Please Don't Feed the Monkeys

Monkeys were first introduced to the Sunshine State in the 1930s in an effort to boost tourism. Vraie Nature/Shutterstock

Sorry, monkeys of Florida, but your days of getting food from humans is officially over.

In a Feb. 14 announcement, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) outlined changes to the state's rules regarding feeding non-human primates, adding to the General Prohibition Rule regarding feeding certain wild animals in the state. The ban includes the feeding of coyotes, foxes, raccoons, bears, pelicans and sandhill cranes.

"The health and safety of the public is the Commission’s number one priority. Feeding wild monkeys creates an elevated risk to human health because it brings them into closer contact with people," Thomas Eason, the Assistant Executive Director of the FWC, said in the statement announcing the rule change. "This amended rule provides our staff the tools we need to effectively address a situation that can have serious consequences."

Monkeys all around

Monkeys aren't native to Florida, but that hasn't stopped them from thriving in the state.

The FWC reports that three species of wild monkeys roam Florida: squirrel monkeys, vervet monkeys and rhesus macaques. A 2017 survey published in the Southeastern Naturalist [PDF] traced the origins of these species in Florida. Squirrel monkeys were introduced in multiple spots around the state between 1940 and 1970, but their population is dwindling. Vervet monkeys are located mainly in Dania Beach, and they either escaped or were purposefully released from the Anthropoid Ape Research Foundation in the 1950s.

The final species, the rhesus macaque monkey, has a storied past in Florida. A population was introduced to a small island in the Silver River in the 1930s as part of a river cruise tourist attraction. The monkeys were able swimmers, however, and quickly spread to forests along the Ocklawaha River and Ocala National Forest. It's believed that the macaques may have driven out a population of squirrel monkeys that were in the area. Other populations were released or spread to other parts of the state in the 1970s.

Efforts to manage the monkey populations have been both a municipal and state concern. Trapping efforts for the Silver Spring macaques were underway until it was discovered that the trapper hired by the state was selling off the captured wildlife. Local ordinances have either encouraged or discouraged trapping, or simply done nothing at all.

Are the monkeys a threat?

Rhesus monkeys on a tree in Silver River State Park in Florida
Rhesus monkeys are a common sight in Florida's Silver River State Park. William Silver/Shuttersrock

The monkeys, particularly the macaques, attract plenty of tourists and not-great press coverage. In 2017, one teen alleged that monkeys were attacking him, while the Tampa Bay Times recounted an incident in which a monkey bit a 3-year-old boy. In a different case, a wildlife officer killed a monkey that "approached him in a threat display." The killing didn't go over well with the monkeys, so a mob "of approximately 50 macaques advanced on First Sergeant Jones, forcing him to leave the area," according to the Times.

State officials have maintained that the largest concern, however, is the spread of disease, in particular the herpes B virus, one that can be fatal to humans.

While it's certainly a good thing to protect locals and tourists, the concerns are not based on documented cases. "While there are no documented cases of free-roaming macaques transmitting herpes B to humans in the wild in Florida, the risk for exposure will continue to grow as public contact with these animals increases," the FWC wrote in its statement.

The Tampa Bay Times reports that, "only a quarter of the Silver Springs monkeys carry the virus." A study published in the February 2018 issue of the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases noted that all instances of the herpes B virus contraction between monkeys and humans occurred in labs, not in the wild, but that "macaque-transmitted herpes B virus infection in humans may be misdiagnosed and underreported." The study emphasized that "plans should be put in place to limit transmission of [the herpes B virus] from these macaque."

While the virus risks are more of a "better safe than sorry" mindset, not feeding the monkeys overall is probably a wise decision. As the FWC noted, if the monkeys get too used to humans feeding them, things could get a little hairy for everyone.

"When these animals are fed by humans, they often develop a dependency on humans as a source of food and become territorial over the area where feeding occurs," the agency said in its statement about the rule change. "This dependency can lead to increased aggression, which may result in injuries and spread of disease to humans."

So no more tasty treats for the cute, if potentially aggressive, monkeys.