Somewhere on the west coast of Florida tonight, the Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay sleeps.
When the sun rises over the Gulf of Mexico in the morning, the rhesus macaque resumes his search for others of his own kind, cutting his way through the urban jungle of swimming pools and pastel condos, dodging paparazzi camera flashes and trackers’ tranquilizer darts.
He’s likely an exile from a troupe of wild monkeys living in Silver Springs, who are believed to be the descendants of escaped extras used in the 1930s “Tarzan” films. His decision to challenge the mating rights of an older male likely first got him the royal smackdown, then the boot out of the community.
The Mystery Monkey has become a celebrity fugitive, a furry reincarnation of John Dillinger. Snapshots are rare, sightings unreliable. Though many people are rooting for him to avoid capture, some are ready to put a bullet between his eyes.
He was first spotted in January 2009 in the small town of Hudson, roughly 100 miles from Silver Springs. From there he’s ping-ponged across Tampa Bay, covering about another 80 miles from Clearwater to Hillsborough County, then back up to Palm Harbor and down to the southern tip of St. Petersburg. His most recent sighting was last week in St. Petersburg.
Monkey fans around the world have been cheering on MM, as he is known to his 60,000-plus Facebook followers, each time he eludes his would-be captors.
His year-and-a-half run from captivity has sparked global attention, and he’s been featured everywhere, from “The Colbert Report” to MSNBC. In addition to the Facebook group, he has a Web site selling T-shirts, as well as a Twitter account. One Tweet on March 9 alluded to a woman in south St. Petersburg who made news for trying to feed him some fruit:
“bitch chased me with a banana today, she’s lucky I didn’t turn around and let her have it between the eyes, we all know what ‘it’ is don’t we”
People from Florida to Belgium to South Korea follow the monkey’s adventures regularly. To them, he is the embodiment of freedom. His Facebook page features many fan photos, including one of a revolution-style fist clenching a banana, with the caption “POWER TO THE MONKEY.”
Every celebrity has his demons, and MM’s are fame and drugs. He’s been shot more than a dozen times with the tranquilizer drug Ketamine, street name “Special K.” His trackers, veterinarian Don Woodman and Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation director Vernon Yates, have now switched to Telazol, a faster-acting drug they hope will have more of an impact. They’ve loaded him up with enough Ketamine to bring down a chimpanzee, an animal that weighs five or six times more than the rhesus.
“We could have been hitting it with holy water for all the good it did,” Woodman said.
The Special K has had little effect on the monkey, probably because of the power of his own adrenaline, Woodman said — easy to believe when the little guy has been trapped on a rooftop with trackers one way, paparazzi the other and a helicopter above him. That particular day, MM was running across apartment complex rooftops between Woodman and Yates as they both tried to flush him toward the other. But the public presence was so oppressive that Woodman was afraid they might “dart down a kid” in their attempts to capture him.
“It becomes quite a circus,” Woodman said.
Fueled by his own terror, the rogue primate escaped to a place where he probably slept off the effects of the drug. Confined to the ground, his trackers couldn’t keep up with him.
“He can scale a three-story building like Spider-Man,” Woodman said.
In the wild
The monkey’s getaways are always met with cheers from his Facebook fans, who leave hundreds of comments on his profile daily:
“Keep evading the Suckas!”
“go my little friend go!”
“Monkey, you’re my new hero!”
MM’s trackers think his celebrity status is funny but only to an extent. Woodman believes people, ignorant of the brutal reality of nature, often romanticize the idea of animals and freedom.
“Wild animals have hard, hard lives,” he said. “They don’t live as long. They die hard deaths.”
Florida’s lone-ranging fugitive is looking for other monkeys in a region full of people, far away from his species’ native land in eastern Europe and Asia.
“He’s a social animal,” Woodman said. “He’s roaming around desperately looking for companions and there are none to be found.”
All of the love from MM’s fans is unrequited. Yates doesn’t believe the monkey was ever a pet because he avoids humans. Frankly, he wants to be left alone. Though he shies away from people, he wouldn’t hesitate to use his incisors if he were cornered. Monkeys can also carry diseases like herpes B, which Woodman said essentially “melts your brain.”
Yates said the monkey’s “street smarts” are another indicator that he’s not a house pet. Out of about a hundred monkeys Yates has pursued, MM is the brightest, and he gets sharper by the day. He avoids power lines, and witnesses have observed him looking both ways before crossing a street, things he learned from his rhesus family.
“The troupe told him, ‘No goofy, you wait here. You don’t dart in front of cars because that’s how Uncle Joe got smashed,’” Yates said.
The fugitive also avoids humans now because of their association with pain. He recognizes Yates on sight, immediately screaming and fleeing. The sting from the tracker’s darts has stayed with him. The general public is more dangerous, but the monkey’s fame might be his savior. On Woodman’s second time out tracking him, he heard a police officer whisper, “If it weren’t for the cameras, we could shoot it with a 22 rifle and be done with it.”
“A couple days after that it got its Facebook account, so it’s been sneaking to the library to use the computer, I guess,” Woodman said.
Ultimately, the two trackers are in a no-win situation. If they successfully bring MM in, they have ended his status as a symbol of freedom and rebellion. If they don’t, he could be killed by someone else.
“I’ve already met people that said as far as they’re concerned they’d just use a shotgun on him,” Yates said.
MM gets around
The monkey’s nomad habits have kept him out of the trackers’ reach for now. His traveling has baffled his pursuers. Woodman said he thinks the roaming primate must have an account with Yellow Cab.
The renegade animal typically vanishes for several weeks after an encounter with the public, and his extensive travels make his next appearance hard for the trackers to predict.
“The monkey is a smart little guy,” Woodman said. “You do think he’s almost enjoying himself here the way he’s making a mockery out of everyone trying to catch him.”
According to recent Facebook updates, he enjoyed the St. Pete Grand Prix and banana daiquris last week. But taunting his pursuers never gets old.
“Hey, is that a tranquilizer dart in your pocket or are you just happy to see me? gotta go...”