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Monkeys Plague Puerto Rico

Escaped from defunct research labs, they're starting to encroach on metropolitan San Juan.

July 31, 2005|From Orlando Sentinel

TOA BAJA, Puerto Rico — When hordes of monkeys began invading Puerto Rico's farm fields, devastating crops, the major concern was trapping them before they reached urban areas, where they would pose a health hazard and be nearly impossible to round up.

Fear is turning to outrage. Authorities recently acknowledged that a clan of the moneys, escapees from defunct medical research laboratories on the southern coast, had turned up about 20 miles from metropolitan San Juan -- home to 1.5 million residents and countless hiding places.

"It would be very bad if these monkeys got to San Juan," Natural Resources Director Jose Chalbert said. His agency recently proposed capturing the wild monkeys because they carry diseases.

"I don't even want to think about having to trap monkeys there," Chalbert said. He added that fighting in the Legislature was holding up funding for his $3-million effort to trap the monkeys.

Primates are not native to Puerto Rico. But the island has been home to one monkey species since the 1950s, when scientists brought them here for medical experiments. The animals -- descendants of the patas and rhesus monkeys that escaped from research labs -- are fertile and aggressive.

Mature monkeys can weigh 50 pounds, and the monkey population in southeast Puerto Rico is 1,000 to 2,000 -- and growing every day.

No one knows how many primates live in and around Toa Baja, a small agricultural community west of San Juan.

Toa Baja mayor's assistant, Elias Sanchez, said that the city was trying to deal with its "very small" monkey population but that trapping and control were beyond the scope of any local community.

"The island's government should be helping," he said.

Locals say dozens of monkeys have taken up residence near Toa Baja's dump, foraging for food and then exploring the neighborhood, frightening residents.

Emma Vasquez, who lives next to the landfill, said a baby monkey once jumped from a tree onto her roof.

"At first we all thought it was cute," Vasquez, 60, said. "Then it started tipping over all of my plants in the balcony, and growling at me."

When she called police, authorities from the island's Department of Natural Resources showed up in white bodysuits and masks. "That scared me even more," she said.

The monkey eventually was sedated and removed from her roof.

Wilberto Cerrano, 55, said he had seen about 15 monkeys as close as 200 yards from his home "swinging in the trees and running around, like they are happy as can be."

Cerrano, who lives in the Villa Clemente neighborhood, near the landfill, said he didn't think the animals would make their way into San Juan. "They don't like people," he said. "They keep their distance."

Monkeys have been traded in the Caribbean for more than 300 years, mostly for research purposes. Several islands in the region have burgeoning populations of the primates and have been trapping them and selling them for research or killing them.

Puerto Rico's population of wild monkeys was brought for research purposes in the 1930s. Several hundred were released on a tiny island in the Boqueron Commonwealth Forest, about a quarter-mile from Puerto Rico's southeast shore. Sightings of wild monkeys were first reported in the 1970s.

But it wasn't until lately that authorities discovered a new population of monkeys so close to a major city.

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