A population of introduced, nonnative monkeys lives in what is now Silver Springs State Park and the surrounding area in central Florida. They arrived in the late 1930s when a jungle cruise operator named Colonel Tooey imported them to enhance his river boat tours. He put six rhesus macaques, which are native to Asia, on an island in the middle of the river. They swam to shore and their descendants have been living in the area ever since, sometimes even traveling to other parts of the state. There are at least four social groups in the park now, and a population estimate from 2015 reported approximately 190 individuals. The population has likely changed in the few years since that study, but be skeptical of much larger estimates as people, in their excitement, tend to think they see more monkeys than are actually there.
The Silver River monkeys are omnivores. They eat many parts of at least 50 species of plants and may also opportunistically feed on things like insects, spiders, and bird eggs. Historically, the monkeys have been fed by humans. My dad remembers visiting the Silver Springs tourist attraction as a kid and watching the monkeys and raccoons compete for food provided by park staff. Although the population hasn’t been officially provisioned in many years, people on the river sometimes feed the monkeys from their boats, offering everything from hot dogs to marshmallows to bananas. This is not a good idea. In 2013, San Diego State University anthropologist Dr. Erin Riley (who was my graduate advisor) and her graduate student Tiffany Wade studied how the monkeys have adjusted to living in Florida. They also studied how people and the monkeys interact and found that only 12.5% of the monkeys’ diet was made up of food provided by humans!
Why shouldn’t people feed the monkeys?
1) Feeding the monkeys is unsafe.
Monkeys that are frequently fed may become aggressive toward humans resulting in injuries from biting and scratching. Along the Silver River, monkeys have scared people out of their boats and into the water where other dangerous animals live. Finally, and most importantly, there is the risk of disease transmission. These macaques carry the Herpes B virus which can be fatal to humans if left untreated. Although the actual risk of transmission is low, you can eliminate it by avoiding contact with the monkeys. For more information, visit the CDC website.
2) The monkeys don’t need people food.
They forage on their own and find plenty to eat. In other places where monkeys are fed by humans, the animals may even suffer from obesity and health issues related to poor nutrition.
3) Feeding the monkeys is prohibited.
It is now illegal to feed the monkeys, and park staff patrol the river to ensure boaters are following these rules.
What should I do instead?
The state has done a great job placing informative signs around the park. Read them and follow the rules. If you encounter the monkeys, move slowly and quietly, and observe them from a safe distance of at least 20 feet. Avoid staring directly at them or smiling with your teeth because these behaviors may be perceived differently by the monkeys from what you intend. Be aware of your surroundings, and avoid urine and feces.
Use your common sense. Simply respect the monkeys and treat them the way any responsible park visitor would treat wild animals. Finally, stay informed, and beware of sensational headlines or viral videos that claim something like ‘DISEASED MONKEYS TERRORIZE AND ATTACK INNOCENT TOURISTS!’ If you give them space and behave appropriately you will be able to safely enjoy the unique experience of observing wild monkeys in Florida!
Thanks so much for reading. I wrote this post because I studied macaques for my graduate degree, and I care about the safety of people and other primates in my home state of Florida and beyond! Please contact me if you have questions or refer to the following scholarly sources:
Anderson, C. J., Johnson, S. A., Hostetler, M. E., & Summers, M. G. (2016). History and Status of Introduced Rhesus Macaques (Macaca mulatta) in Silver Springs State Park, Florida. Department of Wildlife and Ecology and Conservation, UF/IFAS Extension, WEC367.
Riley, E. P., & Wade, T. W. (2016). Adapting to Florida’s riverine woodlands: the population status and feeding ecology of the Silver River rhesus macaques and their interface with humans. Primates, 57(2), 195-210.
Wisely, S. M., Sayler, K. A., Anderson, C. J., Boyce, C. L., Klegarth, A. R., & Johnson, S. A. (2018). Macacine herpesvirus 1 antibody prevalence and DNA shedding among invasive rhesus macaques, Silver Springs State Park, Florida, USA. Emerging infectious diseases, 24(2), 345.