Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Monkeys in Florida

A colony of non-native rhesus macaques has made their home for years along the Silver River near Ocala, Florida (photo above, video here).

The legend

Between 1932 and 1942, 6 of the original Tarzan movies, starring Johnny Weissmuller (1904-1984), were filmed on location at Silver Springs. Weissmuller opened a theme park called "Tropical Wonderland" in Titusville in the 1960s, but it folded. The abandoned site (see slideshow) was visited in 2010 by Ron Masters, who writes, "No one has been able to tell me exactly how long the park was open, but it apparently wasn't very long. One thing I did hear quite often were stories of the park's animals being let loose from their cages when the park finally closed for good." So the troupe is said to have thrived after being released from the park or escaping from the film set.

The truth
The monkeys were imported in 1938 by Colonel Tooey, who released them on an island to drum up business for his "Jungle Cruise" boat ride. He believed that the water would form a natural barrier to their escape, but Bill Ray - who witnessed their release as a child - remembers, “The monkeys probably didn’t stay on the island ten minutes.” Not only were the monkeys excellent swimmers, they were show-offs and enjoyed swinging from the trees and doing cannon-balls into the water! The monkeys did not stray too far, but Colonel Tooey did unwittingly cause a population explosion by introducing younger monkeys when the older ones began to die off.

By 1986, there were an estimated 350 macaques along the river. The monkeys were raiding the sheds of area homeowners for food and being shot by hunters. The new owners who had purchased the park and jungle cruise - but not the monkeys, refused to take the blame until they learned that the non-native animals were being captured and sold by traders. They sent some to a zoo, and attempted to sterilize others, but the public learned that some were being sold for medical research. There was an outcry that resulted in a lobbying group and a petition. There was equal objection to the state's suggestion that the entire monkey population be euthanized. Their numbers are, however, regularly thinned: "Once a year for the past five years, a licensed trapper from Beaufort, South Carolina, comes down and traps as many of the monkeys as he can. The animals are then sold to a South Carolina biomedical research firm that provides non-human biological materials to the scientific community worldwide."

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