Rhesus Monkeys in Silver Springs, Florida
As seen on the FOX 35 Morning News
Contrary to local folklore, Tarzan didn’t leave monkeys in Florida.
In 1966, Anthony Slide, coordinator of the National Film Information System of the
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, stated that “The only Tarzan movie
shot at Silver Springs, Florida was ‘Tarzan Finds a Son’, which was released in
1939.” In addition, there is no footage of rhesus monkeys in “Tarzan Finds a Son.”
To put a final nail in the coffin of this myth, the first reference to the monkeys
of Silver Springs was in the November 11, 1938, edition of Ocala Banner, months
before the filming of Tarzan. Therefore, it seems impossible for the monkeys to
have been left here after the filming of the movie was completed.
So where did the monkeys come from?
The most accepted explanation for the origin of the Silver Springs Rhesus Colony
comes from an article in the Florida Scientist, Vol. 50 No. 4, August 18, 1987,
edition titled History of the Free ranging Rhesus Monkeys (Macaca Mulatta) of Silver
Springs, written by Linda D. Wolfe and Elizabeth H. Peters, Department of
Anthropology at the University of Florida, Gainesville, and the Department of Anthropology,
Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida. Tish Hennessey, head of All Creatures Sanctuary and Friends of the
Silver River Monkeys, Ocklawaha, Florida also contributed.
The generally accepted and accurate explanation for the origin of the Silver Springs
Rhesus Colonies was provided by friends and employees of the late Colonel Tooey
during a period between 1937 and 1939. Colonel Tooey had a “Jungle Cruise” tour
boat ride made up of paddle boats owned by the Hart Boat Line. Thinking a live exhibit
of monkeys would enhance the earnings of his business, he built an island on the
river -- still referred to as “Monkey Island”-- and purchased two pairs of adult
monkeys from a carnival in upstate New York, between Syracuse and Rochester. The
carnival brought the monkeys down to Florida and released them on the island. Since
Mr. Tooey was told that monkeys cannot or would not swim, he believed the monkeys
would be isolated on the island. However, Rhesus Monkeys are excellent swimmers
and wasted little time saying goodbye to Tooey’s island and hello to the banks of
the Silver River. It was later reported that the monkeys weren’t breeding as well
as Tooey had hoped, so he made a subsequent release of six more Rhesus monkeys purchased
from a supply house in New York. They were released on the north side of the river
sometime around 1948. There was a report of another small release in 1962.
Did you know that monkeys have a language of their own?
They communicate through a series of grunts, coos, screeches, facial expressions,
hand gestures, and body language. I remember one occasion when I was relaxing in
my canoe observing the monkeys, when I suddenly heard a rapid series of loud, mid-pitched
grunts telling me that there must be danger. Every monkey was staring in the same
direction, and when I looked, a large alligator was swimming up behind my kayak.
During another occasion, a large dominant male monkey was shaking a tree. This is
a warning to stay back for which I’m well aware, but sometimes when you’re kind
of used to the monkeys, you tend to get complacent. Well, this guy was puffing himself
up, and jumping from tree to tree trying to make himself look as big and heavy and
fearsome as he could. To my surprise, and to his, he had pounced on a tree branch
just above my head that didn’t support his weight very well. As the branch bowed
down beneath his weight he was hanging there right in front of me. Luckily, I don’t
startle easily or I would have been swimming with the gators as this guy, who was
totally shocked by his maneuver, let out a screech and shot like a rocket to a safer
location. Of course, from there, he resumed his threats with a series of hand slaps,
head bobs, yawns, and grunts. By refusing to meet any eye to eye contact with this
male, and allowing him more space, he eventually was able to calm down and go about
Many people are concerned about the safety of people when feeding the monkeys.
Of course, most of us know that feeding habituates monkeys to people, and as they
lose fear of people, they tend to get closer. This leads some individuals to think
they are tame, but they are NOT! Anyone feeding monkeys by hand is taking a serious
risk. Aside from the dangers to the human, indiscriminate feeding can be very dangerous
to the monkeys as well. Older, but low-ranked monkeys in the social order are very
likely to fight over the free treats, and baby monkeys can be caught in the middle.
