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Lonely, stressed and frustrated: inside the mind of the Pinellas monkey

He's fast, he's strong, he's smart. He's uncaged and to this point he's uncatchable. The monkey on the loose around the Tampa Bay area for the past year and a half is a young adult male rhesus macaque. He has been everywhere from East Tampa to Temple Terrace, Oldsmar to Gulfport, Clearwater to south St. Petersburg, backed by Twitter chatter, late-night TV talk, tens of thousands of fans on Facebook and a catchy community-wide battle cry: "Go, monkey, go!"

Raves the rooting public: I want to be free like the monkey. I want to trade lives with the monkey. I want to be the monkey. Enough with the rat race. Give me the monkey race!

But "Go, monkey, go!" is our cheer. It's not like that for the monkey. The monkey doesn't run because he wants to. The monkey runs because millions of years of evolution tell him to. He's not running from something — he's running toward something.

Primates are social creatures, and this monkey, say scientists who study his species, is looking and looking and looking for a partner he can be with when it gets quiet in the dark.

Total freedom is social isolation. And "it's a cruel punishment," says Notre Dame monkey expert Agustin Fuentes, "for any primate to be alone."

The longer he runs, the lonelier he gets.

He could've been somebody's unregistered pet and gotten too big or too ornery and been let go to fend for himself. He could've been living with the wild troops of rhesus macaques that live on the Silver River not far from Ocala. He could've been brought here from there or he could've come here on his own. Maybe he tried to have sex with some females and was rebuffed by some angry and territorial older males. Or maybe he just wanted to find a new troop, which is normal, and off he went.

There's no way to know for sure.

About the species in general, though, scientists know a lot.

They've spent so much time observing this kind of monkey mostly because this kind of monkey is so similar to us. We were the first primate to have its genome sequenced. The rhesus macaque was the third. The species carries 97.5 percent of the same genes we do.

They can live to be up to 40 years old and they're more spread out around the planet than any primate with the exception of us. Their natural habitat stretches from Beijing to Afghanistan. They can live in fields or forests or cities. They can live in the heat and they can live in the cold. They live 10,000 feet up into the Himalayas.

Hundreds of them live in the cypress trees by the Silver River because back in the '30s the guy who operated the so-called Jungle Cruise thought it would be neat to have exotic Asian monkeys delighting tourists with their antics. So he bought some and put them on an island in the river. Only problem being he didn't know they could swim. And they swam right off. Been living along the banks ever since.

But these monkeys can move. They can cover two to three miles a day if that's what it takes.

In early '09, the monkey started showing up near Clearwater, running around U.S. 19 and Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard, snacking on bird feeders in yards and from Dumpsters behind strip centers.

Later in the year, he headed over to Tampa for a spell, but he came back by Thanksgiving and raised Cain on some Palm Harbor rooftops. He almost certainly has been on the Pinellas Trail and the Pinellas Bayway and the Courtney Campbell Causeway.

In 2010, at least so far, he has spent most of his time in south St. Petersburg, bouncing between Bahama Shores, Coquina Key and Greater Pinellas Point. He seems to like houses with fences and yards with tall trees that might make for good spots to rest and to sleep. Banyan trees. Full Australian pines. High-canopied oaks with craggy limbs with Spanish moss. Outside their second-floor windows people hear the sounds of a creature too heavy to be a squirrel.

All of this almost ended one afternoon in early March when the monkey was sighted by a crossing guard in south St. Petersburg and Fish and Wildlife was called and he went up into a tree near the Lakewood United Methodist Church and didn't move.

The man from Fish and Wildlife fired a tranquilizer dart at him.


The man from Fish and Wildlife fired another.


Something to understand about these monkeys is that they've been used for research for more than half a century. They've had rings screwed into their skulls and electrodes embedded in their skin and they've been key in AIDS research and in finding a polio vaccine. A rhesus macaque was the first living thing to get shot into space and come back alive. These monkeys are tough.

So the monkey removed the one dart, then the other, and then he ran. His adrenaline surged. He bolted to a different tree and across a street and he hopped a fence and he disappeared and found a place to lay low and sleep it off.

True: His would-be captors are learning about him. Also true: He is learning about them.

The sun set. The search ended.

• • •

The monkey right now is looking for three things.

Food by day.

Sleep by night.

And always, always, one of his own kind.

First, though, the food: He's a diurnal animal, which means he gets up with the sun and looks for food. It would be easier if he had another monkey to help, but he's okay. Rhesus macaques are opportunistic omnivores. They're not tool users, the way a chimp might use a rock or a stick, but they have big, sharp canines and agile, capable hands. They eat pretty much everything we eat, and then some: berries and fruit, lizards and bugs, some roots and some leaves, maybe a mouse. But mostly human food. An apple core? Yes, please. Trash can slop? That'll do too. A thrown-out, half-eaten carton of Kung Pao chicken? Game on.

