ST. PETERSBURG — The endearing Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay captivated the public two years ago by warding off two darts from a tranquilizer gun and scampering away, leaving spectators, trappers and the news media behind.
Soon the wild rhesus macaque, had his own Facebook page.
And in time he settled in a leafy and comfortable environment in south Pinellas. People cheered his freedom.
But when the monkey bit a woman Monday outside her home on Lake Maggiore, wildlife officials say, the focus changed from public empathy to public safety.
"It's become a safety threat to people," said Gary Morse, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Not everyone agrees.
"I don't think he's going to bite again," said Dr. Agustin Fuentes, a primate expert at the University of Notre Dame.
As long as neighbors leave him alone.
• • •
On Wednesday morning, a wildlife rescuer placed a metal trap, about 4 feet long, on the ground just feet away from where the woman was bitten.
A plastic bag containing apples, pears and sandwiches was tied inside the cage. If the monkey steps inside, the door will slam shut behind him.
Veterinarian Don Woodman, who helped set the trap, said he knew this would happen if residents kept feeding the monkey.
"This is so frustrating," he said. "This is completely predictable."
Wildlife officials said the monkey was attracted to the woman because it was seeking food. For nearly two years, it has been living off scraps from neighbors.
After setting the trap Wednesday, Woodman and wildlife rescuer Vernon Yates waited.
They stared into the trees and watched branches rustle. They saw birds. Squirrels. Lizards.
No sign of the monkey.
They are using a trap because darts have failed in the past.
Woodman was there two years ago when a wildlife official shot the monkey with darts.
"It could have brought down a Tampa Bay Buccaneer," Woodman said.
Not the monkey. He got away.
As Woodman and Yates prepared to leave the neighborhood Wednesday, the monkey appeared on a nearby rooftop, staring at his would-be captors.
In seconds, he was gone.
• • •
The 60-year-old woman sat in a chair in her front yard on Monday evening, planning to talk on the phone with her daughter from Tennessee.
For nearly two years, the monkey has been paying her family visits. Perching on trees near the house. Sitting on a nearby fence. Resting on windowsills and peering inside.
On Monday, the woman had her back turned to the woods where the monkey lives. She felt something jump on her back and wrap an arm around her waist.
She tried to shoo away the monkey, but he pulled down the collar of her shirt and bit and scratched her.
Then he was gone.
She ran inside the house, where another daughter was cooking dinner and watching TV.
"It got me! It got me!" she yelled.
Her 37-year-old daughter, Shannon, called 911. Paramedics treated the woman at the house, and her daughter later took her to Edward White Hospital.
She is now on antibiotics and must take rabies, hepatitis B and tetanus shots.
"I never thought it would attack me like that," said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
• • •
Some wildlife experts and neighbors question whether it was an attack.
"It's really weird," said Fuentes, the primate expert from the University of Notre Dame. "This to me sounds like a series of misunderstandings between the family and the monkey."
Family members of the bitten woman like the monkey but also feared it would get too close. They occasionally tried to spray it with the water hose and sometimes gave it food to try to get it to go away. They bought a pellet gun, but never shot it. Simply showing it to the monkey caused him to leave.
But he always returned.
Fuentes wonders if Monday's incident was the animal's attempt to get the woman's attention in his quest for food.
He said the wounds were consistent with a "reactive bite," which happens when primates are shocked or scared.
The monkey won't bite anyone else as long as residents don't feed or interact with it, he said. And within a month of withdrawing food, he added, the monkey will stop dropping by homes.
"If he's actually getting fed by a number of individuals around here, then you have a bit of a problem,'' Fuentes said. "Monkeys just don't jump on people and bite them. There's always a reason.''
If the monkey is caught, his health will be evaluated. If he's in good shape, officials will take him to a wildlife refuge, Morse said.
Health officials said to ensure the monkey doesn't have a disease that was passed on to the woman he bit, he would have to be euthanized and tested.
The victim said she doesn't want that.
She isn't angry at the Mystery Monkey but would like to see him captured.
"I love him, too," she said, "and I just want to see him in a safe place."
Laura C. Morel, can be reached at (727)893-8713, or [email protected]