October 7, 1990
THE MIAMI HERALD
AS YOU READ
THIS, THOUSANDS OF MONKEYS ARE MASSING ON TWO HIDDEN ISLANDS
IN THE FLORIDA KEYS. WILL THESE CREATURES FROM MAN'S SAVAGE
PAST SETTLE FOR MORE BISCUITS? OR WILL THEY STOP AT NOTHING
SHORT OF...OCEANFRONT REAL ESTATE?
Bubba is being cool. He's an older guy, been around the block
a few times, knows the score. He heard us coming in on the
boat, and, figuring we might have something for him, he went
right to the building where he knew we'd go. He's as close
as he dares to get, crouching maybe 10 feet away on the wooden
walkway, watching us, watching everything. You have to, in
a situation like this. You never know who else is going to
a big bag of biscuits out, so that the contents spill across
the walkway. For Bubba, this is good news and bad news. The
good news is, he has food. The bad news is, the biscuits make
a loud clatter when they hit the wood. Everybody on this island
knows that sound. Everybody will be coming, and soon. There
could be trouble.
is not cool now. He's picking up biscuits as fast as he can,
stuffing them into his mouth, one after another. He's also
trying to hold biscuits cradled in both arms, while continuing
to pick up more biscuits. Bubba needs approximately six hands
to carry out this plan of action. It's not going well. He's
dropping biscuits as fast as he's picking them up. He tries
to compensate for this by picking them up faster. He's frantic,
which is why he fails to notice that, sauntering onto the
walkway behind him, is: the Troop Leader.
if you'd never seen the Troop Leader before, you'd know instantly
who he was. He has an air about him, a presence. Physically,
he is perfection itself, and he knows it. He has beautiful
hair. He has a terrific build. He has a testicular sac the
size of a grapefruit. His body language says: "I am the
absolute authority around here. You will sit where I let you
sit; you will eat when I let you eat."
greed-crazed Bubba -- his cheeks bulging, his arms full, biscuits
clattering around him -- is not paying attention. This is
a serious breach of protocol. The only thing protecting Bubba
now is our presence. The Troop Leader examines us. He's not
scared, just considering the situation, weighing the possibility
that he might have to kick our butts, too.
his decision quickly. You don't get to be Troop Leader by
sitting around thinking.
-- the Troop Leader explodes into a shrieking, streaking blur,
a macho missile aimed directly at Bubba. Bubba, showing astounding
agility for a guy his age, hurls himself off the walkway,
bounds from stone to stone across a patch of swampy ground
and shoots directly up the side of a building while still
holding several biscuits.
goes wild. From trees and bushes all over the area come shrieks
and cries; the vegetation vibrates with excitement. If the
island had a TV sports show, this moment would definitely
be the highlight tonight, shown again and again in slo-mo
replay, savored and re-savored by the Troop Leader's adoring
fans. Look at that! Look at the Troop Leader take charge of
the situation! What an HOMBRE!
Leader, very casual now -- no need for him to hurry -- sorts
through the pile of biscuits. They all look exactly alike,
but only certain ones are good enough for the Troop Leader.
When he's satisfied, he saunters a few feet away, and the
rest of the troop starts to move in. They will all eat. But
they will eat in the proper order. And it's not as simple
as the biggest and strongest going first; there's a complex
hierarchy, baffling to an outsider. Some of the mothers --
each of whom has a baby clinging to her belly -- get to eat
right away; other mothers must wait. One very old, very wrinkled
lady gets to sit right next to the pile and slowly gum her
The troop members who must wait their turns get as close as
they can, watching, always watching. Whenever the odds look
right, they try to move in. Some are allowed to remain on
the walkway and eat. Some have to snatch a biscuit and dart
away. Every few minutes somebody will cross an imperceptible
line -- move in too soon, or to the wrong place -- and BOOM
the whole troop will explode again, everybody moving, some
attacking, some fleeing, dozens of darting, screeching brown
blurs -- and an instant later it's over, with everybody in
a new place and equilibrium restored -- for the moment. Word
of the disturbance quickly spreads through the distant trees,
which echo with the chatter of other, less-powerful troops,
waiting their turn to eat, spreading the news: Trouble at
the biscuit pile. We'll have more bulletins as details are
is very exciting, here on the island.
