything." The Monkey thanked her.
The Monkey, who is presumably McArdle behind the scenes, tells followers to go "easy on giving away the location, if you don't mind," and carries on an air of Florida sun, fun and freedom. Adoring fans delight in this, and those who have actually spotted the real monkey keep mum.
McArdle, who also sells Mystery Monkey T-shirts that partly benefit the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary, did not return calls or e-mails about the monkey.
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By all accounts over the past eight to 10 months, the monkey has been spending his time roaming between Coquina Key and the pink streets of southern St. Petersburg. One woman recently called Yates and reported seeing the monkey nightly in her yard.
She wanted the monkey to be captured and safe, Yates said, but wanted guarantees the monkey would not get hurt.
Yates couldn't guarantee that. He has hit the monkey with a tranquilizer dart before, which didn't work. He now has a different formula of tranquilizer, and with all drugs used on animals, there's always a risk.
"She didn't like that at all," Yates said. The woman declined to have Yates come out, and asked that he not report the sighting to the state wildlife commission or to anyone else.
Yates visits the area from time to time, tending to other wild animal calls.
"Any time I'm down there, believe me, my eyes are wide open," he said. "We still want him. Is there a massive monkey search going on? No. Are we still looking for him? Yes."
One Facebook fan who claimed the monkey visits her property from time to time wondered what would happen if he's never caught. Would the monkey die of loneliness, something the experts claim is possible?
The responses were a string of jokes and winks.
"He won't die of loneliness," one fan said. "He's got 81,000+ likes on his page!"
Emily Nipps can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8452.