Catching, selling Silver River monkeys is lucrative
Published: Thursday, January 5, 2012 at 7:38 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 5, 2012 at 7:38 p.m.
For the past 14 years, Scott Cheslak has roamed the forests along the Ocklawaha River, the Florida Greenway and sometimes Silver River State Park, quietly plucking rhesus monkeys for sale to research laboratories.
On his annual visits from Beaufort, S.C., he traps between 20 and 30 monkeys using a dart gun or cages. Until recently, he took them back home to Morgan Island, a 3,000-monkey habitat where Alpha Genesis Inc. sold the primates. This year, he's freelancing and will sell the monkeys himself.
It's a lucrative business, but a controversial one that raises the ire of animal rights groups and could inflame the passions of local nature lovers who have grown accustomed to seeing the spindly primates begging for food along the banks of the Ocklawaha.
For their part, state wildlife officials support Cheslak's efforts because they consider the monkeys a nuisance and a potential health and safety hazard.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which manages Silver River State Park, has not allowed him to hunt on its land for the past three years, but the agency reversed itself this year and allowed Cheslak to harvest monkeys again.
He has also trapped monkeys for the Silver Springs Attraction, he said. The attraction did not return telephone calls for an interview.
It's unknown how many rhesus monkeys are on state lands locally. They are non-native and not protected, said Joy Hill, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesperson.
Hill said for Cheslak to capture monkeys, he needs only to obtain a $150 permit from her agency. It is up to state officials to decide which state lands he can hunt on.
"We appreciate that he comes down and removes them from state land," Hill said. "They are a safety risk. They're dangerous critters out there when they lose their fear of people."
Cheslak, 57, estimates that before the Silver River State Park stopped him from capturing monkeys on its land, there were about 150. Now, there are about 300.
"It (the population) will explode," he said, noting that the animals have no natural predators here.
The monkeys have made their home in the forests here since they were introduced more than 70 years ago as a tourist attraction.
They have been the center of heated debates off and on, most recently in the late 1980s and early '90s when the Silver Springs attraction started getting rid of some of the monkeys and sterilizing others. Thousands of area residents signed petitions asking that the monkeys be left alone.
In 1994, the Florida Game & Fresh Water Fish Commission studied the monkey issue and concluded that the monkeys should be eliminated. But local fervor to protect the animals grew, and the recommendation was never carried out.
State officials still consider the animals a problem.
Florida Park Service spokeswoman Jessica Sims, in a written statement, said the monkey have been "known to exhibit aggressive behavior and ... carry diseases transmittable to humans. As part of the Florida Park Service mission to preserve and protect lands within the state park system, as well as park visitors, removal of non-native and invasive species is necessary and essential," she wrote. "As per the policy of the Florida Park Service to remove invasive exotic species, a special use permit has been issued for the trapping and removal of Rhesus monkeys in Silver River State Park to continue to preserve the park's natural resources and out of concern for visitor safety."
Rhesus monkeys are also an important research tool, experts argue
One Wisconsin primate research lab, which breeds most of its own rhesus monkeys and does not buy from Cheslak, said primates can command up to $15,000 apiece if researchers also want to know an animal's genetic makeup and health background. Rhesus monkey breeders advertising on the Internet sell their primates for about half of that.
Jordana Lanon, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center, said the animals are integral to biomedical research. In many cases, primates are the best test subjects for research in areas of nerve biology, immunology and reproduction and development, she said, and the best predictor as to how humans will respond to new medicines and procedures.
She said the monkeys are important to the organization's research into cures for Parkinson's disease, diabetes and AIDS.
Lanon said many dangerous diseases can also be transmitted from the monkeys to humans, such as herpes B, measles and tuberculosis.
But Nick Atwood, of the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, said the monkeys deserve better than to spend the rest of their lives in a lab.
"For an animal that was born in the wild ... to be transferred to a metal cage is cruel, no matter how humane their death," Atwood said.
It would be better, he said, to sterilize the monkeys and let them live out their lives in the forest. That won't happen, he said, because there's too much money involved.
As for contagious diseases that monkeys may transmit, Atwood said local authorities should keep people from feeding the animals, which would keep contact to a minimum.
Local environmentalist Guy Marwick said the monkeys are "no hardship on the water or environment."
Marwick agrees with Atwood that the best solution is to sterilize the monkeys and let their population disappear.
But Eric Stiles, director of the not-for-profit Glass Bottom Boat Tours Inc., said the monkeys are harmless and his passengers like seeing them.
"A resource needs to be harvested ... but I don't support exterminating them," he said.
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