being a higher primate, you have figured out that I'm talking
about monkeys. What you may not know, however, is where these
particular monkeys hang out. Fairly close, is where. In fact,
if you've ever driven to Key West, you've passed within a
couple miles of several thousand monkeys, most of them running
loose. They're about 25 miles north of Key West, on two uninhabited
islands: Key Lois, on the Atlantic side and easily visible
from U.S. 1, has about 100 acres and 1,500 monkeys; Raccoon
Key (where Bubba lives) is on the Gulf side, and has about
200 acres and 2,200 monkeys.
are rhesus monkeys. They're smallish, averaging around 15
pounds, although the bulls can get up to around 35 pounds.
All the monkeys -- males, females, babies -- look like serious,
bearded little old men, except that their eyes are too close
together, and they routinely hurl themselves off the tops
are prized by medical researchers. They were brought to the
Keys in the mid-'70s from India by Charles River Laboratories
Inc., a Massachusetts-based company (now owned by Bausch &
Lomb) that is a major supplier of laboratory animals. Great
care has been taken to isolate these monkeys from the diseases
that infect most monkey populations; these are some of the
healthiest monkeys in the world. Their only contact with humans
is the Charles River workers, who come out each day on boats
loaded with water and many 25-pound bags of Purina Monkey
are here to breed. Each year about 1,000 of them, mostly young,
are taken off the Keys and sold to researchers. They go for
$1,500 apiece and up.
monkeys, times at least $1,500, comes to at least $1.5 million
per year, gross. So we're not just talking about biscuits
here. We're talking about a nice little business.
also a quiet little business, for the first years of its operation.
Most people didn't even know the monkeys were there. Oh, every
now and then boaters would ignore the NO TRESPASSING signs,
brave the tricky shallow water and try to get close -- maybe
even land on one of the islands. But they'd soon discover
that this was very unwise. Put yourself in their position:
You're slogging through the dense vegetation, swatting mosquitoes.
You hear a sound, see some movement. Suddenly you're surrounded
by four or five irate bull monkeys, who, via shrieks and grimaces,
are clearly communicating the following: "Hey! This is
OUR TERRITORY, Bud! You trying to TAKE OVER? You want to FIGHT?
You want us to BITE SOME HOLES IN YOUR FACE??"
turn and head briskly back to your boat, only to discover
that while you were gone the younger monkeys, who are nature's
own vandals, have taken your food, ripped up your seat cushions,
yanked out your fuel line and peed in your carburetor. In
the distance, flinging itself happily through the trees, is
an especially proud young monkey holding your ignition key.
This is not going to be a fun afternoon.
years humans stayed away from the monkeys, and vice versa,
and things were fairly peaceful. But there was conflict ahead.
Because the monkeys produce more than just offspring. They
go through nearly a ton of Monkey Chow a day, and then it
goes through them, and the result, speaking of gross, is a
lot of monkey poop, some of which, because of rain and tides,
winds up in the water.
the monkeys are not what you would call environmentalists.
Mangrove trees, considered to be threatened and ecologically
important, are protected by law, but the monkeys openly disregard
this. For reasons best known to them, they like to get up
in the shoreline red mangroves and rip off the leaves and
branches. Over the years, the monkeys have not merely threatened
these trees; they have beaten the crap out of them.
is that Key Lois is not a fetching sight. The shoreline is
a tangled jumble of leafless, lifeless gray tree skeletons,
as if it had been hit by an anti-mangrove neutron bomb. If
the Wicked Witch of the West lived on a key, this would be
is very upsetting to some local residents and environmental
groups. Curtis Kruer, a biologist and vice president for conservation
of the Florida Keys Audubon Society, says the monkeys are
"screwing up the islands." By fouling the water
and destroying the mangroves, he says, they've wrecked an
important ecological habitat on which many species depend.
