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The Diseased Monkeys of Silver Springs, Florida

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Samuel O. Howse was a Florida businessman who spotted the tourist potential of the Sunshine State before anybody else. In the 1860s, he bought a parcel of land in Marion County, a place where the country’s largest Artesian spring disgorges in excess of 500 million gallons of water a day. Howse was right, tourists did come to see the natural splendor. Then, the monkeys arrived.

Asian rhesus macaque monkeys.

Asian rhesus macaque monkeys.

Silver Springs

Howse began operating glass-bottomed boat tours along the Silver River in 1878. The water of the river, fed by the spring, was crystal clear giving tourists excellent views of whatever was under the boat.

Ownership of the land and operation changed hands several times over the years. Attractions were added, such as a reptile exhibit, a small amusement park, and the ever-popular alligator wrestling.

A gentleman name Colonel Tooey operated a glass-bottomed boat tour he called the Jungle Cruise. But it lacked authenticity because of the absence of jungle critters. The resourceful colonel had a plan.

A steam-powered stern-wheeler arriving at Silver Springs in 1886.

A steam-powered stern-wheeler arriving at Silver Springs in 1886.

Building Monkey Island

Colonel Tooey dredged out part of the river and piled up the mud and rocks to create an artificial island. Some trees were planted and a monkey house built. Then, the colonel ordered half a dozen Asian rhesus macaque monkeys. There was quite a crowd of onlookers to watch as the animals were released onto their island home. Tooey was under the misapprehension that the macaques couldn’t swim, so they would be safely contained on the island.

Within minutes of arriving on the island, they climbed a tree and jumped into the river. Then, they demonstrated their mastery of the monkey-paddle and swam to the swampy wilderness beyond the river bank. It was a welcoming habitat for the simians, trees for shelter and lots of bugs and plants to eat.

But, all was not lost for the colonel. The macaques obligingly didn’t go far and soon connected the Jungle Cruise boats with food the tourists threw to them.

Apologies for the Annoyingly Repetitive Music

Silver River Monkey Population

The Asian rhesus monkeys arrived as breeding pairs, and they did what breeding pairs do―they bred. Before long, there were more than a thousand of them and they didn’t belong on the banks of the Silver River.

USA TODAY reports that “From 1984 to 2012, about 1,000 monkeys were removed or sterilized through permits issued by the state.” Then, it emerged that some of the captured macaques were sold to laboratories for animal testing. Public outrage put a stop to that program and the monkeys have been fruitful and have multiplied.

Now, it emerges that about a quarter of them carry herpes B, which can be fatal to humans. Also, they can transmit the disease orally as in a bite, and they do come quite close to people.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that “B virus infections in people are rare. Since B virus was identified in 1932, only 50 people have been documented to have infections; 21 of them died. Most of these people got infected after they were bitten or scratched by a monkey, or when tissue or fluids from a monkey got on their broken skin, such as by needle stick or cut. In 1997, a researcher died from B virus infection after bodily fluid from an infected monkey splashed into her eye.”

So, the likelihood of infection is low, but it’s not zero. As Steve Johnson, an associate professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Florida says, “There’s a low risk, but very high consequence should something happen.”

As the monkey population has increased so has its range, bordering on areas where people live. There have been garbage can raids and reports of small pets disappearing. They sometimes become aggressive in interactions with humans with one of their less charming habits being to hurl their poop. And, as so often happens with invasive species, native animals suffer as the monkeys plunder bird nests.

Solving the Macaque Monkey Problem

The obvious solution to the menace of the simians is to get rid of them. They are not an endangered species; there are millions of them in Asia in an area stretching from Afghanistan to the coast of China. They just don’t belong in Florida.

Steve Johnson say that “Unless there is some management action by the state to curtail their numbers, it’s going to create a situation where they will be forced to take more drastic action due to a serious incident.”

However, the macaques are cute and furry (except when they are throwing feces) so anyone moving to eradicate them is going to lose the public relations battle.

Bonus Factoids

  • Until 1969, only white people were allowed into the Silver Springs attraction.
  • From the 1930s to the 1950s, Silver Springs was used for location shooting of Tarzan films.
  • People buying exotic pets that turn out to be more exotic than they imagined often release them into the wild in dead of night. So it is that Florida is now home to an estimated 150,000 Burmese pythons and 1.6 million green iguanas. More on this subject here.
  • In August 1992, Category 5 hurricane Andrew crashed through southern Florida. The Miami Metrozoo was a ruin and so were numerous other places where exotic species were kept. The New Yorker reports that “The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission estimates that between three and four thousand primates escaped during the hurricane, together with as many as fifteen thousand other animals, including parrots, gazelles, wallabies, six mountain lions, and an Asian pheasant . . .” Most of the escapees were rounded up or shot by police.

Sources

  • “Furry, Cute and Drooling Herpes: What to Do With Florida’s Invasive Monkeys?” Adam Gabbatt, The Guardian, December 31, 2019.
  • “B Virus Cause and Frequency.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, January 28, 2019.
  • “Herpes-Carrying Monkeys Brought to Florida for Tourism May Multiply out of Control.” Carlos E. Medina and Ryan W. Miller, USA TODAY, February 24, 2020.
  • “The Silver Springs Monkeys.” International Primate Protection League, undated.
  • “Swamp Things.” Burkhard Bilger, New Yorker, April 13, 2009.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on December 10, 2020:

We saw some of those monkeys when we visited Silver Springs many years ago. I had no idea that they had become such a problem. Thanks for writing about this.