Friday, December 20, 2013

Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay

A rhesus macaque, dubbed "Cornelius" (after the Planet of the Apes character) and "The Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay" by fans and the media, roamed the streets of St. Petersburg and evaded police and animal-control squads for years until its capture in 2012. As news reports of the macaque escalated, a growing segment of the population cheered on the monkey's constant narrow escapes, and saw him as a sort of anti-establishment hero; a fugitive whose only crime was being a monkey in a man's world.

The "mystery" about the macaque is not so much "Where did he come from?", because feral rhesus macaques are actually increasingly common in Florida. It's estimated that there are between 1,000 and 2,000 of them living in the wilderness surrounding the Silver River near Ocala. Reportedly, a tour-boat operator called "Colonel Tooey" released a few macaques along the river to help jazz up his "jungle cruise" tourist attraction in 1938, and they ended up thriving and multiplying. So the real mystery is why Cornelius left the rest of the macaques (they tend to travel in close-knit groups) and how he ended up in urban St. Pete.

But Florida's wild monkey problem doesn't stop there. A band of vervet monkeys has lived near the Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport for decades, and no one's quite sure how they got here. Some say they're the descendents of long-lost escapees from a roadsize zoo attraction, while others trot out the perennial sounds-good-but-is-probably-specious rumor that old Tarzan movies filmed in Florida are what's responsible for all this monkey business. According to a 2010 article in the Miami New Times, the vervets have adopted a raccoon into their group, allowing it to travel and live with them and treating it as "a long-lost family member."

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