Also, he says, with the mangroves gone, Key Lois has lost
its main protection from erosion, and could literally be washed
away by a hurricane. "From an ecological standpoint,
" he says, "the whole operation is an unacceptable
is a bunch of monkey poop, according to Paul Schilling, who's
in charge of the Charles River Laboratories operation in the
Keys. His title is Director of Primate Breeding Operations.
breed, " he notes. "I just direct 'em."
cheerfully admits that, from the water, Key Lois doesn't look
so hot. But he says appearances are misleading. He took me
on a tour of the key, and pointed out that, once you get past
the ring of dead mangroves on the shore, there's a lot of
dense, healthy-looking vegetation. Raccoon Key, which is less
accessible and gets less attention, looks far better, with
only a small area of shoreline mangroves destroyed.
also points out that Charles River is planting new mangroves
on the island in protective cages, and fencing some areas
of the islands off from the monkeys. He says his staff tests
the surrounding water regularly, and finds no more bacteria
than can be found in canals on the inhabited keys.
Schilling's argument is that, yes, the monkeys have done some
damage, but (a) they are also vital for medical research that
benefits humans, and (b) they're nowhere near as bad as developers.
monkey damage is temporary, " he says. Some day, when
the last monkey is shipped out, "this will all be mangroves
again. There's never going to be mangroves again where all
those hotels and condos are built."
arguments do not impress the environmentalists, who are trying
to get various governmental agencies to drastically curtail
or shut down the monkey-breeding operation. This has produced
a dispute between Charles River and the state over who owns
the low-lying parts of the islands. I won't go into the dispute
here, except to say that it appears to be headed for the courts,
and it probably won't be settled until the monkeys have evolved
to the point where they're filing their own legal briefs.
For The Job
I have mixed feelings about this dispute. When I look at the
monkeys, my gut reaction is, hey, neat. On the other hand,
I don't have to live near them. On the other hand, I'd rather
live near them than, for example, a Jet-Ski rental concession.
On the other hand, I'm bothered by the whole sticky moral
question of what happens to those cute little bearded old
men when they get taken off to some medical laboratory. On
the other hand . . .
it goes. Clearly there are many questions that need to be
addressed. But this article is already in serious danger of
being too factual, so let's shift our attention to a hypothetical
if the monkeys escape and run loose in the Keys?
is a big fear of the anti-monkey forces, who raise the specter
of impossible-to-catch monkeys multiplying like crazy, getting
diseased, competing with native species for food, biting people,
robbing convenience stores, etc.
Schilling argues that a monkey breakout is highly unlikely,
because the monkeys are poor swimmers, and even in a bad storm
they would stay on their islands. Hurricane Hugo, he says,
passed directly over a similar breeding colony near Puerto
Rico, and only one monkey was missing.
anti-monkey forces aren't so sure. Curtis Kruer claims that
rhesus monkeys have already been seen running loose on populated
keys near the monkey islands, and warns that if a hurricane
comes, many more monkeys could swim, or get blown, or be carried
on dead-mangrove driftwood, to the nearby keys, and wind up
sprinting up and down U.S. 1.
will literally be every monkey for itself, " Kruer says.
Dagny Johnson, president of the Upper Keys Citizens Association,
puts it: "There is a presumption that there will be monkeys
Monroe County Commissioner Doug Jones puts it: "If you
have a hurricane, you're going to blow those monkeys all over
if they're right? That's the question we must ask ourselves,
if we are to somehow twist this story into an all- expenses-paid
trip to Key West. What if there were monkeys all over the
question involves many complex, highly technical moral, environmental
and biological issues -- issues that clearly cannot be resolved,
scientifically, without renting a monkey suit. So I did. It
was like a large pair of fur pajamas, with detachable monkey
feet and hands. Also it had a large head with eye holes and
the kind of relentlessly cheerful, almost- deranged smile
that you rarely see except on local TV news anchorpersons.
