The New York Times, August 22, 2012
The monkey appeared behind a Bennigan’s. The Bennigan’s was one in a row of free-standing, fast-casual joints in Clearwater, Fla., just outside Tampa, that also includes a Panda Express and a Chipotle. At one end, a Perkins Family Restaurant flies a preposterously large Stars and Stripes in its front yard, as if it were a federal building or an aircraft carrier.
Someone spotted the monkey poking through a Dumpster around lunchtime. When a freelance animal trapper named Vernon Yates arrived, all he could make out was an oblong ball of light brown fur, asleep in the crown of an oak. It was a male rhesus macaque — a pink-faced, two-foot-tall species native to Asia. It weighed about 25 pounds.
No pet macaques were reported missing around Tampa Bay — there wasn’t even anyone licensed to own one in the immediate area. Yates, who is called by the state wildlife agency to trap two or three monkeys a year, was struck by how “streetwise” this particular one seemed. Escaped pet monkeys tend to cower and stumble once they’re out in the unfamiliar urban environment, racing into traffic or frying themselves in power lines. But as Yates loaded a tranquilizer dart into his rifle, this animal jolted awake, swung out of the canopy and hit the ground running. It made for the neighboring office park, where it catapulted across a roof and reappeared, sitting smugly in another tree, only to vanish again. Yates was left dumbstruck, balancing at the top of a ladder. (By then, a firetruck had been called in to assist him.) “There’s no way to describe how intelligent this thing is,” he told me recently.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (known as the F.W.C.) came to believe that the macaque wasn’t a pet but had wandered out of a small population of free-roaming, wild macaques that live in a forest along the Silver River, 100 miles away. Soon, the F.W.C. was warning that wild macaques can carry the herpes B virus, which, though not easily transmitted to humans, can be fatal. A spokesman also told the press, “They’re infamous for throwing feces at things they don’t like.”
As sightings stacked up in the following days, it became clear that the macaque was crossing the highway again and again, threading traffic like a running back. One afternoon, Yates and an F.W.C. investigator named James Manson managed to dart the animal in a church parking lot but lost track of it before the drug took effect. At one point, the two men were staring into tangled brush, stumped, when Manson tilted his head and saw the monkey perched with ninja-like stillness above him, close enough to touch. The two primates locked eyes. Then the monkey turned and was gone. “And that’s really when the story began,” Manson told me.
It was the third week of January 2009. Now, more than three and a half years later, the macaque is still on the loose. After outmaneuvering the cops in Clearwater, the animal eventually showed up on the opposite side of Old Tampa Bay, somehow crossing the West Courtney Campbell Causeway, a low-lying bridge nearly 10 miles long. (The F.W.C. posits that it hid in the back of a covered truck.) That fall, it materialized in a low-income neighborhood in East Tampa, crouching in a tree. Guessing it was a raccoon, an F.W.C. lieutenant scaled a ladder and barked at it. The monkey urinated on him and disappeared.
By the following spring, a long string of sightings showed the macaque doubling back around the bay, overland, then boogieing down the Gulf Coast and into St. Petersburg, where it scrambled over the roof of a Baptist church during evening service. (“He came to worship,” one witness told The Tampa Bay Times.) A woman watched it swing off a tree limb and flop into her swimming pool. On Coquina Key, one neighbor told me, homeowners would climb ladders to prune their trees before hurricane season and find spent citrus peels littering their roofs.
And on it went, with the monkey zigging and zagging around Tampa Bay, dodging the government agencies bent on capturing it. The state considers the animal a potential danger to humans and, like all invasive species, an illegitimate and maybe destructive part of Florida’s ecology. But the public came to see the monkey as an outlaw, a rebel — a nimble mascot for “good, old-fashioned American freedom,” as one local reporter put it. This week, tens of thousands of Republicans will pour into Tampa. There will be lots of national self-scrutiny and hand-wringing at the convention center downtown. But the most fundamental questions — What exactly is government for? Where are the lines between liberty, tyranny and lawlessness? — have been shaking the trees around Tampa for years.