This can result in serious injury or even death for the small baby. Monkeys live
in a very orderly society, and this social structure can be permanently damaged
when people cause these unnecessary fights.
Macaques live in multi-male, multi-female societies.
In these societies, the females rule in what is called a matrilineal society. It
starts with the dominant female having the highest rank moving on down to each of
her sisters. Each of the dominant females babies ranks above the closest ranked
sister and her babies, and this pattern passes down to each subsequently ranked
sister and her offspring. The youngest of the dominant female’s babies has the highest
rank on up to her oldest offspring. The males are always lower ranked, and by the
time they are about four years of age, they are forced to leave the group, and they
usually hook up with other males who have been ostracized from other groups. The
male offspring of the dominant female do rank above the next highest ranked female
of the group. One day I was spending time with what I call “A” group. The group
had been overthrown by a new male and female, and the original dominant male, who
was obviously much older had been allowed to come back into the troop. It is not
unusual to find more than one adult male in a group as long as they are no threat
to the dominant male. This old male was called King Louis, and for all his size
and ferociousness, was being picked on and harassed by an infant. King Louis was
doing a lot of tongue flicking and lip smacking, because he was extremely nervous.
King Louis didn’t enjoy this harassment, but he knew that if he disciplined the
young upstart, he could put himself at serious risk from the adult females and the
What is the role of the dominant male?
Many people think that the main purpose of the male is to pass on his genes to the
offspring of the group. While that obviously happens, it isn’t really necessary,
as the females will find other males outside the group to breed with. The male’s
main purpose is for protection, and this is a job for which they come well equipped.
They have huge fangs and powerful, agile bodies.
Did you know your dog can talk to the monkeys?
To a certain extent, it’s true, and so can we. When we are angry, for example, we
often furrow our brow, the corners of our mouth come forward, and our eyes dilate.
With monkeys and dogs, the ears also go back. Dominant dogs and monkeys make themselves
look larger and hold their tales high. When we smile, our mouths open and the corners
go back. This is the same for monkeys and dogs when they are happy or playing. Our
simian relatives and dogs can read this body language in us, as well as each other.
So the next time you see a monkey, don’t forget to say hello.
What do the Silver River monkeys eat?
Approximately 85% of what the monkeys eat is vegetation, consisting of nuts, seeds,
fruit, leaves, and roots etc. The balance of their diet is made up of dirt, insects,
and they love spiders. Long-jawed orb-weaver spiders are common along the banks
of the river, and the monkeys eat them like candy.
Are the monkeys dangerous?
Of course, all animals, humans included, are dangerous if sufficiently provoked.
They definitely have the tools to deliver a nasty bite. However, if given the space
and respect that wild animals deserve, there is no reason to expect that anyone
would be bitten. One of the easiest ways to avoid bites is to never stare at a monkey.
Staring at a monkey is interpreted as a threat. If the threat is returned, it can
instantly be diffused by looking away. On one occasion, I came upon a group of monkeys
recently taken over by a new dominant male and female. Since they were new, they
hadn’t had time to get to know me like the leaders of the other groups on the river.
My observation point was too close for the comfort of these new arrivals, and they
began to make threats. Being used to subtle threats, I obviously pushed these monkeys
too far, and the male eventually charged to within inches of me. By simply looking
down and away, he stopped on a dime and backed off to a safer position. I knew that
this negative encounter was caused by me, and I backed off to give them the space
and respect they deserved. Another often talked about danger, and one of the greatest
half-truths out there, is that Rhesus monkeys have the Herpes-B virus, and they
will transmit it to humans if bitten or scratched. The truth is humans have had
millions of interactions with these primates throughout the world, and there hasn’t
been a single report of anyone receiving the virus from free ranging monkeys. There
have been a limited number of cases from captive monkeys. The difference is that
monkeys have to be stressed to transmit the virus. Only captive monkeys are stressed
enough to weaken their immune systems enough to allow the virus to be shed. The
monkeys are carriers of the virus, just like many humans who have had measles are
carriers, and often later on in life, when stressed, the virus exhibits itself as
shingles, or another example would be with the herpes simplex virus, which forms
cold sores in the mouth. It often takes stress to make the virus virulent.