DADE CITY — Around 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Lena Calton looked out her front window and saw something strange sitting on a fence post.
"What is that?" she asked her boyfriend and his brother.
The guys got up to have a look.
"Is that ... a monkey?" Calton said.
"No," the guys said and looked at Calton is if she were nuts.
But then, after a few more seconds, they thought it might be.
"Go check it out," Calton asked her boyfriend's brother, Curtis Farr. Calton and her boyfriend, Jamie Farr, followed at a distance. The animal was reddish with a long tail. It sure looked like a monkey, at least from what they remembered seeing in zoos. "It's cute," Calton said. But when Curtis Farr got close to it, the animal hissed. He backed off and the animal scampered away to a nearby Oak tree.
Calton lives on 31/2 acres way back in the woods in eastern Pasco County; off one pocked dirt road to the next, down a muddy track to a chained gate. Calton's neighbors also have many acres — wood and wire fences sectioning off pasture and forest. Cows get loose and wander through citrus trees. Calton has horses, goats, dogs and a pig named Kermit who went on a walkabout and hasn't come back yet.
"There's another one," they said and spotted a second monkey hiding in some bamboo trees. Then they thought they heard a third monkey.
They seemed to be talking to each other.
"It kind of sounds like a weird bird chirp," Calton said. "But with monkey in it."
Calton doesn't have Internet access this far out, so she called her sister, Melinda, in Orlando.
"I have monkeys in my yard," Calton said.
There was a pause.
"Really?" Melinda said.
"Yes," Calton said.
So Melinda got on her computer and began researching. They thought the monkeys might be part of a gang that escaped an island in Polk County four months ago. The 15 patas monkeys had been brought to Florida from Puerto Rico, where the clever creatures were ordered to be removed after they had decimated plantain and pineapple crops.
Lex Salisbury, the chief executive of Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo and co-owner of Safari Wild — the not yet open wildlife sanctuary in Polk County — thought a moat around the island would be enough to contain the monkeys.
That didn't work out.
Ten of the fugitive monkeys have been caught. Five remain on the lam. The sanctuary is about 25 miles from Calton's home, so it's possible the runaways might have traveled that far. They would have had to forge a bit of the foreboding Green Swamp, though, which consists of about 50,000 acres in Polk, Lake and Sumter counties. They would have had to not only navigate the swamp water — which might be difficult for monkeys who are mostly ground-dwelling and usually only climb trees at night or in fear — but deal with alligators, feral hogs and people.
Calton's sister told her patas monkeys are social animals, so it makes sense they would be in a group. And she told her about why they were booted from Puerto Rico.
"Give them some fresh pineapple," she said.
"I don't have any fresh pineapple!" said Calton, who began rooting around her kitchen, hoping to find a can of fruit. She had some bananas and put one in a tree. When Calton checked on it, the banana was gone.
She wanted to make sure the monkeys didn't belong to her neighbors, so Calton walked all around the area asking:
"Hi. Um, do you have a pet monkey?"
She felt silly. But, as far as she knew, no one was missing any monkeys.
So her sister began giving her numbers to call. Melinda saw on a Web site that there might be a reward for the monkeys' safe return. Calton thought that would be fantastic as she is facing possible eviction. Her boyfriend was in the hospital last week recovering from burns he got while on his job. He had skin grafts and won't be able to work for awhile. Calton, 28, also has two children and has mounting, unpaid hospital bills. How strange that would be, Calton thought, if when, at the end of her rope and praying for help, the universe sent her monkeys.
So Calton began calling any place she thought could help. Lowry Park Zoo. Pasco animal control. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. She couldn't reach anyone and kept leaving messages like:
"My name is Lena Calton and I have monkeys in my yard."
She said she called a trapper in Zephyrhills.
"No, no," he told her. "We don't do monkeys."
She thought she got a number for Safari Wild, but it turned out to be a RE/MAX real estate office. Finally, in the evening, she got a call back from Fish and Wildlife.
"Yes sir," she said. "There are at least two. Maybe three."
At that point, though, the monkeys were not to be seen. As Calton waited for the officer to arrive, she listened, face to the trees. Then, clearly, there was a strange sound.
"Do you hear that?" she said softly. "Any other day I would think that's a bird. But it definitely has a monkey quality to it."
It was dusk when officer Paul Van Ost arrived and interviewed the group.
"It could be a lemur," he said. "Or a fox squirrel."
Another officer arrived and both scouted the area until dark. They didn't see any monkeys. The next day, Wednesday, officers returned and couldn't find any trace of unusual animals. Florida Fish and Wildlife spokesman Gary Morse said Calton was given a monkey photo lineup and she couldn't pick out the monkey she saw — if she saw a monkey.
Salisbury, who did not return calls for this story, has a team of people trying to recapture the monkeys, wherever they might be in Florida.
Morse said it is Salisbury's responsibility to capture them — and he might face fines after it's all done.
But Fish and Wildlife is in frequent contact with Salisbury and, of course, responds to any calls of exotic animals loitering in citizens' yards. Morse also said there have been no reports of other escaped monkeys.
Calton believes she saw monkeys, but they haven't reappeared since Tuesday afternoon. She still hears them though, talking from the shadows.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4609.