Vernon Yates is 59, with a broad, serious face and white-threaded hair. He lives on the west side of Tampa Bay, in the suburb of Seminole. He came to open his front gate wearing camouflage crocs and khaki shorts, throwing on a Jack Hanna-style khaki shirt as he walked, but never going so far as to button it.
He’d been hosing down his bear cage when I rang. Yates has about 200 exotic animals at his house. Most are pets that the F.W.C. confiscated from owners who failed to comply with state regulations and then entrusted to Yates’s one-man nonprofit, Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation. There were 17 tigers, some leopards, cougars, a pile of alligators in a concrete pool and a dusty battalion of large African spurred tortoises. Yates likes tortoises — he also keeps a single Galápagos tortoise as a pet. “I’ve been married five times,” he told me. “In one of my divorces, I lost $100,000 worth of tortoises.”
At his desk, Yates unfolded a map of Tampa Bay. But he found he had to flip the map over, then consult other maps, at different scales, to trace the macaque’s entire odyssey. “It’s an amazing feat, when you think about his travels,” he said. Since 2009, Yates estimates that he has gone after the animal on roughly 100 different occasions. The monkey was his white whale. He claimed to have darted it at least a dozen times, steadily upping the tranquilizer dosage, to no avail. The animal is too wily — it retreats into the woods and sleeps off the drug. A few times, the monkey stared Yates right in the eye and pulled the dart out.
For the last two years, the macaque seems to have lingered in the same area of South St. Petersburg, ranging between a bulbous peninsula and the small island of Coquina Key, about two miles away. Yates still received calls about the animal — one came in the previous week. But the trail went cold a long time ago. Sightings were seldom reported now. As a woman on Coquina Key named Rosalie Broten told me: “Nobody wants the monkey to be captured. Everybody wants it to be free.”
The citizenry of Tampa Bay was adamantly pro-monkey. People had long been abetting the animal, leaving fruit plates on their patios. A few people, one F.W.C. officer told me, called the agency’s monkey hot line to report that they’d seen the macaque several hours or even a couple of days earlier — offering totally useless intelligence, in other words, presumably just to stick their thumbs in the government’s eye. The Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay, as people called it, had very quickly become a celebrity. There were at least two styles of Mystery Monkey T-shirts on offer, and a catchphrase: Go, Monkey, Go. As the macaque passed through the town of Oldsmar, a self-storage facility threw the monkey’s picture on a digital billboard with the message: “Stay Free Mystery Monkey.” And a Facebook page for the animal got 82,000 likes. “The taxpaying citizens of Tampa have been driven bananas by the out-of-touch political establishment,” the monkey wrote on its blog at the end of 2010, announcing its run for mayor.
At no point had the macaque threatened or hurt anyone. So it was easy for the public to see the authorities — who, on at least a couple of occasions, surrounded the macaque with rifles and Tasers drawn, or hovered overhead in helicopters, beaming video surveillance to troops on the ground — as bullying or wasteful. (“In this economy,” one television reporter quipped, “you have to wonder if it’s time to stop monkeying around.”) Lt. Steve De Lacure of Florida Fish and Wildlife told me, “The general public perceives that we’re the Gestapo.” He was adamant that his agency was not “chasing” the animal, and had deployed officers only a handful of times, when they felt they had a reasonable shot at capturing the macaque. He didn’t even like it when I used the word “pursue.”
I sympathized with the F.W.C. What they had to do was unpopular, but their sense of duty was unshakable. They were even prepared to shoot the animal dead if, in a given situation, tranquilization wasn’t an option. And they knew they’d be vilified if it came to that. But they took a somewhat traditional view: the American people had a right to be protected by their government from wild monkeys. It was disorienting to watch the people of Tampa Bay champion the monkey’s rights instead.
