Lex Salisbury, president of Lowry Park Zoo, began his shift about dawn today driving the back roads of rural Polk County, eyes peeled for a dozen missing monkeys. By midmorning, he was still looking.
His primates had eluded capture for two – going on three – days and were nowhere to be seen. Of course, there was a huge area to be searched: sod and cattle ranches that sprawl over thousands of acres on the south side of Green Swamp that itself covers about 870 square miles.
Though the animals have not been captured, Judd Chapin, a helicopter pilot for News Channel 8, said about noon today that he saw roughly five of the monkeys under a tree. He said he is staying clear so he won't spook them.
The monkeys executed what might go down in Polk County history as the primate version of the "Great Escape."
The troupe of patas monkeys was rescued recently from Puerto Rico, Salisbury said, where they had been captured and were about to be euthanized. Salisbury intervened and brought all of them to a fledgling wildlife preserve north of Lakeland called Safari Wild. The monkeys arrived on Thursday. They escaped on Saturday.
Every single one of them.
Males, females, young and old. Together.
"They're very social," Salisbury said.
These monkeys are more suited to running through the grass than swinging from tree to tree and are said to be one of the fastest of primates. Salisbury said they have been clocked at almost 35 mph.
They hail from equatorial Africa and can live in a wide variety of climates, including, apparently, subtropical Florida; to be more specific, West Central Florida; and to be even more specific, just north of Lakeland.
The clever beasts shocked their keepers at Safari Wild, a 260-acre preserve in Polk County, by swimming an 8-foot-deep, 60-foot wide moat that surrounded their 1-acre island home and bolting into the wilderness.
"That amazed me," Salisbury said.
The daring escape was led by a female patas with a baby on her back. Others followed.
The reddish brown patas monkeys range in height from 2 to 3 feet and weigh 15 to 30 pounds. They are unarmed and not considered dangerous and carry no diseases. Keepers say all have microchips implanted for identification.
Being from Africa and all, where predators are around every corner, the monkeys have the savvy it takes to evade predators in Florida, Salisbury said. "These guys are pretty smart," he said. "They'll be fine."
The primates stayed on Safari Wild's property for a day or so after navigating the moat on Saturday, but then they climbed over a 28-foot fence and made it to freedom in the wilds of Polk County.
On Monday morning, someone spotted monkeys matching the description of the escapees about a mile from the preserve, Salisbury said. Keepers scoured the area all day Monday but found nothing. The monkey hunt continued this morning.
Salisbury has a plan to capture them, although the plan could take a week or more. He plans to play on the monkeys' main weakness: their dependence on humans to feed them. Once the troupe is located, trappers will place bananas and sweet potatoes near where the escapees are holed up.
Once the monkeys get used to chow time at the same spot for a few days, a trap will be sprung, keepers said. A group capture is the hope.
Salisbury co-owns Safari Wild. He said he is lending his animal expertise to the wildlife preserve, which will include animals such as waterbuck, zebras and African cattle.
He said he hopes to bring other exotic wildlife to the park, including cheetahs, giraffes and possibly elephants. The scheduled opening of the park is 2009.
Some animals will be imported from other countries and some will be surplus animals taken from zoos and wildlife parks across the U.S. Others, like the patases, will be rescued critters.
Mark Wilson operates the Florida Teaching Zoo in Bushnell: Has 30 patases imported from Puerto Rico, says they're hard to catch, especially mass capture…
Although no primates call Florida their native home, several populations have adapted in the wild here, most notably the population that lives along the banks of the Silver River near Ocala.
The colony of rhesus monkeys, which has been described as the nation's only free-roaming population, did come under scrutiny in the 1980s when some of the colony's members spilled outside their jungle borders of the Silver Springs Attraction and began hassling people.
Biologists said that at its height, the Silver Springs rhesus population reached nearly 200. They were introduced into the woods in the 1930s as extras for the "Tarzan" movies that were filmed along the scenic river.
Some of the monkeys were trapped and removed. The population is a lot smaller now, and the Silver River monkeys have been behaving themselves.
A tiny island in the Homosassa River has a small population of spider monkeys thought to have been brought there by the original owner of what now is the Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park. Five monkeys live there.
Rhesus monkeys, which are natives of Asia, swarmed over Lois Key and Racoon Key in the Florida Keys until the late 1990s when they were removed. They were raised there by a company that bred laboratory animals. The monkeys thrived there for decades, until they started ravaging the environment and a judge ordered their removal.