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State park will no longer allow trapper to catch wild monkeys for labs

Rhesus monkeys have been living around Silver River State Park for decades. The monkeys — all rhesus macaques — have been a blessing and a curse for Silver Springs since they arrived in the 1930s. Some accounts say they got loose during the filming of a Tarzan movie. A more credible theory is that the operator of Silver Springs’ Jungle Cruise put them on a small island in the Silver River as a way to spice up the ride for tourists. He didn’t realize the monkeys could swim.
Published Oct. 26, 2013

State officials in charge of Florida's parks and trails have decided to stop allowing a trapper to snare wild monkeys from around Silver Springs and sell them to research laboratories, a Department of Environmental Protection spokesman confirmed Friday.

"The department is still looking at other ways to deal with this invasive species," DEP press secretary Patrick Gillespie said in an e-mail to the Times.

Tourists love snapping pictures of the monkeys in Silver River State Park. They've been spotted by hikers on the Cross-Florida Greenway. One may have wandered our way to become the elusive Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay (renamed Cornelius since its capture).

Over the past decade a trapper named Scott Cheslak, with state permission, has captured about 700 of the monkeys from the wild — many of them juveniles or yearlings. Cheslak, who has not trapped any monkeys since his license expired last year, did not respond to a request for comment.

Cheslak originally worked 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. Cheslak continued trapping as an independent contractor, and according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture "was selling some of the monkeys to a research facility."

The monkeys — all rhesus macaques — have been a blessing and a curse for Silver Springs since they arrived in the 1930s. Some accounts say they got loose during the filming of a Tarzan movie. A more credible theory is that the operator of Silver Springs' Jungle Cruise put them on a small island in the Silver River as a way to spice up the ride for tourists. He didn't realize the monkeys could swim.

The rhesus macaques thrived in the Central Florida woods. The colony grew to about 100. As suburbs edged in closer to their habitat, though, conflicts developed. In the 1980s reports surfaced that the monkeys had attacked a 3-year-old boy and threatened a game warden, but those faded over time.

What worries state officials more is that most of the monkeys Cheslak has captured tested positive for herpes-B, a virus that can be fatal to humans. However, there have been no cases of people infected by the Silver Springs rhesus macaques. The only cases have occurred in laboratories.

That remote infection risk, however, prompted the New York Post to run a story last month headlined, "Herpes-Infected Monkeys Terrorize Florida." Although the Post offered no examples of the monkeys "terrorizing" anyone, the story created a flurry of similar reports by Gawker, Huffington Post and other aggregation services.

Silver River State Park manager Sally Leib told the Times last year that she and other state officials have been torn about what to do about a species that they consider both a tourist attraction and a health hazard.

"We struggle with the park service mission," Leib said. "We know people like to see the monkeys, but we know they don't belong here."

Last year the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida petitioned the state to halt the trapping.

"We are very happy that (the park) will once again be known for its natural beauty and outdoor activities, and not as a supplier of animals for cruel laboratory experimentation," the animal group's spokesman, Don Anthony, said in a news release Friday.

Biologist Bob Gottschalk, who has spent years studying the park's rhesus population, said he's hopeful that the DEP will refrain from doing anything about the monkeys until the University of Florida completes a just-begun five-year study.

The trapping was done in the name of ensuring the monkey population did not get out of control, but Gottschalk pointed out, "They went for a lot of years there where there was no trapping, and the population stayed pretty stable."

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com

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