Vernon Yates was especially ridiculed. At the height of Mystery Monkey mania, he received death threats from pro-monkey radicals. He seems to have been caricatured as a small-town sheriff determined to kill the monkey or lock it up. This offended Yates. “I don’t hate the monkey!” he told me. “I don’t hate the monkey at all!”
I took him at his word. He’s not paid by the F.W.C. for the trapping he does but volunteers because, he explained, he doesn’t trust law enforcement to handle exotic animals with the level of expertise and equipment he can offer. (Though his working relationship with the F.W.C. is stellar, Yates seemed to think very little of government in general. “I love my country, but I hate my government,” he told me. Among his many complaints was the attitude of the U.S.D.A. bureaucrats who inspect his menagerie. He filled me in on a protest he was planning. During the Republican convention, he’d take one of his tigers — 3 of the 17 at his house are personal pets — on his boat and just sit on the river in front of the convention center, with a sign condemning the U.S.D.A.)
Yates insisted that his only interest was the welfare of the macaque. He planned to surrender the Mystery Monkey to a pet owner who already kept a female macaque. The monkey would be put into captivity, but with its own kind. Yates, like the F.W.C., argued that this was the only compassionate resolution. (The F.W.C. maintained that a monkey this habituated to humans couldn’t simply be put back in the wild.) It was also the safest. Out there, in the subdivided wilds of Tampa Bay, the monkey was in danger. It could eat rat poison. Or it could be accidentally provoked by someone feeding it and lash out, all but forcing the government to shoot it. Besides, macaques, like humans, are social creatures. They live in groups — like the troop of macaques this one had come from, along the river in Central Florida. Researchers believe that the animals’ mental and physical well-being can suffer if they’re shorn from that community.
In other words, the monkey’s lone-wolf, fugitive lifestyle, so inspiring to liberty-loving Floridians, might actually be a distressing exile. This idea got traction briefly around Labor Day 2010, when a retired newspaperman named Don McBride photographed the macaque among crags of metallic modern art in his neighbor’s yard. The animal was staring into a mirrored cube, pressing its cheek against its own reflection.
“Everyone’s shouting, ‘It’s gotta be free, it’s gotta be free,’ ” Yates told me. “Well, go find the guy who’s living on the street with his family and ask him how it feels to be free.” Yates seemed to be arguing that sometimes we need a hand to reach down and nudge us, however forcefully, back into place. “Sometimes, freedom isn’t necessarily a good idea.”
This is not the first time that monkeys have incited a minor populist uprising in Florida. The population of wild rhesus macaques in the middle of the state — the tribe from which, the theory goes, the Mystery Monkey strayed — was established in the late 1930s by a New Yorker named Colonel Tooey. (Colonel was his first name.) Tooey ran boat tours on the picturesque Silver River, a premier tourist destination. A brazen showman, he wanted to ratchet the scenery up another notch. So he bought a half-dozen macaques and plopped them on a small island. Macaques are strong swimmers; Tooey had no idea. According to local lore, the animals were off the island within minutes.
By the mid-’70s, the population had expanded to about 80 macaques, living in two separate troops on either side of the river. They were fed constantly by tourists but were also encountered as many as 25 miles away. (“Reports of monkeys riding on the backs of wild pigs have not yet been confirmed,” one university researcher wrote.) The troops continued to grow until, in 1984, a forerunner to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission started trapping the animals, citing herpes among other risks. Residents of the town of Silver Springs and neighboring Ocala were outraged. For years, a grass-roots opposition made all the noise it could. When the state compiled a report of monkey attacks and property damage — one macaque was said to have bitten a 3-year-old in the neck — activists hired a private investigator to debunk it.
