I hadn’t thought about the Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay in years.
Then one day in June, I found myself talking to a wild animal online. Someone had spotted a bear in Safety Harbor, then Oldsmar. Bear found Wi-Fi and started a Twitter account.
I asked Bear, what did it seek?
“Good writing. A mate. A den. Some food. Not all from the same person… errrrr bear.”
It was an old routine in the news business. Wild animal emerges in developed area, becomes A Thing, gets fake social media. People read voraciously, then move on.
Except one wild animal stuck around for four years. Starting in 2008, a rhesus macaque made his way through Hudson, Temple Terrace, Town ‘N Country, Clearwater, Gulfport and St. Petersburg.
The monkey starred in a cinematic chase, dodging tranquilizer darts, perching on roofs, biting a woman. People shouted, “Go, monkey, go!” Someone made the monkey a Facebook page, which amassed tens of thousands of followers.
The story bounced from Seattle to Toronto to the U.K., from NBC to Fox to NPR. It was the subject of an “extra-special investigation” on The Colbert Report. The Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay still has a four-paragraph entry on the Wikipedia page for feral rhesus macaques.
It was an all-hands situation in our newsroom, so many reporters coming back sweaty and deranged after a day of chasing a monkey.
His run on the lam ended near Lake Maggiore in St. Petersburg. He moved into Dade City’s Wild Things zoo, and he was given a name: Cornelius.
Local media chronicled his courtship, his babies, his family life, then stopped checking on him. He had served his purpose.
Okay, back to the bear. I started to write a column off the news that recalled the celebrity monkey, a “remember when” thing. I meant to spend a couple of hours on it. That was five months ago.
Because, that day, I realized the monkey that had captivated the community so intensely for so long was missing again.
Cornelius is not cute and cuddly. He is not Curious George, not Marcel from Friends, not a sprite who wears a vest and plays cymbals.
He’s tall and hunched, with a jutting supraorbital ridge and the furless, ruddy face of Rodin’s Thinker. He has golden, searching eyes and spindly mustache hairs. His brow is weathered, like a guy who has seen some shit. But stare at his photo long enough, and he becomes achingly beautiful.
Rhesus macaques — pronounced muh-kak — are native to Asia, found in India, Afghanistan, China, Nepal, Bangladesh and more. They are sometimes considered sacred and hang out around temples. They are resourceful. An Indian macaque was shocked by a power line in 2014. Another monkey dragged the friend to water and revived it. People cheered.
They live in troops. Females stay in the pack, but males are often cast out by other males. Sometimes, they form “bachelor troops.” Cornelius may have been banished, many posit, from Ocala’s Silver Springs State Park. It’s home to the largest colony in Florida, where the monkeys have a wild origin story. More on that in a bit.
Monkeys imported for research still rule islands in Puerto Rico and South Carolina. Other monkeys were tourist attractions, like the ones at defunct Titusville park Tropical Wonderland.
The monkeys have fanned out around the state from Seminole to Citrus counties and beyond. As recently as July, a rhesus macaque was spotted in The Villages retirement community.
Vervet and spider monkeys live in Florida, too, but not in the same numbers. Rhesus macaques are rock stars. They can live in heat or cold and eat a lot of different foods. They’re cautious but not afraid.
Those who met Cornelius described him as shy, playful and freakishly intelligent. After his capture, he did not want to see reporters, and who could blame him? He hunkered near the back of his chain-link enclosure at Wild Things, baring his teeth.
He had a wooden house there with a ball and a swing. He took a liking to peanuts. At one point, Wild Things had a Mystery Monkey Fan Club with membership levels and Cornelius swag.
Then Cornelius met Cora.
“They wanted to be together,” Wild Things owner Kathy Stearns told the Tampa Bay Times in 2015. “They sat side by side. You could tell immediately they liked each other.”
They became parents.
“Cornelius is a proud daddy, that’s for sure,” Stearns said then. “The renegade monkey has settled down. We all have to eventually.”
That was the last story we published about Cornelius, other than mentions here and there.
And that’s where my attempt to retell his story stumbled. Wild Things has had lots of publicity lately, but it had nothing to do with the monkey. The zoo closed in 2020.
Stearns is serving five years’ probation on fraud charges. She pleaded guilty to using zoo donations to pay for a personal bankruptcy. The Florida Department of Agriculture also is suing Stearns, claiming she spent donations on a family wedding.
Those weren’t the first issues. Over a decade, Wild Things racked up more than 40 Animal Welfare Act violations. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals investigated the zoo, where guests could pay to snuggle, swim and pose with baby animals.
