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Animal control workers capture Tampa Bay's Mystery Monkey

Published Oct. 25, 2012

ST. PETERSBURG — Elizabeth Fowler watched as a tranquilizer dart punctured the monkey's torso.

He stumbled across a creek and crawled up a low branch, where he swayed as the chemicals coaxed him into slumber.

Wildlife rescuers carried the monkey out of the woods and stowed him in a cage.

The Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay's nearly four-year run from wildlife officials was over Wednesday afternoon.

Three weeks earlier, Fowler had been bitten by the monkey, which prompted wildlife officials to intensify their search.

Fowler knew the monkey had to be caught. But like many neighbors, she had grown fond of him, and she was sad to see him go.

"I feel kind of guilty," Fowler, 60, said through tears.

The monkey's future is unclear. He was placed in quarantine Wednesday evening. If his health checks out, he could be sent to a sanctuary to be with other monkeys.

But the question remains: After thriving among humans for years, can he get along with his own kind?

• • •

The trappers arrived at Fowler's house near Lake Maggiore about 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.

They placed bananas in and around the cage that wildlife rescuer Vernon Yates had installed weeks ago to catch the monkey.

But the monkey never came. He watched them from a nearby roof.

About noon, Shannon Fowler, Elizabeth's daughter, arrived. She stood outside, waved a banana and made smooching sounds.

The monkey emerged from the woods and perched on a branch. He scampered toward the trap.

From inside the home through a sliding glass door, veterinarian Don Woodman pointed a dart rifle at the monkey and fired.

The dart hit the monkey. He crawled into the woods and pulled it out. Woodman and Yates gave chase and grabbed him with a catch pole. They shot him with a second dart.

Within a minute, the monkey was unconscious.

"It was nice to have done the job and done it well and done it smoothly," Woodman said.

Yates carried the 45-pound rhesus macaque out of the woods. Members of the Fowler family stroked the monkey's fur and said goodbye.

"It's not a joy," Shannon Fowler said. "It's bittersweet."

For more than a year, the monkey has watched the Fowlers through windows. He playfully swatted the family dog. He chased the kids across the lawn.

But the monkey's stay took a dark turn when he bit Elizabeth. Since then, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials have been on the lookout for him.

After the capture, Woodman and Yates gave the Mystery Monkey a new name: Cornelius, after a character in Planet of the Apes.

• • •

Late Wednesday afternoon, an unconscious Cornelius was sprawled inside a cage in the back of a car parked outside the Animal Hospital of Northwood in Safety Harbor.

Cornelius lay on his side, his chest heaving to a halting rhythm. His face was buried beneath a towel and several unopened bananas. His tiny hand lay loose and upturned by his side, like that of a sleeping baby.

Woodman, owner and veterinarian at the animal hospital, said Cornelius is in good physical health and, notably, free of fleas despite his sojourn in the wild.

"Clearly, he's grooming himself well," Woodman said.

Cornelius had minor abrasions from the dart wounds, but otherwise was unharmed.

But the monkey is overweight, Woodman said, attributing the extra pounds to junk food he was fed by humans.

"He's been well-fed in the sense that he's been getting a lot of calories, but not well fed in that he hasn't been eating a balanced diet," Woodman said.

The monkey will be placed in quarantine for 30 days at Yates' wildlife compound while he is tested for diseases. Yates said he is pretty certain Cornelius is disease-free.

He will be kept in a 6-by-10- foot, chain-link cage in sight of other animals — Yates said he currently has five monkeys at his property — but will not be free to mingle with them.

"It's going to be different for him," Yates said. "He's going to have to adjust."

The probability that the monkey will have to be euthanized is "next to zero" now that he has been captured, Yates said.

• • •

So what's next for Cornelius?

Martin, the FWC spokesman, said the monkey will likely go to a sanctuary in Florida to be with other monkeys; several have already expressed interest.

It's unclear if Cornelius, who appears to be about 5 years old and could live another 15, will get along with others. Some have speculated that he was forced out of a colony of monkeys in Silver Springs before launching his famous life on the lam.

"I'm sure he'll be delighted to see others of his own kind," said Yates.

Woodman said that while the public has cheered the monkey's evasive antics, the creature probably has been lonely.

"Envision the movie Castaway, with Tom Hanks — when he was so lonely that he formed a relationship with a volleyball," Woodman said. "Nobody said, 'Oh, yeah, but he's free.' "

Not everyone thinks it's so certain.

"He may have great problems or he may be able to reintegrate," said Dr. Agustin Fuentes, a primate expert at the University of Notre Dame.

Fuentes said a lot will depend on the facility where he is placed, the experience he had with other monkeys earlier in life and how other monkeys will react to him.

"I hope they do right by him and don't keep him in a cage by himself for too long," Fuentes said. "Hopefully, it will have a happy ending."

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