For stark realism, it featured a strap-on tail with a wire
inside so it would stick out behind.
sure the suit was realistic, I tested it on our two dogs,
Earnest and Zippy. I put the suit on and hid in our yard,
then my wife let the dogs out. They didn't see me immediately,
in part because I blended so perfectly into the environment,
and in part because they have the intelligence of onion dip.
So I made realistic monkey noises learned from watching scientific
Tarzan movies ("Ooh-OOH! Aah-AAH!"), and finally
the dogs located me. I was pleased to note that they responded
exactly as they would have if they'd encountered an actual
six-foot-tall monkey that smelled like an unwashed rug and
sounded like their master. Zippy barked bravely while running
backward; Earnest, who loves a good game, grabbed my tail
in her mouth and started racing around me in a clockwise direction.
this on videotape. There's Earnest, ecstatically happy, prancing
around gripping the tail of a giant monkey that has an enormous
idiot smile on its face but is shouting, "Dammit Earnest!
NO!! This is a RENTAL!!!"
The Key Of Weird
that I had the right suit for the job, I headed for Key West.
I figured that this would be the monkeys' most likely destination
if they escaped, because (a) it's only 25 miles away, and
(b) Key West has traditionally attracted all kinds of bizarre
life forms, some of whom remain and become residents.
not a highly regimented place, Key West. It's a funky, haphazard
little island with many funky, haphazard little houses; if
you set a Coral Gables building inspector loose here, he would
have no choice but to commit suicide. I would estimate that
Key West has the world's largest natural supply of 1967 Volkswagen
microbuses with moss growing on the dashboards parked on narrow
one-way streets with tourists roaring past in the wrong direction
on rental motor scooters.
drag, Duval Street, has many determinedly downscale bars;
the other major industry is stores selling the kind of T-shirt
that you buy after three margaritas but you can never actually
wear in public when you get back home to Indianapolis because
it says something like "HOW ABOUT THESE KNOCKERS."
this is not Colonial Williamsburg. It's a lot more touristy
and expensive than it used to be, but it's still pretty mellow,
the kind of place where, if you were to walk through the downtown
area wearing nothing except a boa constrictor, the only trouble
you'd be likely to encounter is that you might become entangled
with some other naked person's boa constrictor.
in the name of Science Research, I went to various tourist
attractions and put on the monkey suit. My major scientific
finding was that, in Key West, the sudden appearance of a
giant monkey attracts very little attention.
" was the general public reaction. "A giant monkey."
(Not everybody felt this way, however. A few people said,
"Ah, a bear.")
were times when, wearing a monkey suit, I was one of the more
conservatively dressed people around. The only time I really
drew much of a crowd was when I accidentally dunked my tail
into the fountain outside the Ernest Hemingway House.
that by now you have grasped the chilling implication of this
research: If monkeys, or -- God forbid -- bears, were to get
loose in Key West, nobody would notice. Granted, this is not
as chilling as what might happen if monkeys came to Dade County,
where they would probably wind up on the Metro Commission,
but it is nevertheless an alarming prospect. So I decided
to go see the mayor of Key West, Capt. Tony Tarracino.
say that you lived in a small town, and one night there was
a huge community beer blast and everybody got loaded and some
prankster shouted, "I know! Let's elect (name of some
total reprobate) as mayor!" And the townspeople thought
this was so funny that they actually DID it. Your mayor would
probably be something like Capt. Tony.
Tony is a 74-year-old former saloon owner and charter-boat
captain. He has 13 children by five women, three of whom he
was married to. He has a creased, weather-beaten face with
a lot of character (defined as "eye bags the size of
adult gerbils"). Over the course of his amazing career,
Capt. Tony nearly got himself killed by the mob, escaped to
Key West in a milk truck, ran guns to Cuba during the Revolution,
worked with the CIA, helped in a plot to kill Castro, and
had many other truly incredible adventures that some people
think are not true, but nobody really cares because it's fun
to listen to Capt. Tony tell about them.
