Primate Rescue Center

Florida’s Invasive Monkey Population Just Keeps Growing and That’s Bad

Erika Fleury January 16, 2016

In the Florida panhandle, one entrepreneur’s mistake in 1938 has spawned a growing problem. Why? The descendants of his Asian monkeys are running wild.

If you thought feral monkeys don’t live in the continental United States, you’d be right and wrong. They’re not supposed to be here, but they are. Near Ocala, Fla., over 75 years ago, a tour boat operator named Colonel Tooey decided to mix things up a bit for customers of his jungle boat tour. He bought a number of rhesus macaques from an exotic wildlife dealer in New York.

Tooey populated a small man-made island on the Silver River with these monkeys. Of course, they did not stay there, but they did survive. Their descendants live along the Silver River to this day.

By 1963 there were 78 of them. By 1986 there were 350. By 1998 there were so many, the state paid a trapper to capture and sell them to medical research facilities. Sadly, an incredible 772 monkeys ended up in labs between 1998 and 2012. Florida doesn’t do that anymore, thankfully. Right now, about 200 rhesus macaques live in Silver Springs State Park.

Andi is a rhesus macaque brought to the PRC after he was found loose in the wild.

Fascinating as they are to watch, biologists warn that people need to stay away from these monkeys. They remain wild animals. More to the point, many carry the herpes-B virus. Get a scratch, a bite or touch their bodily fluids and you might be dealing with a serious health problem. A whopping 80 percent of people who contract this virus by bite or scratch will die.

Unfortunately, the macaques are living quite near humans at this point. Interaction may well be inevitable. While their population was once largely contained within the 5,000-acre Silver Springs State Park, that’s no longer true. They’ve been seen more than 20 miles to the north and south, visiting populated areas.

One 2012 report placed a well-traveled rhesus macaque near Tampa Bay, a solid 100 miles to the south.

Parents picking up children from a school in Lake City, Fla., noticed one on the roof in November 2015. It reportedly fled to the woods via a parking lot when the group of photo snapping lookie-loos began to swell.

During the same general time frame, a nearby resident saw one of the macaques eating berries in a tree in her backyard. Other homeowners reported seeing a macaque sitting on a neighbor’s porch.

The Silver Spring State Park macaques aren’t the only non-native monkeys making their home around Florida. A group of vervet monkeys apparently lives near the Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport. They reportedly escaped from a roadside zoo once upon a time. Generations later, they’re still around.

The ability of invasive species to thrive and survive is a significant problem. The people who brought them to Florida no doubt did not realize the scenario they’d set in motion when the monkeys went free or escaped.

When an invasive species of animal or plant enters an ecosystem, anything can happen. It’s often bad. The new species may turn out to be an unfamiliar predator that can kill off native species which don’t have adequate defenses. Non-native intruders frequently consume resources the native species need to survive, driving them away or outright killing them. Sometimes they find their way to where people live and wreak havoc there — stealing food, strewing trash around, preying on pets and more.

These invasive interlopers can cost us all big money. The Zebra mussel in the Great Lakes region of the United States is a prime example. It traveled to the area in the ballast water of ships. Now firmly established, the mussel covers underwater surfaces of power plants and water treatment facilities throughout the region. Removing them costs an astounding $500 million or so every year.

Introducing a life form that doesn’t belong to an established ecosystem is fraught with immediate and long term peril. Sadly, people do it all the time, either on purpose or by accident. Whether it’s Burmese pythons, lionfish, monk parakeets or Cuban tree frogs, the world’s animal importers, exotic pet owners and world travelers are to blame.

Don’t keep exotic pets. Don’t import non-native species. For heaven’s sake, never “set them free.”

The problem of invasive species is significant. Animals and the environmental suffer because of this type of human shortsightedness. We can’t afford to let it get worse.

- Care2

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