I’m planning to spend my Thanksgiving holiday with a pack of feral macaques. And no, I’m not talking about my family.
A few years ago I bought a book called Florida’s Fabulous Canoe and Kayak Guide, and nestled within its glossy pages I found an irresistible tidbit: On an island in the Ocala National Forest’s Silver River, there lives a group of free-ranging rhesus macaques.
But how can that be, I wondered; monkeys are not native to Florida.
No, they are not. A popular – and apocryphal – story is that the monkeys were brought in as part of a set of a Tarzan movie that was filmed on the Silver River in the late 1930’s. The truth is a little more pedestrian, and a lot more American. In the late 1930’s, a tour boat operator named Colonel Tooey ran a Jungle Boat Cruise on the crystal clear Silver River. Colonel Tooey apparently thought that the lush freshwater spring environment of north Florida was not sufficiently interesting to his passengers. So, like any self-respecting American entrepreneur, he hatched a plan to give his customers what they wanted, without much regard to the collateral consequences of his desire to increase business.
Back in those days, no one thought much about preserving the character of the native landscape – Manifest Destiny against Mother Nature was the order of the day – and so Tooey set about filling in an island in the shallow run of the Silver River. Once that was completed, he ordered a crate of non-swimming squirrel monkeys to inhabit the island and, presumably, delight his passengers. What he got, however, was a crate full of water-loving rhesus macaques, which immediately took to the river and dispersed.
From there, the age-old evolutionary dance between people and animals took its course. Passengers and tour boat captains supplied the monkeys with all manner of food and treats, and in return, they lived on the banks of the river and provided entertainment. One troop moved eastward and away from the tour boats, and survived on their own. Some three-quarters of a century later, the descendants of the original monkeys still live on the banks of the Silver River.
In recent years, though, the story of the monkeys has taken on a darker cast. Sometime in the 1980’s the state of Florida decided that because the monkeys were not native, they had to go, and began rounding them up. For many years, private citizens were allowed to trap them and sell them to labs. Public outcry has stymied the state’s effort to eliminate the macaques. The current attitude of the government, which has acknowledged that they can’t find evidence of harm to the natural environment on account of the monkeys, seems to be stalled in a kind of ambiguous “don’t ask don’t tell” posture.
When I first read about the monkeys, I tucked the knowledge away in the overstuffed file cabinet of my mind, but I knew I would visit them someday. I travel to Florida multiple times every year, usually to find manatees in their winter run or to photograph willets and butterflies on the coast. But this year, my son’s school changed its calendar, and he now has a full week off for Thanksgiving.
When I realized the possibilities this offered, I pulled the monkey file out of my brain where it was wedged between “tarantula migrations” and “prairie dogs”, and started to do more research. One quote jumped out at me, from a citizen biologist who has studied the monkeys for many years. He warns that the monkeys, when directly engaged by humans, can be aggressive. While he has never seen an attack on the river, he has seen individuals “fall out of their boats before because they got so scared.”
That sealed it for me.
What could go wrong?