The outlaw monkey of Tampa: the wildly popular, elusive mascot of the host city for the GOP convention

The New York Times Magazine
The Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay
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The Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay

The monkey appeared behind a Bennigan’s. The Bennigan’s was one in a row of free-standing, fast-casual joints in Clearwater, Fla., just outside Tampa, that also includes a Panda Express and a Chipotle. At one end, a Perkins Family Restaurant flies a preposterously large Stars and Stripes in its front yard, as if it were a federal building or an aircraft carrier.

Someone spotted the monkey poking through a Dumpster around lunchtime. When a freelance animal trapper named Vernon Yates arrived, all he could make out was an oblong ball of light brown fur, asleep in the crown of an oak. It was a male rhesus macaque — a pink-faced, two-foot-tall species native to Asia. It weighed about 25 pounds.

No pet macaques were reported missing around Tampa Bay — there wasn’t even anyone licensed to own one in the immediate area. Yates, who is called by the state wildlife agency to trap two or three monkeys a year, was struck by how “streetwise” this particular one seemed. Escaped pet monkeys tend to cower and stumble once they’re out in the unfamiliar urban environment, racing into traffic or frying themselves in power lines. But as Yates loaded a tranquilizer dart into his rifle, this animal jolted awake, swung out of the canopy and hit the ground running. It made for the neighboring office park, where it catapulted across a roof and reappeared, sitting smugly in another tree, only to vanish again. Yates was left dumbstruck, balancing at the top of a ladder. (By then, a firetruck had been called in to assist him.) “There’s no way to describe how intelligent this thing is,” he told me recently.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (known as the F.W.C.) came to believe that the macaque wasn’t a pet but had wandered out of a small population of free-roaming, wild macaques that live in a forest along the Silver River, 100 miles away. Soon, the F.W.C. was warning that wild macaques can carry the herpes B virus, which, though not easily transmitted to humans, can be fatal. A spokesman also told the press, “They’re infamous for throwing feces at things they don’t like.”

[SLIDESHOW: The wild macaques of Silver River]

As sightings stacked up in the following days, it became clear that the macaque was crossing the highway again and again, threading traffic like a running back. One afternoon, Yates and an F.W.C. investigator named James Manson managed to dart the animal in a church parking lot but lost track of it before the drug took effect. At one point, the two men were staring into tangled brush, stumped, when Manson tilted his head and saw the monkey perched with ninja-like stillness above him, close enough to touch. The two primates locked eyes. Then the monkey turned and was gone. “And that’s really when the story began,” Manson told me.

It was the third week of January 2009. Now, more than three and a half years later, the macaque is still on the loose. After outmaneuvering the cops in Clearwater, the animal eventually showed up on the opposite side of Old Tampa Bay, somehow crossing the West Courtney Campbell Causeway, a low-lying bridge nearly 10 miles long. (The F.W.C. posits that it hid in the back of a covered truck.) That fall, it materialized in a low-income neighborhood in East Tampa, crouching in a tree. Guessing it was a raccoon, an F.W.C. lieutenant scaled a ladder and barked at it. The monkey urinated on him and disappeared.

By the following spring, a long string of sightings showed the macaque doubling back around the bay, overland, then boogieing down the Gulf Coast and into St. Petersburg, where it scrambled over the roof of a Baptist church during evening service. (“He came to worship,” one witness told The Tampa Bay Times.) A woman watched it swing off a tree limb and flop into her swimming pool. On Coquina Key, one neighbor told me, homeowners would climb ladders to prune their trees before hurricane season and find spent citrus peels littering their roofs.

And on it went, with the monkey zigging and zagging around Tampa Bay, dodging the government agencies bent on capturing it. The state considers the animal a potential danger to humans and, like all invasive species, an illegitimate and maybe destructive part of Florida’s ecology. But the public came to see the monkey as an outlaw, a rebel — a nimble mascot for “good, old-fashioned American freedom,” as one local reporter put it. Next week, tens of thousands of Republicans will pour into Tampa. There will be lots of national self-scrutiny and hand-wringing at the convention center downtown. But the most fundamental questions — What exactly is government for? Where are the lines between liberty, tyranny and lawlessness? — have been shaking the trees around Tampa for years.

