I spent an afternoon photographing Florida’s non-native Rhesus Macaques near Ocala. Brought to the area almost a century ago, Rhesus Macaques have adapted to their environment. They are typically from Asia but unbeknownst to many Floridians, they now live and roam free along the Silver River. Currently there are about 200 in Silver Springs State Park and they can usually be seen foraging for food along the river banks or climbing in the nearby trees.
Introduction of the Monkeys
A man known as Colonel Tooey brought 12 of them to his jungle attraction in the 1930’s. He initially placed them on an island in the river but they swam away, settling in the nearby forest. Silver Springs, once a private attraction, has since been taken over by the state of Florida, with the park system inheriting the monkeys.
As the troupes have grown they have roamed as far north as Jacksonville and as far west as Tampa, but it’s the potential interaction with humans which is problematic. Some sources suggest a lone male typically roams after being kicked out of the group, searching for a mate. Other sources suggest the monkeys have roamed only after population control tactics were introduced. Though there have been some suburban encounters, the monkeys tend to keep to themselves in undeveloped natural areas.
Risks Associated with the Monkeys
Estimates vary, but it is thought that as many as 25% of them may carry Herpes B, a strain which is common to macaques worldwide. In the monkeys it is the equivalent of Herpes Simplex in humans, but in humans it can be fatal if not treated. Rhesus macaques are often used in animal research labs, and it has been accidentally transmitted to humans in this setting. The CDC identifies lab workers and veterinarians as most at risk for this disease, stating that the monkeys usually pass it on when under extreme stress. It recommends antivirals for treatment. The monkeys in Ocala have never passed it on to a human but there have been some bites and scratches when visitors got too close.