Several hundred monkeys living in tropical paradise in the Florida Keys have literally eaten themselves out of a home.
Although they receive daily meals of "monkey chow," two large colonies of Rhesus monkeys couldn't resist the tasty leaves of protected mangrove trees. Since the 1980s, they have devoured 40 acres of mangroves and are fouling tidal waters with their droppings.
It was enough to make local conservationists go ape. Now, a judge is ordering that the monkeys be evicted from their private corner of Margaritaville.
The monkeys have been roaming two uninhabited islands since 1973. They were brought from India by Charles River Laboratories of Wilmington, Mass., so that the young could be trapped and sold for medical research.
Local environmentalists have been fighting for years to have the monkeys shipped to a less environmentally sensitive site. But their efforts were unsuccessful until recently, when a judge ordered Charles River, the world's largest lab-animal production company, to relocate all the free-roaming monkeys within the next two years.
The order marks a high point for an environmental struggle that has been under way for 16 years. Still, conservationists complain that two years more is too long to wait.
Curtis Kruer, a Keys biologist, has spearheaded the monkey-removal effort since 1981. He says he won't be satisfied until environmental restoration work begins. "I'm not interested in winning court cases. I'm interested in seeing the operation relocated out of the Keys," he says. "I'm interested in seeing these islands restored."
BILL ROBERTS, a lawyer for the company, says Charles River recognizes the environmental problems the monkeys have caused. He says the company has tried for several years to obtain permits to build cages for the free-roaming monkeys, but those permits have been denied.
Mr. Roberts says the company is considering sending the monkeys to a breeding facility operated by the University of Miami on the Florida mainland. He says eventually the company will fully restore the islands and donate them to the state of Florida and the federal government as monkey-free wildlife sanctuaries.
The two islands owned by Charles River are Key Lois and Raccoon Key. They are about 25 miles northeast of Key West. Key Lois, with 75 free-roaming monkeys, is on the Caribbean side of the Keys. Raccoon Key, with 880 wandering monkeys, is on the Gulf side in the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge.
Mangrove destruction is so bad on Key Lois that the island is beginning to wash away, conservationists say.
"If any developer had done anywhere near that level of damage, he'd be on the road to Levenworth [penitentiary]," says Ed Davidson, chairman of the Florida Audubon Society.
He says Charles River has adopted a strategy of delay to keep its lucrative monkey-breeding operation going as long as possible. "It's all about money. Big money," says Mr. Davidson.
Monkeys from the Keys sell for $1,500 up to $4,500 each, says Mr. Kruer.
Overhead costs of running monkey-breeding colonies are lower on the islands than they would be at indoor caged facilities elsewhere. And because of their isolation and pure upbringing, the monkeys are considered among the best available for research.
The monkeys receive fresh water and rations of monkey chow ferried every day from a nearby key. But that hasn't stopped them from scarfing down mangrove leaves for dessert.
Although Charles River owns the islands, it does not own the shoreline where the mangrove grows. In addition, because the keys are protected wetlands, the company must abide by strict environmental regulations in what it builds and how it uses the land.
Roberts says Charles River did all it could to prevent mangrove destruction. The company built an electrified fence, but the monkeys simply waded into the water and swam around the ends, or waited until the fence short-circuited.
Despite conservationists' fears, the monkeys haven't been a threat to all endangered species in the Keys. According to Roberts, the endangered silver rice rat is thriving on Raccoon Island. The silvery rodent, it seems, likes monkey chow at least as much as the monkeys like mangrove leaves.