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The State You're In: Florida tries to halt monkey business

A monkey plays in the trees at Silver Springs State Park. While the monkeys are a tourist favorite, state officials now say people should not feed the monkeys because of a potential health hazard.. [ Alan Youngblood / Ocala Star-Banner]
Published Feb. 27, 2018

Here's a regulation you won't find anywhere but Florida. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recently decreed that it is now illegal to feed wild monkeys.

Wild monkeys are not, of course, native to Florida. Yet about a hundred of them live in Silver Springs State Park. The story of how they got there is a classic Florida tale of a plan gone awry.

Back in the 1930s, when Silver Springs was just another roadside attraction, the captain of its version of the Disney Jungle Cruise, Col. Tooey, put six monkeys on a small island in the Silver River. He thought seeing them would spice up the ride for tourists. He thought the monkeys would stay on the island. He didn't think they could swim.

Boy, was he wrong.

At first, as the rhesus macaque 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 began warning that the monkeys posed 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."

That story, incidentally, included this great quote from a University of Florida professor who was studying the monkeys: "The trouble with the monkeys at Silver Springs is that they don't know they are in Florida. They think they're somewhere in Southern Asia and they go looking for other monkeys.''

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."

For a while the park employed a professional trapper to thin out the macaque menagerie, until an animal welfare group noted that the trapper was selling what he caught to be used by a scientific specimens company. The state then yanked his permit.

State officials have repeatedly noted that they're worried about diseases. Many rhesus monkeys carry herpes-B, a virus that is fatal to humans. The trapper warned about potential diseases spread by contact with "rhesus feces," which is surely the worst proposed candy flavor ever.

That potential threat is what's behind the new regulation against feeding them. That threat always garners a lot of hysterical tabloid headlines, such as "Florida monkeys could pass killer herpes to people."

However, only a quarter of the Silver Springs monkeys carry the virus, and experts say there are exactly zero cases of humans contracting herpes-B from macaques in the wild. The most recent study, the one that prompted the state's action, notes: "All documented cases of human contraction of and death … have been associated with captive animals within laboratory settings."

Still, if you feed wild monkeys, or any other wild animal, they get used to begging for food, and that is never good.

Despite the official hostility, the monkeys remain a popular (if accidental) park attraction. Tourists love snapping pictures of them. They've been spotted by hikers on the Cross-Florida Greenway. Not every monkey encounter is a good one, though. Last year a whole family of monkeys chased away a whole family of human tourists.

If that monkey face looks familiar, by the way, it's for a good reason.

A few years ago, one of the Silver Springs macaques wandered our way to become the elusive Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay. The Mystery Monkey, in case you've forgotten, showed up in backyards all over the Tampa and St. Petersburg area, repeatedly eluding capture for three years, and in the process became such a media star that, ahead of the 2008 Republican National Convention in Tampa, the New York Times ran a profile of the monkey.

No wonder Florida gets such a rep for monkey business.

Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.


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