Sleeping? That's more of an issue. The monkey's finding spots to rest, but he's not sleeping so well, because he's out on his own. Animals that are part of a group sleep more soundly because they can. Strength in numbers. The monkeys on the Silver River, for instance, make one sound for an alligator in the water, another for a moving alligator, and yet another for approaching people. They watch out for each other.

Which gets to this monkey's search for another monkey like him.

Along the way, he could've seen any of the almost 140,000 dogs and cats in Pinellas County or the over half a million dogs and cats in Hillsborough. But as for other monkeys? More specifically: other rhesus macaques? And even more specifically: a female rhesus macaque? There's one in Dade City. There are some in Palm Harbor. There are 17 used for research at the University of South Florida in Tampa. But these monkeys are kept inside. They can't come out to play.

Monkeys typically live together in troops. Sometimes rhesus macaques will troop-hop. That happens for a variety of reasons, but one of them is to prevent inbreeding. Sometimes rhesus macaques will breed with long-tailed macaques, but never with different kinds of monkeys. Some monkeys are more solitary than others, just like us, but at their core they need company.

There's next to no chance the monkey here has even seen another monkey for at least the past year and a half and maybe longer than that.

It's impossible to say with certainty what's going on in his head. And loneliness for the most part is a people thing. But to be alone is not. This monkey is alone.

Loneliness expert John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, the author of the definitive book on the subject, says the body's physiological reaction to being alone is like a CHECK ENGINE light.

No matter the animal, the sensation of isolation sends an actual, age-old signal — like hunger, thirst or pain — that tells that animal to change its behavior in order to survive. In this case, to survive means to procreate, and you can't procreate alone.

"None of us," he explains, "do well on our own."

Being alone on occasion isn't a problem. It's a chronic state that starts to wear you down and ultimately snuffs you out.

People who are alone feel more stress. Their immune systems suffer and their blood pressure spikes. They tend to be more insecure and more pessimistic. Statistics show that people who are alone die earlier than people who are not.

It's not just people. Social isolation decreases the lifespan of fruit flies. It makes mice fat and more prone to diabetes.

And monkeys who are alone? The testosterone levels of male rhesus macaques go down if they aren't around female rhesus macaques. Monkeys deprived of tactile comfort end up mentally and emotionally retarded. Those raised in isolation often never recover. Even if they're put back with others, they're irritable, overly aggressive or socially inept, and some just sit off to the side and rock back and forth.

Think bee hives or singles bars on Saturday nights. It's beneficial to be a part of a social network. Animals that are alone, people and otherwise, end up in a sort of psychological defensive crouch.

One day last month the monkey showed up in a yard behind a house on one of the pink streets down in Greater Pinellas Point. He sat on a low branch just above a fence and looked at a red delicious apple and a couple of carrots and some peanuts, roasted, not salted. He did that for about 10 minutes before he made his move. He all-foured it across the yard and sat down on his rump by the food.

The man who had left the food stood inside behind a tinted glass window and videoed the monkey. The monkey used both hands to shell the peanuts. He ate a carrot like corn on the cob. He chewed quickly, looked left and looked right, chewed more, looked left and looked right. Then he grabbed the second carrot and split, across the yard, onto the top of the fence and back up into the trees.

• • •

Some lout with a gun will kill him.

He'll get hit by a car.

He'll get electrocuted in some power lines.

He'll get eaten by a coyote. One coyote couldn't do it. Several of them could.

One of these ways is how this will end, say the scientists and the local wildlife specialists trying to trap him and take him back to somewhere where there are others like him.

"He'll make a mistake," says Fuentes, the Notre Dame expert.

And here's why, he says: People who are alone tend to make self-destructive decisions. They might drink too much or not eat right. They start giving up. And the monkey here, he explains, isn't all that different.

"If the monkey stays free, as the people are calling it," says Vernon Yates, the trapper from Seminole who has been trying to catch him for so many months, "he is doomed to an easy 20, 25 years of solitary existence."

It continues for now. The monkey's still out there.

In south St. Petersburg, shortly after 8 one morning not long ago, a woman was getting dressed in her bedroom. She was mostly naked when she looked out her sliding glass door. Over on the roof on a different wing of her house was the monkey. She watched the monkey watch her get dressed.

She went to get her camera to get a picture of him sitting there. She hurried back.

Gone again.

Times correspondent David Gardner and news researchers Caryn Baird and Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at or (727) 893-8751.

Lonely, stressed and frustrated: inside the mind of the Pinellas monkey 05/14/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 15, 2010 10:51pm]
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