is true, and in a way most amazing of all, is that last year,
on his sixth attempt, he actually got elected mayor of Key
West. And what is more, he seems to be doing an OK job. As
he himself puts it, in all sincerity, "Hey, I'm a pretty
f ------ good mayor. I'm surprising myself."
looking for Mayor Capt. Tony one afternoon at the Key West
City Hall, which has a sign on the door that says SHIRTS AND
SHOES REQUIRED. There was no receptionist, so I went upstairs
to the mayor's office and was just about to knock on the door
when it opened. There, in the darkness, blinking like a man
who had just got up from a nap, was the mayor.
he said, turning on the lights. "Come on in!"
" I said. "I'm Dave Barry, with The Miami Herald,
and . . . "
yes!" said the mayor. "I know! Dick Barry! Sure!"
Barry, " I said.
Barry!" said the mayor. "Sure! What the f--- can
I do for you?"
explained the monkey situation, and the various chilling implications,
and asked the mayor what he thought. What follows, to the
best of my ability to write it down, is his verbatim reply:
way back, Tennessee Williams and I were very close friends.
Very close. He was going to Russia, and he asked me to take
care of his two monkeys, which were named Creature and Lioness,
only because Tennessee was gay, Creature was the female and
Lioness was the male. I was supposed to have them for six
months, but I had them for years. We kept them in a cage in
the bar. They were lovers, but he could never bang her --
I guess you can't put this in the newspaper, but I'll tell
you anyway -- he could never bang her unless I got her excited.
I'd make these noises like this (here the mayor makes monkey
noises) and she'd go crazy. She loved it. So one day, Creature,
which is the female, died, and Lioness, it was so pathetic,
just wouldn't let go of her for days, but we finally got her
out of there and buried her, it was a nice ceremony, and Tennessee
really felt bad.
we had Lioness for many years. He loved marijuana. That monkey
was always high. But one day we came in and he was just lying
on his shelf there, and we knew it was all over. Am I talking
too fast? And so we buried him, it was beautiful, with a little
cross. Tennessee called up -- I can't tell you how close he
was to them, they always knew when he walked in -- and I said,
'Tennessee, he didn't suffer.' But talking about monkeys,
they're the most human things in the world, once you get to
know them. I'd LOVE to have monkeys in Key West. Key West
is an outdoor insane asylum anyway. We just never put up the
man ever runs for president, he has my vote.
back on the monkey islands, startling news events continue
to occur. For example, sometimes the biscuit men also bring
fruit. Whoa. You talk about an event. Even the Troop Leader
gets excited, flinging Winn-Dixie plums into the air, looking
for exactly the right one. The whole island talks about it,
shrieking, chattering, everybody looking around, trying to
watch everybody else simultaneously, everybody calculating
distances, dangers, waiting to make a move. A bold young male
drops from the roof, skitters across the walkway and snatches
a plum off the pile; holding it in both arms, fullback-style,
he weaves through the clamoring crowd and down off the walkway,
where WHAM he is mugged by a large bull, who figures, hey,
why knock yourself out to get a plum when you can have one
at the top of a tree, a young monkey hangs from a thin branch
by one hand; his other hand holds another monkey in midair.
As the general community excitement mounts, the first monkey,
risking a costly negligence lawsuit, simply lets go of the
second monkey, who falls maybe 20 feet, clearly about to die,
but at the last instant grabs a branch. Whew! This is nonstop
excitement! Many monkey Maalox moments!
not even talking about mating season, when things get really
goes on out there all day, every day, just a few miles away
from tourists whizzing along U.S. 1 in mini-vans filled with
luggage and souvenirs and kids in the back seat fighting over
who gets to hold the Doritos bag. A few miles, a few hundred
the monkeys be allowed to stay there? Do we have any right
to exploit them? Would it really be so awful if they got loose
in the Keys? I don't know. The only question I was really
able to answer, in the course of my research, is the question
of how come the monkeys act the way they do. The answer --
and I speak from experience here -- is that it's hot as hell
inside those suits.
© 1990 Dave Barry.
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