Jailbreak monkeys still free in Polk County's Green Swamp

A Patas monkey is seen in the African Plains exhibit at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington.

AP Photo

A Patas monkey is seen in the African Plains exhibit at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington.

Three weeks after a group of 15 monkeys made a monkey out of Lowry Park Zoo's chief executive, most of them are still roaming the Green Swamp in Polk County.

"We know where they are," explained Gary Morse of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "It's catching them that's the problem."

The animals are Patas monkeys. When they run, they can hit a top speed of nearly 35 mph.

Turns out they can swim pretty well, too.

The monkeys are native to Africa. In recent years, though, they have spread throughout Puerto Rico — an island with no native monkeys.

Now there are so many in Puerto Rico that they're ravaging the island's crops of pineapples and plantains. The government has decreed that they must either be removed or killed.

Last month, Lowry Park Zoo chief executive Lex Salisbury collected 15 Patas monkeys from Puerto Rico, so they would not be euthanized.

He figured he could keep them at a private wildlife preserve that he co-owns in Polk County called Safari Wild. They would be on an island surrounded by a wide moat. He figured that would be secure.

Two days after he put them on the island, they were gone — the latest in a long list of nonnative species trying to gain a foothold in Florida. Pythons, iguanas, Asian green mussels and feral hogs are just some of the exotic species that already plague parts of the state.

The monkeys "ended up outfoxing me and swimming off the island," Salisbury said.

When word got out about the escaped monkeys, swarms of television news helicopters buzzed the area getting video footage. As a result the monkeys split into two groups, which makes it even harder to capture them.

Experts say Patas monkeys are quick studies. They live in groups of a dozen or more. If one of the group is captured in a trap, the rest of the group studies what happened and then changes their behavior to avoid making the same mistake. That means anyone who wants to catch them has to catch the whole group, if possible.

Two weeks ago, the Safari Wild staff recaptured two of the missing monkeys — a mother and baby — leaving 10 adults and three babies still on the loose in an area of the Green Swamp about 2 to 3 miles north of the preserve.

Safari Wild's staff has set out bait stations — basically just a couple of bananas and apples — and they're letting the monkeys get used to coming back to the food. Once they're sure they've got all of the monkeys together, then they will spring the trap. That will probably involve shooting a net from a cannon, Morse said.

Until then, though, "we're just watching and waiting," he said.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which contains information from the Villages Daily Sun.

.fast facts

See the monkeys?

Safari Wild has set up a hotline to receive any tips on sightings from the public: (813) 470-9307.

Jailbreak monkeys still free in Polk County's Green Swamp 05/17/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 21, 2008 2:35pm]

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