A 9-year-old boy and his grandma went to Wild Things in 2016, and the state record goes like this: They paid for a package to interact with a small primate. The boy sat with an 8-month-old rhesus macaque named Lucy, who grabbed his finger and dragged his hand to the middle of the table. Lucy bit the boy’s arm. She didn’t break skin, but she left a red mark.
PETA sued Wild Things that year over its practices, saying the Endangered Species Act prevents businesses from taking tiger cubs from mothers too soon and making them perform. A judge in 2017 ordered Wild Things not to move any big cats pending an inspection.
One day later, the Stearns family drove 19 tigers to an Oklahoma zoo owned by Joseph Maldonado-Passage, or Joe Exotic from Netflix’s Tiger King. A tiger gave birth along the way, and her three cubs died.
PETA won control of the tigers, placing them and others from Wild Things in new homes. The zoo had more than tigers, though — sloths, lions, otters, turtles. Monkeys. As Stearns surrendered her federal and state licenses in 2020, she offloaded dozens of animals.
That, it’s reasonable to believe, included Cornelius.
The 2012 capture
Don and Mary McBride live in a Pinellas Point ranch house hiding a jungle out back. Mature, mossy oaks surround a small lake filled with bass and catfish. It’s shady, with lots of trees to climb. A lovely place for a monkey.
That’s where Mary saw him one morning in 2010.
“Don!” she called for her husband. “Travis!” she called for her son.
The monkey was drinking from a neighbor’s bird bath. He climbed an oak tree and hit up the bird feeder, turning it upside down to dump seeds in his mouth.
“It must have been 3 feet tall,” said Mary, standing in her living room when I visited in September.
The monkey had been all over the neighborhood. Residents heard clattering on their roofs and assumed it was a pet on the loose. Don never believed the theory that the monkey came from Silver Springs, more than two hours north.
“Some people were saying it crossed the Skyway Bridge,” said Travis McBride, standing on his family’s deck. “I think it was 4 feet tall.”
Mary thought about putting out bananas. She called the police, who told her to call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, who told her to make a report if she saw it again. But he kept disappearing as soon as he appeared.
“I heard he got shot and pulled the needle out,” said Mary.
If the stories sound a bit Big Fish, know they’re not far off. This was the most nimble monkey the people chasing him had ever seen.
That would be Vernon Yates, who founded the nonprofit Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation refuge in Seminole, and Safety Harbor veterinarian Don Woodman. They volunteered alongside Fish and Wildlife to catch the monkey.
“He could be 10 feet away from you in a tree and be virtually invisible if there was enough foliage,” said Woodman. “When we were first darting him, we would hit him with enough drugs that we were convinced it would take him down, and it didn’t.”
He would wander out of sight, where Woodman figures he took a nap before moving on.
One day, the McBrides saw the monkey gazing into a mirrored art piece near the pond, putting a paw to his reflection. Rhesus macaques can recognize themselves. They have been known to groom in mirrors, even flex.
Don McBride, a former Times employee, snapped a photo and sent it in. Readers were heartbroken at the idea of a lost monkey who thought his reflection was a friend. They begged someone to release a female monkey, so he wouldn’t be alone.
The photo went global, and local media were hungrier than ever. Don’s family jokes that the first line of his obituary will be “noted monkey photographer.”
Despite the narrative that the monkey was lonely, a cultish belief prevailed among the public: he wanted to roam, and everyone should stop trying to catch him.
The monkey symbolized the freedom humans craved. No responsibility, no dishes, no job, no credit card bills, no grumpy spouse, no traffic, no deadlines, no alarm clocks. He was a folk hero for a working class crushed by existence.
“They decided that, ‘He’s free, look at him go, little monkey zoom-zoom!’” Woodman said. “This is going to become my drinking mascot. It’s like making entertainment out of someone that is slowly losing their mind in solitary confinement.”
They knew the monkey was hanging out near Lake Maggiore, Yates said, but people wouldn’t let the trackers on their property. It would take a bad accident to change minds.
Then, it happened. A report from Fish and Wildlife describes the monkey’s capture:
A woman was sitting in a chair outside her house. The monkey came from behind and leaped onto her shoulders, scratching and biting her between the shoulder blades. She threw the monkey to the ground, but he came back. Eventually, she got inside.
The monkey had been living in the area for a year and a half, she told Fish and Wildlife investigator James Manson. He’d taken to sitting on the family’s windowsill, growing agitated with the pet dog and people in the house, particularly the males.