In 1993, a state legislative committee held a hearing about exterminating the monkeys once and for all. Tish Hennessey, an Ocala schoolteacher and leader of the resistance, was hospitalized for a respiratory condition at the time, but nevertheless made it to the state capitol in Tallahassee, entering the hearing room attended by a nurse and oxygen tank. “Hear the sound of our voices,” Hennessey said. Then, with a thwunk, she dropped a petition to save the macaques on the chamber floor, signed by 25,000 citizens. The committee recommended that the killing be called off. “I think the will of the people was heard,” Hennessey told me.
In truth, though, the controversy was never resolved. The State of Florida still holds that the monkeys don’t belong on the land around the river, but officials are no longer racing to clear them out. I went to Silver Springs hoping to trace the mystery of the Mystery Monkey to its roots — to see, at the very least, how large the population of macaques has become, and how far its range has expanded. But all I found was more mystery. “We don’t really have good answers,” an F.W.C. spokeswoman in Ocala told me. A retiree named Bob Gottschalk, who has a background in biology and, as a hobby, has been studying the monkeys from a kayak over the last three years, told me he believes there are no more than 100 monkeys on the Silver River today. But state officials also pointed me to an independent count done in 2010 that estimates there may be as many as five more troops living along 20 miles of the neighboring Ocklawaha River to the east.
“I think there’s probably way more monkeys than anybody imagines,” Capt. Tom O’Lenick told me one afternoon, as we drifted down the Silver River in his pontoon boat. Captain Tom is 63, a spindly, aging Popeye of a man with a bristly white beard, white captain’s hat and jagged grin. He has led tours of the river 200 days a year for 29 years, hollering, “Monkey! Monkey! Monkey!” into the cypresses, to coax out the marquee attraction.
We couldn’t find any macaques that afternoon. But Captain Tom filled the time with stories of his young adulthood as an antiwar activist, his stint as a roadie on tour with the Doors and his high hopes for and subsequent disillusionment with President Obama. (“It doesn’t matter which clown you vote for,” he said, “you always get the same bozo.”) Mostly, we talked monkeys. He warned me against underestimating the macaques or overestimating the authorities’ grasp on the macaques’ whereabouts and behavior. The monkeys are opportunistic and adaptable animals, he said. It seemed inevitable that they would have steadily expanded their territory since the 1930s. Personally, he has spotted macaques as far as 40 miles away, on waterways that don’t connect directly with the Silver River. Sometimes they turn up at his girlfriend’s mobile-home park, “just grazing and eating, minding their business,” he said. “It’s not like they got an agenda.”
When I asked about the Tampa macaque, Captain Tom reiterated what both the F.W.C. and an anthropologist at Notre Dame who studies macaques, Agustín Fuentes, told me: in the wild, young macaques that challenge their troop leaders and lose are often forced out, left to wander in search of a new troop. The Mystery Monkey is presumed to be one of these disenfranchised males; it just kept wandering until it hit a city full of human primates instead.
It sounds like a freak thing. It may not be. As Gary Morse, a 34-year veteran of the F.W.C. told me, “We’re starting to see macaques show up in places we haven’t seen them before.” In May, another lone male macaque was spotted near a Sunoco station northeast of Orlando, 65 miles from Silver Springs. And last September, one appeared in St. Cloud, 80 miles away. It’s possible that all three spilled out of these woods — that they are the far-flung refugees of a population that might itself be more far-flung than anyone realizes.
Linda Wolfe, an East Carolina University anthropologist who studied the Silver River macaques in the ’80s, disagrees. “There’s no such thing as rogue monkeys,” she told me. “The state wants to play it up so that they can say they’re overrun with monkeys” and start killing them again. But I had trouble gauging how much Wolfe’s position was colored by old political resentments. Wolfe was part of the original pro-monkey protest movement and, 25 years later, was still angry about the government’s tactics. (She described the law-enforcement division of the F.W.C. as “essentially a paramilitary organization. They answer to no one.”)