[RELATED: It's the Economy: Prime Time for Paul Ryan's Guru]

Vernon Yates is 59, with a broad, serious face and white-threaded hair. He lives on the west side of Tampa Bay, in the suburb of Seminole. He came to open his front gate wearing camouflage crocs and khaki shorts, throwing on a Jack Hanna-style khaki shirt as he walked, but never going so far as to button it.

He’d been hosing down his bear cage when I rang. Yates has about 200 exotic animals at his house. Most are pets that the F.W.C. confiscated from owners who failed to comply with state regulations and then entrusted to Yates’s one-man nonprofit, Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation. There were 17 tigers, some leopards, cougars, a pile of alligators in a concrete pool and a dusty battalion of large African spurred tortoises. Yates likes tortoises — he also keeps a single Galápagos tortoise as a pet. “I’ve been married five times,” he told me. “In one of my divorces, I lost $100,000 worth of tortoises.”

At his desk, Yates unfolded a map of Tampa Bay. But he found he had to flip the map over, then consult other maps, at different scales, to trace the macaque’s entire odyssey. “It’s an amazing feat, when you think about his travels,” he said. Since 2009, Yates estimates that he has gone after the animal on roughly 100 different occasions. The monkey was his white whale. He claimed to have darted it at least a dozen times, steadily upping the tranquilizer dosage, to no avail. The animal is too wily — it retreats into the woods and sleeps off the drug. A few times, the monkey stared Yates right in the eye and pulled the dart out.

For the last two years, the macaque seems to have lingered in the same area of South St. Petersburg, ranging between a bulbous peninsula and the small island of Coquina Key, about two miles away. Yates still received calls about the animal — one came in the previous week. But the trail went cold a long time ago. Sightings were seldom reported now. As a woman on Coquina Key named Rosalie Broten told me: “Nobody wants the monkey to be captured. Everybody wants it to be free.”

The citizenry of Tampa Bay was adamantly pro-monkey. People had long been abetting the animal, leaving fruit plates on their patios. A few people, one F.W.C. officer told me, called the agency’s monkey hot line to report that they’d seen the macaque several hours or even a couple of days earlier — offering totally useless intelligence, in other words, presumably just to stick their thumbs in the government’s eye. The Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay, as people called it, had very quickly become a celebrity. There were at least two styles of Mystery Monkey T-shirts on offer, and a catchphrase: Go, Monkey, Go. As the macaque passed through the town of Oldsmar, a self-storage facility threw the monkey’s picture on a digital billboard with the message: “Stay Free Mystery Monkey.” And a Facebook page for the animal got 82,000 likes. “The taxpaying citizens of Tampa have been driven bananas by the out-of-touch political establishment,” the monkey wrote on its blog at the end of 2010, announcing its run for mayor.

At no point had the macaque threatened or hurt anyone. So it was easy for the public to see the authorities — who, on at least a couple of occasions, surrounded the macaque with rifles and Tasers drawn, or hovered overhead in helicopters, beaming video surveillance to troops on the ground — as bullying or wasteful. (“In this economy,” one television reporter quipped, “you have to wonder if it’s time to stop monkeying around.”) Lt. Steve De Lacure of Florida Fish and Wildlife told me, “The general public perceives that we’re the Gestapo.” He was adamant that his agency was not “chasing” the animal, and had deployed officers only a handful of times, when they felt they had a reasonable shot at capturing the macaque. He didn’t even like it when I used the word “pursue.”

I sympathized with the F.W.C. What they had to do was unpopular, but their sense of duty was unshakable. They were even prepared to shoot the animal dead if, in a given situation, tranquilization wasn’t an option. And they knew they’d be vilified if it came to that. But they took a somewhat traditional view: the American people had a right to be protected by their government from wild monkeys. It was disorienting to watch the people of Tampa Bay champion the monkey’s rights instead.  

Read the rest of ”What’s a monkey to do in Tampa?” at The New York Times Magazine.

Jon Mooallem is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and a writer-at-large for Pop-Up Magazine.

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