Herpes-Infected Monkeys 'Terrorizing' And 'Ravaging' Florida Very Rarely Infect People

By Josh Lieberman on September 16, 2013 5:13 PM EDT

rhesus
In the past 10 years, about 1,000 Rhesus monkeys have been caught in Florida; 700 of them were infected with herpes B. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The great state of Florida, land of mega mosquitos and giant, building-eating land snails, is facing another wildlife nuisance: herpes-infected monkeys roaming the state. While that sounds terrible, Florida is a state where you're fairly likely to be swallowed by a sinkhole, so the threat of some of monkeys with a disease that rarely infects humans is somewhat overblown.

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Wildlife officials believe that the herpes-infected monkeys descend from three pairs of Rhesus monkeys brought to Florida in the 1930s by a tour operator named Colonel Tooey. To capitalize on the success of Tarzan movies, Tooey opened a Silver River State Park jungle cruise near Ocala, Fla. Tooey featured a monkey island as part of the cruise, but oh wait, monkeys can swim, and swim many of them did, right off the island.

More than 1,000 Rhesus monkeys, which are native to Africa and Asia, live in Florida today, with some of them making their way as far as Jacksonville -- 100 miles away. In the past 10 years, wildlife officials have caught 1,000 monkeys, with about 700 of them testing positive for herpes B.

Herpes B is common in macaque monkeys. Monkeys infected with herpes B show mild signs of infection or no signs at all, but if transmitted to humans, the disease can cause neurological impairment or brain and spinal cord inflammations, leading to death in about 70 percent of cases. Transmission can occur from bites or scratches, cuts from a contaminated surface, needlesticks from contaminated syringes and exposure to infected nervous tissue, especially brain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Despite sensational headlines about herpes-infected monkeys "terrorizing" or "ravaging" Florida, it is exceedingly rare for the disease to infect humans. Since the discovery of herpes B in 1932, there have only been 31 documented cases in humans, says the CDC. Herpes or no herpes, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission warns that Rhesus monkeys "can be aggressive to humans and pose potentially serious hazards," so Floridians should definitely steer clear of any Rhesus monkeys they see hanging out in the Publix parking lot.

But people are still desperate to see the monkeys, because people love monkeys. Tom O'Lenick, a tour operator in Silver River State Park, said the herpes-ridden creatures are the main attraction.

"Everybody who comes on the river for a tour wants to see the monkeys," said O'Lenick.

Graham McGeorge, a British wildlife photographer, traveled to Silver Springs just to see the monkeys, even though he could've just headed to England's Longleat Monkey Jungle, home of the hubcap-stealing Rhesus monkeys.

"They are not a pest to people -- people are pest to the macaques," McGeorge said. "People feed them and this is not cool. You should never feed wildlife. Just like any other wild animal you need to give them space."

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