Captain Tom, however, seemed to have it all mapped out in his head: the network of greenways that a macaque could travel undetected between here and Tampa. I asked if this scenario didn’t sound a little improbable: a lone rambler ups and walks 100 miles to Tampa. Sure does, Captain Tom said. “But I don’t think it’s one, lone monkey.” Just maybe, he said, the Mystery Monkey that everyone is spotting is actually several different monkeys — or one particularly audacious monkey acting as a sentinel for a group. “I hate to say ‘invasion,’ ” Captain Tom told me, “because it sounds so alarming. But I would say it’s a natural expansion of the troops.”
That night, I stayed up late at a La Quinta inn in Ocala reading “Planet of the Apes.” I never knew the movies were based on a novel. (The author, the Frenchman Pierre Boulle, was a prisoner of war during World War II and also wrote “The Bridge Over the River Kwai.”) In the book, a journalist accompanies an expedition to the planet Soror, where, everyone is horrified to discover, apes wear tailored suits and hold scientific symposia, while humans — naked, mewling, incapable of language — scurry through forests like terrified deer.
Eventually, a kind of oral history is unlocked, explaining how the animals came to power on the planet and the humans devolved into animals. People had trained the apes to be their slaves. Gradually, society’s stress-free lifestyle sapped everyone of their curiosity and willpower. “A cerebral laziness has taken hold of us,” one man narrates; folks couldn’t even be bothered to read cheap detective novels anymore.
The apes, meanwhile, never stopped learning. And slowly, individual animals began to stand up for themselves. One night, a gorilla butler decided to sleep in its master’s bed. Soon circus orangutans were forcing their tamers to do the tricks. In every case, it was just easier for the humans to go along — to surrender the bed and sleep on an armchair in the living room; to turn somersaults when the orangutans told them to. “Most of us are adapting to this regime,” one woman says. “To give them their due, the apes treat us well and give us plenty to eat. . . . I’m not unhappy. I have no more worries or responsibilities.” It hardly seemed alarming when the first chimpanzees used language. Eventually, humans withdrew to camps — and from there, the wilderness.
Maybe it was because I’d listened to so much talk radio while driving around Tampa, because I’d absorbed all those biting, riled voices urging me, for example, to buy gold before the federal government started limiting A.T.M. withdrawals. But there at the La Quinta I experienced what can only be described as a waking nightmare. Reality and science fiction sloshed together. Some of us in America seemed to be sliding into the same disillusioned lethargy that undid humanity in the novel, while others of us were doing the exact opposite: vigilantly looking for the worst in our government, and in one another, to keep from being conned out of even the thinnest sliver of our freedom.
It occurred to me that the two mind-sets — apathy and paranoia — probably yield the same result. You wind up off to the side of real democracy, disengaged from the strenuous project of brokering a better society.
“What is happening could have been foreseen,” one witness claims on the planet Soror. But the thing is, no one saw it.
I saw the Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay my last morning in town.
In February, a retired man in South St. Petersburg e-mailed Emily Nipps, a reporter at The Tampa Bay Times. The macaque had been out of the news, and the man wanted the public to know that it was alive and well. For more than six months, the animal had been hanging out on his patio and swinging through the surrounding woods. He and his wife were feeding the monkey; they’d become close.
The couple asked Nipps to write a story, on the condition that she wouldn’t print their names or the location of their house. What Nipps described was essentially the scenario that the F.W.C. was afraid of — the wild animal losing its wariness of people, endangered by kindness. Vernon Yates told me, “What they’re doing is signing the monkey’s death warrant.”
I managed to get a message to the couple. The husband asked me to call him “Clas,” a fragment of his e-mail address. Eventually, he invited me to visit.
Clas came ambling out of the house in socks and sandals to prep me when I pulled in the driveway. “Monk” was out on the patio right now, he whispered. The animal usually flees from strangers, so Clas advised me not to look directly at it — that’s a threat — and to just check it out in my peripheral vision while we pretended to have a conversation.
