For decades, monkeys have roamed around Silver River State Park and Silver Springs, a delight for tourists and a headache for state land managers.
For years the state has allowed a trapper to catch hundreds of them, apparently to sell to research labs, much to the displeasure of animal rights groups.
But the trapper recently failed to get the necessary federal and state licenses, so there will be no monkey-catching around Silver Springs for the first time since 1998. The trapper, Scott Cheslak, plans to be back at it next year.
Some accounts say the monkeys first got loose around Silver Springs 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 surrounding forest, they were just a local oddity. But for the past 30 years, as suburbia has sprawled closer to the spring, wildlife officials have viewed the monkeys as a threat to humans.
In the 1980s, a report by the state game commission said a monkey bit a 3-year-old boy. It also said a wildlife officer killed a monkey that had "approached him in a threat display," after which an angry mob "of approximately 50 macaques advanced on First Sergeant Jones, forcing him to leave the area."
More recently, the macaques have become a key part of the attraction. Tourists love snapping pictures of them. One may have wandered our way to become the elusive Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay.
Still, state officials say they're worried about diseases. Many rhesus monkeys carry herpes-B, a virus that can be fatal to humans — although in the past 30 years, there have been no more than 40 cases worldwide of humans contracting herpes-B from rhesus monkeys, all involving laboratory employees.
The other potential health problem, pointed out by Cheslak in emails to state officials: "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 problems.
Department of Environmental Protection press secretary Patrick Gillespie said the agency didn't go out looking for a trapper to thin the herd, "but has granted access when approached."
Over the past decade, Cheslak has captured about 700 monkeys. He filed regular reports on his captures and whether they tested positive for herpes-B but was not required to say what he did with the animals.
He used to work for a company that supplied monkeys to research laboratories, but that company's CEO decided it was wrong to cage monkeys that had been wild for so long.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture email to state officials in October noted that Cheslak "was selling some of the monkeys to a research facility which would require them to have a USDA license." Last month, Cheslak emailed state officials that his facilities flunked a USDA inspection. As a result, he wrote, he would probably not be able to capture any monkeys before 2014. He passed a second inspection this month, but has not received his license, USDA spokesman Dave Sacks said.
Without a valid USDA permit, Cheslak has not been given state permits either.
Cheslak did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Activists with the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, which has been urging officials to find some other way to control the monkey population, hailed the one-year halt to trapping, and noted that they will be talking to state officials about dropping Cheslak permanently.
Meanwhile, a team of biologists from the University of Florida and two California institutions has launched a study "which should help determine the real risk of the monkeys to people, as well as people to monkeys," said Florida biologist Bob Gottschalk, who has been studying the monkeys.
In January, Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet voted to take back operation of Silver Springs from the amusement park operator that has been running it for 20 years, and as part of that move to get rid of the exotic animal cages currently on display. None are monkeys, according to the attraction's website.