Manson and Yates set a trap with food. But remember, this was a genius monkey. He knew if he stuck one leg outside the trap, it wouldn’t close. This went on for days.
They planned to build a bigger trap with another monkey inside as a lure. During construction, Manson considered options, from drugging to extermination. They suspected the monkey was infected with Herpes B, and he was aggressive.
But killing was “not an immediate option at this time,” according to the report.
I asked Yates about that.
“Because I was objecting,” he said. “I was strongly objecting.”
The big trap wasn’t ready, so they made a new plan. They would dart the monkey from inside the house of the woman he attacked.
On Oct. 24, 2012, five Fish and Wildlife officers, a K-9, Manson, Yates and Woodman got into position. At 1 p.m., the monkey came to the trap for his snack. Woodman got off a shot, sailing toward the hind quarters.
It was a hit.
The monkey climbed a low tree limb and pulled out the dart, just like Mary McBride had heard. He licked it. After five minutes, he got woozy and fell off the branch.
Yates moved in with his bare hands, despite the investigator’s protests. The monkey was still moving, sliding into the brush. Woodman fired a second dart.
Then, the Mystery Monkey was still. Sedated, but alive.
The men carried him out of the woods. He was immaculately groomed with zero fleas. He was 45 pounds, overweight from so much human food.
They named the monkey Cornelius, after the scientist chimpanzee in Planet of the Apes.
The news covered every breath of it, his 30-day quarantine at Yates’ refuge, his move into Wild Things. His story was reaching critical mass before we all, inevitably, looked away.
Let’s go back to Don and Mary’s living room. Mary reflected on Cornelius, and hoped he had been happy in her yard. She was relieved to hear he had babies.
“He got to enjoy some freedom, to be around the birds.”
Don sighed from his recliner.
“Anthropomorphism. Is that what it’s called?”
“Do you think this is all ridiculous?” I asked.
“What are your hopes for the monkey?”
“Everybody just leave him the hell alone. And everyone stop bugging me about it.”
The new quest
It was time to find the monkey. Again. I asked Yates.
He said he placed Cornelius at Wild Things in 2012 because it was one of the few qualified places willing to take the monkey, who did test positive for Herpes B. Plus, Yates said, Stearns figured Cornelius would be a big draw.
He still thinks, by and large, Wild Things was a good place for Cornelius to go. Stearns and Yates didn’t part as enemies, he said, but they did part. He does not know where she is.
“At the end, Kathy wasn’t talking to anybody,” he said. “She was ticked off… Kathy would never tell.”
I asked Woodman, who doesn’t speak to Stearns anymore, either.
“There were things she did that I had a hard time with,” he said. “But she did right by Cornelius.”
As for the monkey?
“I have no idea where he is now.”
Stearns’ number was disconnected. I tried two email addresses, to no avail. I reached one of her lawyers, Gus Centrone. He offered to ask about the monkey but said she didn’t reply.
Big Cat Rescue’s Howard and Carole Baskin, also made famous by Tiger King, answered an email about the Mystery Monkey. “Good question,” Howard wrote on their behalf with suggestions I’d already tried. “I doubt that Stearns would ever send an animal to a legitimate sanctuary.”
PETA only had information for the tigers it rehomed. If a facility isn’t shut down by a government agency or a reputable group, said Debbie Metzler, associate director of captive animal law enforcement with the PETA Foundation, wildlife can end up in the underground trade.
“And it’s really impossible at times to keep track of the animals,” she said.
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which keeps health certificates for transferred animals, had no records for Cornelius. Neither did Fish and Wildlife.
This baffled me, a primate novice who naively assumed it would be difficult to lose a monkey. I asked Fish and Wildlife, which sent the rule in Florida’s administrative code.
Here is a translation:
If I want to transfer my monkey in Florida, I must record who I am giving him to and their address, plus info on licenses and permits. I have to hold onto that record for three years. But I don’t have to file the record with the state.
If I want to transfer my monkey between states, it’s my responsibility, along with the new owner, to understand the laws wherever I’m sending him.
“There’s no computer system or whatever that it gets entered into in the state of Florida,” Yates said.
People don’t like to think in these terms, he said, but animals in Florida are property, like a television. And if Stearns isn’t sharing, the only hypothetical way to find Cornelius would be for a wildlife official to stumble on a rhesus monkey and ask for paperwork.
I studied Facebook posts of primates, holding them up to Cornelius’ photo. I contacted animal centers. One place led to another, which led to another, which led to the National Association of Primate Sanctuaries.
