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Wily monkey's escapades entertaining to everyone but wildlife officials

Almost 60,000 people are now fans of the monkey's Facebook page, still taunting with the line, "Catch me if you can … SUCKAS!!!!"

Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert has drawn hoots and applause by poking fun at St. Petersburg and its "junkie monkey" on the lam. The Today Show, Fox News and news outlets as far away as Asia and Europe have picked up the story, delighting an international audience with tales of the slippery simian that has been on the loose more than a year.

But here in Florida, wildlife officials aren't laughing.

This is a serious situation, they warn. Think infectious diseases like herpes or hepatitis B, attacks on native animals and the possibility that this lonely rhesus macaque could end up dead on the side of the interstate.

"It's gotten way beyond the point where the jokes are undermining the important messages we need to get out there," said Gary Morse, a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "There's a distinct possibility that this could have a bad ending."

But getting the monkey-loving public to wipe the smirk off its face may be a lost cause. The general consensus on message boards and social network sites is that monkey freedom is good, trappers are bad.

Local wildlife trapper Vernon Yates has been a prime target, having been featured on the Colbert Report talking about how many times he shot the monkey with tranquilizer darts (about a dozen). The 58-year-old Seminole sanctuary owner, who has been trying to catch the monkey for over a year, recently got a call from someone threatening to kill him if he hurt the monkey.

Yates was also teased by a couple of Miami radio personalities who interviewed him last week. They questioned why he would want to capture a monkey just to protect a little bit of native wildlife.

"Yeah, wait until someone snaps a photo of the monkey eating a baby bald eagle," Yates said. "We'll see how people feel then."

No one seems to understand the public health risk this monkey poses, Yates said, or realize how much danger the monkey is in. For all those cheering on the monkey's plight, look at it this way: This monkey was most likely kicked out of the only known Florida group of such monkeys, in Silver Springs. Monkeys are social creatures that need the company of other monkeys. And that's not going to happen in St. Petersburg.

"Imagine someone putting you on an island where you could never be with your own kind," Yates said. "How would you feel?"

Most people aren't looking at it that way, said Bill McArdle, the man behind the popular Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay Facebook page. For many, the monkey represents good, old-fashioned American freedom. Or they just want an easy laugh.

The Mystery Monkey page reached 59,000 fans by Monday afternoon, less than a month after the page was created. Compare that to the nearly 37,700 fans for U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio or his rival, Gov. Charlie Crist, who has fewer than 10,000 fans.

"Who would have thought this would be the thing to drive all this Internet traffic?" said McArdle, who owns a video and Web site production company in Clearwater. "I just have to sit back and laugh. It's more or less just people having a good time."

Even McArdle, 46, wonders if people might be taking it a little too far, though. He'd hate to see the monkey wind up in, say, a poorly run zoo. At the same time, he cringed when he saw a recent news video of a crowd of people following the monkey as it took off into the woods.

"I don't think St. Petersburg is the best place for a monkey," he said. "Fort De Soto, maybe. But not St. Pete."

Morse said people are still occasionally calling the wildlife commission hotline — 1-888-404-3922 — to report monkey sightings. But the jokes and requests for silly interviews far outnumber the serious calls.

He sees all the news articles and TV quips about Florida's famous monkey. And he understands the humor.

Still, he can't help worrying about one thing.

How will this story end?

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

Wily monkey's escapades entertaining to everyone but wildlife officials 03/29/10 [Last modified: Monday, March 29, 2010 11:06pm]
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