We walked onto the screened-in porch. Immediately, I saw the monkey pause to size me up, then scoop a pile of peanuts off the patio and hop away as fast as it could. I’d totally blown the peripheral-vision thing. Clas gave a shrug. Then he introduced me to his wife — I’ll call her Mrs. Clas — and we sat down to talk.
They’d heard about the monkey on the news, they said, but were still shocked one morning when they suddenly saw a macaque skitter up a post and vanish onto their roof. Mrs. Clas set out a banana and rushed inside to watch. The monkey hesitantly descended, sat on their woodpile and ate the banana. That was a year ago. “He’s been here ever since,” Clas said.
The morning banana became a routine. Sometimes grapes. Once in a while, Mrs. Clas left the monkey Oreos that he would twist apart and lick the frosting out of like a child. After a while, the monkey packed on 10 pounds. He looked husky; Clas took to calling him Banana Butt. So they dialed back the feeding, mostly leaving the monkey to forage for itself in the woods. “And he toned down!” Clas said. “I think he looks great.”
Clas was spreading snapshots across the table — scenes from their life together. The monkey watched them play gin rummy from the patio and thundered over the roof to the kitchen window to watch Mrs. Clas make dinner. It followed them, Clas explained. “It’s pretty incredible. You’re sitting on the crapper, and a monkey swings by.”
Eventually, Clas’s mother — I’ll call her Mama Clas — joined us on the porch. She is 106 years old, a wobbly but astoundingly together woman for her age. “Is Monk here?” she asked casually, having lowered herself into a chair without first turning to check the patio. Mama Clas recently came to live with her son. Every morning, she walks down the long driveway with her walker to collect the newspaper. And by now, the monkey escorts her, staying 20 feet ahead or behind, keeping watch. “Like a guard,” Clas said, showing me a photo and laughing. “Honest to God, like a guard.”
Otherwise, though, the family made an effort to keep their distance. They were principled enough not to turn the animal into a pet. “We really don’t want to be friends with him too much,” Clas said. “We like our critters wild out here.” Living alongside a monkey clearly had its inconveniences. The macaque throws the wire screens off their rain barrels when it needs a drink. It eats the honeybell oranges off their favorite tree. And though they wouldn’t elaborate, I wondered if they’d glimpsed a temperamental side of the animal from time to time too. “Everybody has good days and bad days,” was all Clas kept saying. “But it doesn’t carry over. It’s just forgotten.”
I’d listened to more talk radio on the way over. Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, had denied the mayor of Tampa’s request to temporarily ban firearms around the Convention Center during the week of the Republican convention for the sake of public safety — “We have the Second Amendment for a reason, and that’s to make sure that we can always defend our freedom,” Scott said — and, in New Mexico, a court ruled that a Christian photographer’s refusal to take a job photographing a lesbian couple’s commitment ceremony violated the couple’s civil rights, even though the photographer said that shooting the ceremony would have gone against her religious convictions. Everywhere, it seemed, everyone’s inalienable rights were grinding against everyone else’s, and against the government, with all those opposing ideals refusing to settle into a sloppier, if relatively fair, society. Against that backdrop, what was happening at the Clas house was so radical that it took a moment to recognize it. It was a compromise.
Granted, it was a tense and untidy compromise — more of a détente. The monkey hadn’t really found a new troop — it wasn’t even allowed in the house — and for all I knew, it would freak out the next morning and knock over Mama Clas as she reached for her Tampa Bay Times. But for the time being, strange neighbors were making a go of it, getting along.
Maybe there’s some muddled metaphor for America in that. Or maybe it’s only tempting to look for one because there’s such hunger for a hint of the way forward. Maybe it’s not a metaphor. Maybe we’re on our own. Maybe it’s just a macaque.
Jon Mooallem has been writing for the magazine since 2006. His first book, “Wild Ones,” will be published next year by the Penguin Press.
Editor: Sheila Glaser
© 2012 The New York Times Company
This article originally appeared here.
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