Attention, vacationers: It’s now illegal to feed wild monkeys in Florida, and doing so could get you jail time or a $500 fine.
Wild monkeys? Yes, though they would more accurately be called feral monkeys. Although Florida, with its temperate climate and lush vegetation, may look like an ideal backdrop for swinging little primates, monkeys are not native to the state. But decades after being released from captivity, they have made themselves right at home in nature.
In Fort Lauderdale, a tiny population of squirrel monkeys is believed to reside in the gardens of a historic estate; lore says the species may have been introduced to spice up the site in the 1940s or perhaps descended from a released pair that had entertained patrons at a local bar. North of Miami, in the mangrove forests near Dania Beach, lives a fairly robust population of African vervet monkeys that grew out of animals let loose in the 1950s from a tourist attraction that also bred primates for research. They are known to munch on fruit, raisins, trail mix, gummy bears and other provisions offered by humans, according to the Sun Sentinel.
But the biggest concern of the state wildlife board that approved the feeding ban, which took effect Feb. 11, are rhesus macaques. These Asia natives are found in a few spots, but they live most comfortably in and around Central Florida’s Silver Springs State Park, where they were first introduced in the 1930s by a riverboat tour guide named Colonel Tooey. He put a half-dozen on an island in the Silver River to wow clients — and the monkeys turned out to be adept swimmers. Researchers counted 175 in the park in 2015, but the population is expanding and has spilled beyond its borders, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says.
Tooey was right: The monkeys are a draw. Boaters and amblers delight in spotting them and feeding them. But they can also be aggressive. Carli Segelson, a commission spokeswoman, said in an email that the monkeys have “bitten or scratched multiple people in Florida.” Last summer, a viral video captured rhesus macaques at Silver Spring charging visitors.
“It was like, ‘Oh cool, look at the monkeys,’ ” Susie Ramsey, whose family was charged, told USA Today. “Then all of a sudden, ‘Oh my God, our lives are in danger!’ ”
A monkey attack truly could be life-threatening, according to a recent study published in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention journal Emerging Infectious Diseases. Researchers from the University of Florida found that as many as 30 percent of the park’s rhesus macaques shed the herpes B virus in their saliva, urine and feces — all of which visitors could be exposed to. The virus is extremely rare in humans, and there’s never been a report of transmission from wild rhesus macaques to people. But lab monkeys have infected people with the virus, which has caused fatal encephalitis. The study therefore concluded that the risk in Florida should be considered a “public health concern.”
A state official cited that concern in announcing the ban, which put monkeys in a do-not-feed category along with coyotes, raccoons, bears, pelicans and other Florida fauna. “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 commission, said in a statement.
The feeding prohibition might be just a first step for the agency, which has expressed intentions to clear out the rhesus macaques. (Vervet and squirrel monkeys do not yet appear to be targets.) In an email, Segelson did not provide specifics but said the commission “supports active management to remove these threats” and is “working with our partners to explore possible options to remove the threat of free-roaming monkeys in Florida.”
Doing that isn’t so easy. In the 1980s, and then between 1998 and 2012, the state allowed the trapping of hundreds of the monkeys, some of which were sold for research. But public outcry put that to an end. As a 2017 report on the various Florida monkey populations put it: “Public sentiment makes management of charismatic invasive species challenging.” Floridians’ support for the monkeys, it said, “has remained high.”
In the meantime, while the feeding ban might prevent bites and scratches, it seems unlikely to dent the Silver Spring monkey numbers. A 2016 study found that people in just 11.5 percent of boats floating the park’s river fed the rhesus macaques. The animals rely on handouts only as supplements, the authors concluded, and have adapted quite well to Florida’s “locally available foods.”