Kim Ritten’s 7-year-old son, Liam, was feeding popcorn to a monkey at Stephens Lake Park on Saturday when the animal bit the boy’s finger hard enough to require a trip to the Boone Hospital Center emergency room. Now, five days later, the monkey and the woman who brought it to the park are still unidentified, the health department released a report of another child possibly bitten by the same animal, and Ritten is worried about disease.
"Right now I want to find the monkey and test it for all diseases and bacteria to know that there’s nothing I need to worry about for the health of Liam," Ritten said this morning.
Yesterday, the Columbia/Boone County Health Department issued a photo of the woman and the monkey she brought to the annual Paws in the Park dog walk event and asked for the public’s help identifying her. But the health department had altered the photo to obscure woman’s face, making it impossible to see what she looked like.
"I honestly don’t know why they blurred the photo," Ritten said. "People will know this woman. A monkey looks like another monkey; it’s the lady people can recognize."
Health department spokeswoman Deidre Wood said she wanted to verify that the woman in the photo was the woman who brought the monkey to the park.
Columbia Environmental Health Manager Gerry Worley said there is no policy for events such as this because it hasn’t happened before.
"Frankly, we don’t have a history of having to do this type of investigation," he said. "We’re certainly not trying to keep anybody in the dark, but we don’t want to call a lot of attention to something just to sensationalize it."
The species of monkey at the park, believed to be a rhesus macaque, can in rare situations transmit a virus known as herpes B, also known as Simian B, which is often fatal to humans and must be treated with an antiviral within 24 hours.
Late this morning, Wood sent out a news release saying the monkey bit a second child, an 11-year-old girl, at the park.
Wood said the girl’s bite also pierced the skin.
Liam’s finger was bandaged from a bite that went "very deep" into his right ring finger, Ritten said, and he has visited the pediatrician twice since the incident. Doctors have not performed tests relating to any communicable diseases but have asked the mother and son to watch for worrisome symptoms, including headache and fever.
The bite occurred Saturday afternoon near the playground at Stephens Lake, where hundreds of people were walking dogs for the charity event. Ritten said an unidentified woman was sitting on the ground with a monkey in her lap, allowing people to feed and pet it.
Liam had a bag of popcorn and began throwing kernels at the animal to feed it. When he stopped and reached into the bag to get some for himself, Ritten said, the monkey "leaped forward" and bit the child’s finger. "I couldn’t tell if he was bit or scratched, it happened so fast, but he immediately jumped up screaming and yelling, and then I saw his finger was dripping blood," the mother said.
Ritten said the presumed owner of the monkey "mouthed the words, ‘I’m sorry’" and left the scene.
An animal control officer was sent to the park, but, Ritten said, "they talked about doing a press release and then decided not to because they were afraid she wouldn’t come forward if they did that."
The photo was submitted by someone who saw the monkey and its owner on a sidewalk downtown. Worley, who was not at the park Saturday, said suggestions that the health department has been lax are "unfair."
"We did everything we could to interview everybody we knew to be at the Paws in the Park event, asking questions of anybody who saw the monkey. We’ve followed up on every lead we could," Worley said.
The city’s Animal Control Division has received "a number" of calls but had not located the owner as of this morning.
Ritten just wants some peace of mind. "If it was an adult, it would be one thing, but it’s a 7-year-old - a little boy."