Someone there said to call Kari Bagnall, founder of Jungle Friends Primate Sanctuary in Gainesville. It sounded hopeful.
She sobered me up. Not only did Jungle Friends not have him, sanctuaries would not draw attention to him if they did. She mentioned the media circus around Bubbles the Chimp, pet of Michael Jackson, who lives at the Center for Great Apes in Wauchula.
Cornelius could be sitting in someone’s yard. People can have macaques as pets in Florida if they have certain experience, enclosures and permits. Macaques are “class II” wildlife, in the same group as alligators, honey badgers, ostriches and wolves.
“Hopefully,” Bagnall said, “he’s in a safe place.”
She said to check with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, so I requested transfer records for Cornelius, Cora and their young. After two months, results came back with no hits.
When pressed, a spokesperson tried again to find out before sending this statement, which felt very Raiders of the Lost Ark:
“If there are no records indicating where the animal was transferred, all we can say is that if he was transferred to a facility that is regulated, our inspectors will conduct regular inspections to ensure he continues to receive humane treatment.”
Or, as Yates said:
“I would almost be willing to bet anything I own that you will never find him.”
The origin story
We were on a glass-bottom boat in Silver Springs State Park, surrounded by Native American artifacts, movie props, birds, gators. But people wanted one thing.
“Where are the monkeys?” someone shouted.
Capt. Mike Rizzuto had to mess with them a little.
“What monkeys?” he said.
A lot of people think the monkeys came to Florida to act alongside Johnny Weissmuller in the Tarzan movies filmed in Silver Springs. But that’s a myth.
Accounts go back to the late 1930s.
“There was a gentleman by the name of Colonel Tooey,” Rizzuto began one day in June.
Before you ask, Colonel Tooey’s first name was, uh, Colonel. He wanted to create an authentic jungle cruise on the Silver River. Stories differ in the details, some vague, some verging on apocryphal. Some have Tooey ordering monkeys via a dealer in New York, and some have him… well, I’ll let Rizzuto tell it.
“He went to southwest Asia. He purchased six mating pair and brought them back here. He was going to place them on an island up the river called Monkey Island. But he didn’t do a whole lot of homework on these monkeys.”
If he had, he would have known they are “excellent swimmers.”
The passengers laughed.
“He backed away from the island, he lit a big cigar. He popped a bottle of champagne to celebrate placing those monkeys on the island. That pop from the champagne actually sounded like a gunshot to those monkeys. They jumped off the island and swam away.
“Four weeks later, he went back to southwest Asia. He purchased six mating pair and brought them back here. He said, this time around, we’re going to place them on the island, we’re going to back away nice and slow, we’re going to observe them for 24 hours. About 16 hours go by …”
The monkeys “looked over and they said, wait a second, that’s my cousin, Jeffrey. They jumped off the island and swam over and joined their family in the woods.”
Thus, the monkey spawning began.
A group of researchers led by conservation biologist Jane Anderson have studied this population intimately. By 1968, there were 78 monkeys in the park. By the 1980s, it was almost 400, and they had spread along the forests of the Ocklawaha River.
To control numbers, Florida allowed trapping from 1984 to 2012. Many monkeys were sterilized, killed or sold for research.
You see, rhesus macaques share a remarkable closeness with humans. They helped lead to the discovery of Rh factor (get it?), an inherited red blood cell protein. Name a condition, and they’ve probably been involved in treatment: HIV/AIDS, rabies, smallpox, polio, alcoholism, diabetes, cancer, heart disease. COVID-19.
Yet they can also harm people. Like Cornelius, the Silver Springs colony is infected with Herpes B. It’s no big deal for monkeys, but it can cause encephalitis in humans, which can lead to deadly brain swelling.
Fifty people have been infected with Herpes B and 21 have died since the discovery of the virus in 1932, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most were bitten or scratched by a macaque in labs. One researcher died in 1997 when fluid got in her eye.
There are no recorded cases of a Herpes B death via wild monkey. But headlines like “Feral, Herpes-infected monkeys wreaking havoc in Florida” from The New York Post don’t exactly add nuance.
It’s why Yates fought against killing Cornelius, he said. People were panicking, but he knew the odds of catastrophe were low.
Monkeys have defecated on Yates, he said. “I’ve had blood on me. I did from Cornelius, the first time I started chasing him up in Hudson. There was blood dripping down and dripped right into my face. I didn’t die from it.”
One trapper caught 700 monkeys over a decade in Silver Springs. When the public realized monkeys were going to labs, backlash was fierce. Animal rights groups pressured the state to stop.
