— The story has all the elements of the classic TV series and movie, “The Fugitive.” There’s a dogged pursuer, and a clever suspect who refuses to be caught. All it lacks is a one-armed monkey to play the role of the real villain.
Hold it. Can you rewind that? Did someone say “monkey”?
That’s right. For more than a year now, a very resourceful rhesus macaque monkey has been leading a wildlife trapper on a merry chase across three counties and through the urban jungles of Tampa Bay and St. Petersburg, Fla.
Vernon Yates is the man who has been given the role of not-so-great white hunter in this drama that has fascinated and delighted local residents, not to mention Stephen Colbert, who has done a segment about it on his comedy show. A professional animal trapper, Yates has had the monkey dead in the sights of his tranquilizer gun at least twice.
He’s even landed darts in the little primate, but the fugitive always escapes. Once, the little fellow showed Yates what he thought of his dart by throwing feces at the trapper, then retreating to a high tree branch to sleep off the drugs.
"He’s kind of made a monkey out of everybody’s tried to catch him,” Yates admitted to NBC News’ Kerry Sanders. “He’s now traveled three counties, almost four counties that I know of.”
“He is an extremely intelligent monkey,” Yates told The Associated Press. “He is very, very streetwise. He knows to check traffic. He knows to look both ways so he doesn’t get hit by cars. He knows to stay out of power lines.”
It is the Monkey with No Name, a not-so-simple simian known only by his Facebook moniker, the Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay. He’s got some 16,000 Facebook fans, and his page is regularly updated.
Wednesday morning, for example, his story aired on NBC’s TODAY. Within minutes, the monkey — or, more likely, his press aide — had posted a new entry:
“Sitting in a tree, peering through a window watching the Today Show, Hi Meredith, Matt, Ann, and of course Al... Nothing could be better than freedom and the Today Show.”
On Sunday, Mystery Monkey’s stated itinerary was “swinging by the Phillies game today and catch some spring training ... probably hang out at the left field tiki hut ... Banana daiquiri's going down...”
In reality, Sunday was when the Divine Mr. Double M decided to hang out in Renee Barth’s pool enclosure in St. Petersburg, eating her grapefruit and taking a dip.
Barth got some pictures of the little fellow sitting in one of her trees, the newspapers and local TV stations got a nice story, and Mystery Monkey got away — again. Barth said he took a grapefruit with him.
Mystery of the monkey
No one knows where the furry fugitive came from. One theory is that he escaped from a tribe of rhesus macaques that live in a preserve in Ocala, about 120 miles north of the Tampa-St. Pete area. Those monkeys are descendants of a group that was imported as extras in the old Tarzan movies, which were filmed in Florida.
It’s also possible that the monkey escaped from an unlicensed pet owner.
Rhesus macaques are Old World monkeys native to southern Asia. Their range extends from Iran in the west to China in the east. They average 18 to 25 inches in height and can top 25 pounds. They’ll eat pretty much anything, from fruits and vegetables to insects and small animals to garbage scavenged from trash bins.
Yates said the monkey would probably be captured only if it gets into a house or garage and the owner shuts the door on it.
State wildlife officials have warned residents not to try to capture the monkey themselves.
“That animal is so much quicker and more powerful than people perceive,” said Gary Morse, a spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “That monkey would absolutely tear an adult male up. People have no idea how fierce their bites would be.”
Go, monkey, go
Yates said he worries that someone will shoot or kill the monkey. If he catches it, Yates will have the animal tested for disease. If negative, the trapper will try to find the monkey a home, likely a private individual who has a permit to care for exotic wildlife.
Mystery Monkey’s fans would prefer that he remain free, living off the fat of the urban landscape.
“Go little monkey, go! No cages for you," wrote a guy named Jack on Double M’s Facebook page.
"I sure hope 'they' don't catch you!" wrote a woman named Kathleen. "Why can't 'they' just leave you alone?"