Diseased Rhesus Monkeys Run Wild in Florida

J.M.Garg/CC BY 3.0

Last week, Federal Wildlife officials articulated the threats faced by Everglades wildlife from invasive pythons, but there's another non-native species nearby which may pose an even greater problem for humans. For the last 80 years, a hardy population of rhesus monkeys has been living in the wild of central Florida, where they've long been considered an attraction among tourists. But according to park agents, the unwelcome monkeys present "a true public hazard" -- namely because many of them are carrying a form of simian herpes which can be deadly to humans.

Although rhesus monkeys are a relatively recent addition to the forests of Florida, just how they were allowed to proliferate to such a degree in the wild remains something of a mystery. Tradition has it that the monkeys, native to South Asia, descend from a group that was loosed on the set of a Tarzan movie, though many experts believe that they were originally imported for a wildlife theme-park in the 1930s.

No matter their origins, however, in the past few decades the monkeys have been viewed as both a blessing and a curse, reports the Tampa Bay Times. Recently, a majority of adult rhesus monkeys in Silver Springs, Florida were found to be carriers of the Herpes-B virus, which is often lethal when contracted by humans, though transmission is quite rare.

Silver River State Park manager Sally Leib explained that she and other state officials are 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."

Faced with the dilemma of dealing with a tourist-attracting, yet invasive species in Florida, for the last decade State officials have enlisted the services of wildlife trapper Scott Cheslak, who has so far caught around 700 of the animals, most of which tested positive for Herpes-B -- but no one is quite sure where the monkeys are ending up.

"Disclosure of where the monkeys are taken is not a condition of the permits," says state Department of Environmental Protection press secretary Jennifer Diaz to the Tampa Bay Times.

At least one former CEO of a scientific research laboratory says that his company purchased monkeys from Cheslak to breed test subjects, though that particular arrangement ended some time ago and it's not known where the captured animals are being sent now.

In any case, for activists like Nick Atwood of the Animal Rights Foundation, sending Florida's popular albiet non-native rhesus monkeys to be experimented upon is unethical, reports Tampa Bay Online:

"For an animal that was born in the wild … to be transferred to a metal cage is cruel, no matter how humane their death."

Tags: Animals | Florida