Elusive monkey romps through Tampa Bay area

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 25, 2010

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — In the hours after a monkey on the lam fell into a woman’s pool and then swiped some fruit from her backyard tree, fans of the wily primate cheered it for avoiding capture.

‘‘Go little monkey, go! No cages for you,’’ wrote a guy named Jack on the ‘‘Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay’’ Facebook fan page. (There were more than 21,000 fans of the elusive monkey as of Wednesday morning.)

‘‘I sure hope ’they’ don’t catch you!’’ wrote a woman named Kathleen. ‘‘Why can’t ’they’ just leave you alone?’’

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Why, indeed?

The rhesus macaque monkey has avoided capture for nearly a year. Authorities don’t know where the animal came from, but some believe it could have gotten separated from a troupe of wild monkeys in an Ocala-area state park, some 118 miles north of St. Petersburg. Another possibility: the animal could have escaped from an owner who doesn’t have a permit and is therefore not registered with authorities.

The creature has captivated people in Tampa Bay and beyond — possibly because of his ability to outwit the humans trying to catch him.

‘‘It’s something that you can kind of cheer for,’’ said Amy Ellis, a Pasco County employee who has become a fan of the monkey on Facebook. ‘‘Every day there’s so much bad news. He’s kind of like a little hero.’’

The monkey was even featured two weeks ago on ‘‘The Colbert Report’’ with host Stephen Colbert poking fun at the creature, who has been shot numerous times with tranquilizers, apparently unfazed. One trapper claimed the monkey was becoming a ‘‘drug addict’’ because of all the shots.

Wildlife trapper Vernon Yates has tracked the monkey through three counties, and heard reports of it rummaging through trash bins, scaling the wall of an apartment complex and even hanging out by a pool behind a foreclosed home.

Yates swears it is the same monkey because of its size, coloring and behavior.

‘‘He is an extremely intelligent monkey,’’ Yates said. ‘‘He is very, very street-wise. He knows to check traffic. He knows to look both ways so he doesn’t get hit by cars. He knows to stay out of power lines.’’

Yates said he worries that someone will shoot or kill the monkey. If he catches it, Yates will have the animal tested for disease. If negative, the trapper will try to find the monkey a home, likely a private individual who has a permit to care for exotic wildlife.

State wildlife officials are also serious about catching the evasive primate.

‘‘That animal is so much quicker and more powerful than people perceive,’’ said Gary Morse, a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. ‘‘That monkey would absolutely tear an adult male up. People have no idea how fierce their bites would be.’’

Morse said monkeys can harbor communicable diseases, such as hepatitis and herpes, and can become aggressive if cornered.

On Sunday, St. Petersburg resident Renee Barth got a laugh when she spotted the monkey swinging from a tree in her pool enclosure. She managed to get a photo — then watched it fall into her pool.

Barth said the monkey climbed out, then took off with some grapefruit.