Since then, the state has not controlled the population except to ban feeding in 2017. Signs in the park warn of fines and jail time. But the monkeys still come out in greater numbers on weekends when foot traffic is high, and it doesn’t take a wizard to figure out why.
There are about 300 rhesus macaques in the park now, Rizzuto told passengers. They mostly live peacefully but are protective of their home.
“They can pitch for any Major League Baseball team,” he said, “because they do not miss their mark.”
In the 1980s, one bit a 3-year-old boy. More recently, Rizzuto told passengers, a kid came running out of the boardwalk. The monkeys had taken his bike.
I got off the boat. After trying to commune with monkeys for hours, I was convinced I would not find one.
Then, bingo, on a fence above a caution sign, the troop’s scout scoped out the area. He had fluffy chest hair, a red bottom, flat hands and linebacker shoulders. Larger than I imagined. Stunning, like Cornelius.
I couldn’t breathe. I knew the warnings, knew every bad thing that could happen. And yet, I found myself inching closer.
The monkey hopped off and lunged a few steps. He wanted me out of his space. I obliged as fast as I could, a human running from a monkey, and not the other way around.
The big problem
One October morning, Yates was watching a news story. Cocaine hippos.
Drug lord Pablo Escobar imported four hippos to his Colombian zoo in the 1980s. After police killed Escobar, the hippos escaped to rivers and the population ballooned. The news is that many are now being sterilized.
It was strange timing that I called him later that day. I wanted to talk more about the monkeys, and what, if anything, should be done.
The hippos, he said. That’s what happens when people unleash non-native species. It’s like Florida’s pythons invading the Everglades. The state sanctions a Florida Python Challenge, a 10-day hunting event to eradicate them.
No one wants to shoot a monkey, though. Monkeys are charming. They’re charismatic. They’re so much like us.
Still, damage abounds. In Silver Springs, monkeys maw on native plants and eggs of nesting birds. In the Florida Keys, research monkeys ravaged 30 acres of mangroves. In South Carolina, monkey island creeks have elevated levels of E. coli and fecal coliform.
So what is the answer?
There are those like Yates, who love animals, feel bad for animals, but take a hard line for native Florida: “I want grandma prosecuted if a pet canary flies out the door.” The monkeys need to go.
There are those like Steven Johnson, who have studied the issue. The University of Florida professor was on the team that found the Silver Springs monkeys expanding by 11 percent per year. They expect 350 by 2022. You can shrink the population two ways: Euthanize or move at least half of the monkeys every two years; or sterilize the females in the same proportions.
There are those like Woodman, who think private ownership can help species survive. That when people talk about animals in the “wild,” they are actually talking about developed areas. That there’s increasingly no wild left.
There are those like Metzler at PETA, who believe harming animals and separating their families is never acceptable. That the monkeys are part of the habitat after almost 100 years and should be left alone.
It begs the question: what makes something native? When does a species become so entrenched that we have to let it be?
Yates understands that, too, which is why the discussion can make a person, well, bananas. He pointed to cows and sheep and birds and plenty of species that didn’t start here.
The different sides agree these problems are complex. No one takes pleasure in animal pain.
And they know that letting wildlife loose where it doesn’t belong is like throwing a match on a puddle of gasoline, then standing in the fire and asking why it burns.
I can’t find Cornelius. Not yet, anyway. Maybe when this is published, someone will come forward. But the more I hit dead ends, the more I think it might be better that way.
Based on past estimates, Cornelius would now be in his 20s. Rhesus macaques can live 30, maybe even 40 years. He’s likely still alive.
We are left to imagine a good outcome.
Cornelius is in a reputable facility with skilled, kind caretakers. He’s not bored, not aggressive. He has lots of room to climb and play. He’s fed healthy food, plus tasty treats. Maybe he’s trimmed off some of those 45 pounds.
Maybe he and Cora are still together. Maybe he’s a part of a troop with a hierarchy, and Cornelius is bossing everyone around.
No one is trying to make money off him or his family. No one is screaming, “Go, monkey, go.”
We’re not there, reporters and gawkers with social media and long lenses. We are not peering into his crate, analyzing his face, making noises at him, wondering when he will, at long last, be happy, as if that’s something for us to decide.
In this version of the story, Cornelius is just another brown monkey in the world, running on all fours, picking off bugs, leaping, swimming, grunting with his teeth bared and his gold eyes open, boundless. And we don’t get to know where he is.
Times staff writers Tracey McManus and Christopher Spata contributed to this report.
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