Puerto Rico officials have a new plan to solve their monkey problem: export them to Central Florida.
About 30 patas monkeys have been shipped to the Florida International Teaching Zoo in Sumter County as part of a larger strategy to capture, neuter, track and export packs of monkeys that have invaded the island from a defunct research facility.
The head of the teaching zoo has committed to taking at least 300 monkeys and finding homes for them with zoological organizations around the world.
"These are animals that could become an endangered species soon in their native Africa because they are being aggressively hunted for food," said Mark Wilson, director of the nonprofit facility that trains zookeepers and other animal workers.
"Our goal is to try and breed some groups now to have a genetic base for future generation of patas monkeys."
Farmers in Puerto Rico's rich Lajas agricultural valley have been calling for the extermination of the monkeys, which have destroyed crops since they first escaped from an abandoned monkey-research facility 27 years ago. Some estimate there are 2,000 monkeys in the valley, causing millions of dollars in crop damage.
Government officials have come up with a $1.8 million plan that includes neutering some monkeys and releasing them back into the wild. Others will be fitted with radio transmitters to facilitate the capture of more members of their pack. And more monkeys will be relocated to zoos around the world.
Some fear the government's plan will take decades to get rid of the monkeys. In the meantime, they are running amok in Puerto Rico.
There are monkeys everywhere in Lajas valley. Monkeys in the fruit and vegetable fields. Monkeys in the banana trees. Monkeys swimming in backyard pools. Monkeys crawling over moving cars.
"They are a pest, a terrible plague," said Georgie Ferrer, a local farmer. "After years of dealing with them, we've had it."
Puerto Rico has no native monkeys. These are the descendants of primates used for medical investigations on small islands less than a half-mile from Lajas. The animals were abandoned when the experiments, funded by the U.S. Health Department, ended in the late 1970s.
But the monkeys found their way to the mainland almost as soon as they were abandoned and began to do what monkeys do: eat and reproduce. The fertile agricultural valley provided the packs with a steady diet of Caribbean pumpkins, melons, bananas and mangoes.
"They are a very destructive bunch," said Ferrer, a local leader advocating eradication of the monkeys. "When they reach a crop they like, they'll take chomps off the one fruit or vegetable and move on to the next one. They can destroy an entire crop in an hour or less."
The packs can be as large as 70 monkeys, Ferrer said.
Herenio Lopez said he was driving his Jeep through his cattle farm when he ran into a monkey caravan. The males attacked the car and climbed on it. They shrieked and pounded the windows while showing their fangs.
"There were monkeys everywhere," Lopez said.
In September, a pack of monkeys broke into a house to take a dip in the pool. The family -- who taped it with a video camera -- was awakened by the uninvited guests having a pool party at dawn.
Initially, the farmers were afraid of the monkeys. Most of them had never seen one up close. Word quickly spread that these monkeys had been used for medical experiments, which gave life to wild rumors: The monkeys had AIDS; the Pentagon had trained them to kill; some had their brains removed like zombies.
But now the farmers have begun to fight back with bullets, rocks and sticks.
The government is urging them to not kill the animals but rather capture them and turn them over to authorities.
The Department of Natural Resources, the lead agency in the eradication efforts, says it has captured about 60 so far.
"It's going to be hell if you just come in and shoot them," said the agency's secretary, Javier Velez Arocho. "You will disperse the colonies and push them into the mountains. If they make it there, you can pretty much forget about catching them."
Wilson, head of the Sumter County teaching zoo, agreed with Velez Arocho.
"They will do tremendous damage to the native jungle vegetation," Wilson said. "I understand the farmers' predicament, but killing monkeys will only make their problems worse."
Velez Arocho estimated that it will take about a decade to bring the monkey population down to a manageable number. The farmers are unimpressed.
"I captured two in 25 minutes with three mangoes and an old cage," Ferrer said. "We don't have years."