Sunday, October 7, 1990



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 show up.

We heave 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.

Bubba 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.

Even 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."

But poor 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.

He makes his decision quickly. You don't get to be Troop Leader by sitting around thinking.

BOOM -- 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.

The crowd 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!

The Troop 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 food, unmolested.

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 received.

Life is very exciting, here on the island.

Monkey Business

By now, 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.

These 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 of trees.

The monkeys 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 Chow.

The monkeys 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.

A thousand 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.

It was 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??"

So you 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.

So for 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.

Also 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.

The result 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 it.

This 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 concept."

This 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.

"They breed, " he notes. "I just direct 'em."

Schilling 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.

Schilling 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.

Ultimately, 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.

"The 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."

These 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.

Well-Suited For The Job

Personally, 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 . . .

And on 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 question:

What if the monkeys escape and run loose in the Keys?

This 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.

Paul 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.

But the 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.

"It will literally be every monkey for itself, " Kruer says.

Or, as Dagny Johnson, president of the Upper Keys Citizens Association, puts it: "There is a presumption that there will be monkeys flying around."

Or, as Monroe County Commissioner Doug Jones puts it: "If you have a hurricane, you're going to blow those monkeys all over the Keys."

What 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 Keys?

This 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.

To make 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.

We have 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!!!"

In The Key Of Weird

Confident 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.

It's 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.

The main 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."

In short, 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.

So anyway, 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.

"Ah, " was the general public reaction. "A giant monkey." (Not everybody felt this way, however. A few people said, "Ah, a bear.")

There 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.

I assume 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.

Let's 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.

Capt. 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.

What 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."

I went 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.

"Hey!" he said, turning on the lights. "Come on in!"

"Thanks, " I said. "I'm Dave Barry, with The Miami Herald, and . . . "

"Hell yes!" said the mayor. "I know! Dick Barry! Sure!"

"Dave Barry, " I said.

"Dave Barry!" said the mayor. "Sure! What the f--- can I do for you?"

I briefly 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, 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.

"But 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 walls."

If this man ever runs for president, he has my vote.

Monkeying Around

Meanwhile, 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 delivered?

Nearby, 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!

And we're not even talking about mating season, when things get really intense.

All this 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 million years.

Should 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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