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Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay finds a home, family in the woods

ST. PETERSBURG — The monkey is somewhere up in the vine-laced trees, or perhaps on the roof looking out for predators. Either way, the woman in the house knows how to reach him.

She whistles a few short notes. "Monk," she calls.

Within seconds, the monkey comes crab-crawling down a post, climbs over a stack of firewood and walks over to the middle of the porch. He blinks, looks around and sits calmly as four people, including a Tampa Bay Times reporter, watch through a glass wall.

People around the world know him as the Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay, a wild, freewheeling creature who bounced from Pasco County to Clearwater and eventually the south tip of Pinellas County. He has been shot repeatedly by trappers' dart guns, featured on Comedy Central's Colbert Report and a National Geographic television special. A Nashville country duo wrote a song about him. He has more than 82,000 fans on the Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay Facebook page.

But these days, he just goes by Mr. Monk. And he appears very much at home in one quiet spot.

Behind a secluded south Pinellas County home of a retired couple, their elderly mother and an aging cat named Koko, the rhesus macaque has found his comfort zone. Here he has remained for over six months.

He waits on the firewood pile for his morning banana and walks ahead of the elderly woman, as if to protect her, as she walks up a long driveway to get the newspaper.

The monkey loves to peer into the large windows surrounding the home and often follows the wife as she moves from room to room. He watches her fix dinner and listens to the husband when he speaks. They hear him running on the roof.

He swings from the trees and washes his sticky hands in a nearby stream. Sometimes he shows up with a strange banana or cookie, and he occasionally disappears for a day or two at a time. But he always comes back.

To protect the family, the Tampa Bay Times is not revealing identities, location or other details. After months of correspondence, the couple agreed to let a reporter come to their home to confirm some extraordinary details.

"It has been a constant progression of trust," the husband said. "But time has passed and Monk has realized that we mean no harm and, in fact, welcome him to our little piece of paradise."

• • •

The monkey's plight has delighted followers since the media began tracking sightings three years ago. "Go, monkey, go," became a common refrain.

From a natural, biological perspective, the 4-year-old monkey's story is sad.

Thought to have been cast out of a wild rhesus macaque colony in Silver Springs, the monkey likely had been spanning a wide area in search of a mate, experts say. He's not the first monkey to do so, though he may be the first to survive this long without being trapped or killed.

Despite warnings from state wildlife officials, a vocal majority of Tampa Bay area residents don't want him captured. A trapper in Seminole who has darted the monkey several times still gets calls but no longer responds.

Gary Morse, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, became frustrated when he heard of the monkey's new home and the family who feeds him.

"This is dangerous and someone's going to get seriously hurt, and it's going to cause us to have to kill this animal on site," he said. "What they're doing is they're teaching him not to be cautious around people. In the end, it always ends badly."

The husband and wife haven't seen that side of Mr. Monk.

"He is such a sweetheart," the wife said, adding that she and her husband never touch the monkey and would never invite him inside the house. "He's still a wild animal."

"He's got fangs," the husband said.

But still.

The monkey is gentle with the sickly, old cat, sometimes picking her up and moving her to a sunnier spot on the patio. He loves Oreo cookies, twisting the tops off and licking the frosting. The family has it on video.

He tolerates squirrels and raccoons who come after his fruit and nut dinners, softly backhanding them if they get too close.

"If he hears any rustle in the woods he will stare and grunt at it," the husband said. "Then run over and up a tree to get a good look and make sure we aren't being attacked by a lizard or turtle or butterfly."

Mr. Monk, the husband said, has a home with the family for as long as he wishes.

• • •

The monkey appears aloof, glancing left and right, even though he knows he's being watched. When he feels a full-on stare, he takes off into the trees or runs behind the woodpile, peering around the corner.

When the husband or wife place apple slices or graham crackers on his tree-stump table, he bows his head, looking up only when they walk away. It's a sign of respect, the couple believes. In the monkey world, direct eye contact is a sign of aggression.

"He considers us his alpha," the wife said.

Dr. Agustin Fuentes, an anthropology and primate expert at the University of Notre Dame who has followed the monkey's story for two years, was thrilled to hear of his new home. He saw the latest photos, noting his coat, skin and face indicated a fairly low-stress, healthy life. This, he said, is the happy ending everyone should want for the monkey.

"He needs a family, he needs a social group, and he found it," Fuentes said. "He's never going to leave. The nice woods make him feel comfortable. There are two options: Let him find whatever joy he can get out of life or kill him. I don't see any reason to kill him."

The husband and wife would hate to see that happen. They have bonded with the monkey, they said, through slow walks with the elderly mother. Mr. Monk and Koko hang together, the husband said, with Mr. Monk on constant watch for any dangers that might approach.

The monkey is a member of their tribe, the husband said, and they will do what they can to protect him.

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8452.

Mr. Monk looks into the kitchen window. A woman living in the house says that from the outside, he watches her prepare meals and also follows her from room to room.

Special to the Times

Mr. Monk looks into the kitchen window. A woman living in the house says that from the outside, he watches her prepare meals and also follows her from room to room.

Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay finds a home, family in the woods 02/09/12 [Last modified: Thursday, February 9, 2012 10:37pm]
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