In a state that has everything from gator-gobbling pythons to house-destroying giant African snails, the oddest exotic wildlife story of all might be the one about how a troop of rhesus monkeys got loose around Silver Springs in the 1930s and never left.
Tourists love snapping pictures of the monkeys in Silver River State Park. They've been spotted by hikers on the Cross-Florida Greenway. One may have wandered our way to become the elusive Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay.
Now controversy has erupted anew over the work of a trapper who, with state permission, has over the past decade captured about 700 of the monkeys from the wild — many of them juveniles or yearlings.
"We've sent the state letters and our supporters have sent the state letters complaining about it," said Nick Atwood of the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida. "So far the only response has been, 'We'll get back to you soon.' "
Silver River State Park manager Sally Leib explained that she and other state officials are torn about what to do about a species that they consider both a tourist attraction and a health hazard.
"We struggle with the park service mission," Leib said. "We know people like to see the monkeys, but we know they don't belong here."
Exactly what the trapper, Scott Cheslak, is doing with the young monkeys he captures is something of a mystery. His state permits say he cannot kill them or display them, but that's all.
"Disclosure of where the monkeys are taken is not a condition of the permits," state Department of Environmental Protection press secretary Jennifer Diaz said.
Cheslak files annual reports, but they only list how many monkeys he caught and whether they had diseases. He did not respond to repeated phone calls and emails requesting comment.
Cheslak used to work for a company named Alpha Genesis that supplies monkeys to scientific research laboratories. The CEO, Greg Westergaard, says the Silver Springs monkeys that Cheslak captured were used to breed other monkeys to be used for research.
However, Westergaard said he ended the trapping because he decided it was wrong to cage monkeys that had been wild for so long. He said he did not know for whom Cheslak is trapping monkeys now, or why.
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The monkeys have been a blessing and a curse for Silver Springs for decades. Some accounts say they got loose during the filming of a Tarzan movie. However, most experts agree the operator of Silver Springs' Jungle Cruise put them on a small island in the Silver River in the 1930s to spice up the ride for tourists.
He thought the monkeys would stay on the island. He didn't realize they could swim.
At first, as the monkeys spread into the forest around Silver Springs, they were just a local oddity. But for the past 30 years, as suburbia has sprawled closer to the spring, state wildlife officials have begun insisting the monkeys pose a threat to humans.
In 1984 the New York Times reported that "stray monkeys have been found in … the nearby city of Ocala foraging in garbage cans. … Male monkeys ranging up to 30 pounds have also been spotted on thoroughbred horse farms in the area, and some were shot and killed while stealing fruit in citrus groves."
The state game commission produced a report back then that said one monkey bit a 3-year-old boy in the neck. Some jumped into a boat as frightened passengers dove into the river. A wildlife officer killed a male monkey that had "approached him in a threat display" and then an angry mob "of approximately 50 macaques advanced on First Sergeant Jones, forcing him to leave the area."
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At the insistence of state and federal officials, Silver Springs employees began rounding up the monkeys and selling them. But when word got out that the monkeys were being used for experiments, the bad publicity persuaded the attraction to halt the trapping.
Meanwhile, an anthropologist named Linda Wolfe had begun studying the monkey colony. She spent 14 years observing them, discovering, among other things, that it was a society where the females ruled. When she heard the trapping had resumed, she dropped the project.
"I quit going because they started trapping the monkeys," she said. "If they're habituated to people, it makes them easier to trap. I figured the monkeys were safer if I wasn't there." She thinks state officials should leave the monkeys alone: "They're not hurting anything."
But state officials say they're worried about diseases. Many rhesus monkeys carry herpes-B, a virus that's fatal to humans, which Leib said makes them "a true public hazard."
A majority of the adult monkeys captured by Cheslak tested positive for the virus, which he wrote makes them a risk to the public.
But Wolfe scoffs at that assessment. In the past 30 years, there have been no more than 40 cases worldwide of humans contracting herpes-B from rhesus monkeys, she said, all of them involving laboratory employees and captive monkeys, not tourists encountering monkeys in the wild.
Cheslak's other health concern: "rhesus feces on the boardwalk" because "kids run their hands up and down along the hand railings," which he said can lead to dysentery and other gastric problems.
To biologist Bob Gottschalk, that concern is also overblown. After all, he pointed out, other animals such as raccoons also leave their feces behind where kids may touch or step.
Gottschalk, who works for an animal shelter, has picked up the rhesus studies where Wolfe left off. One day, he said, he stopped 15 tourists in the park and asked them what drew them there. Fourteen said they came to see the monkeys, he said.
"Florida needs tourists," Gottschalk said, "and the monkeys play their role."
Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]