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Published: Sunday December 21, 2008 MYT 11:29:00 AM

Puerto Rico hunting, killing troublesome monkeys

LAJAS, Puerto Rico (AP): The easy life is over for hundreds of monkeys -- some harboring herpes and hepatitis -- that have run wild through southwestern Puerto Rico for more than 30 years.

Authorities launched a plan this month to capture and kill the monkeys before they spread across the entire island, threatening agriculture, native wildlife and possibly people. But some animal experts and the farmers who have complained for years about the rhesus and patas monkeys think it may be too late.

"I don't honestly believe they will ever get rid of the patas monkeys in Puerto Rico,'' said Dr. Mark Wilson, director of the Florida International Teaching Zoo, which has helped find zoos willing to take some of the animals. "They may go deep into the forest, but they will never go away. There's just too many of them, and they are too smart.''

At least 1,000 monkeys from at least 11 distinct colonies populate the Lajas Valley.

After a year of study, rangers began trapping them in steel cages that are about 10 feet long (3 meters long), baited with food and equipped with a trip lever. Two of 16 monkeys were released with radio collars for further tracking. Each of the others was killed with one shot from a .22-caliber rifle.

Officials determined shooting the monkeys was more humane than lethal injection, said Secretary of Natural Resources Javier Velez Arrocho. He said he regrets having to kill the animals but had no choice after 92 organizations rejected them.

Animal treatment is a sensitive topic in Puerto Rico, which was in the spotlight last year after about 80 dogs and cats were seized from a housing project and hurled off a bridge. In May, a veterinarian confirmed that more than 400 racehorses, many in perfect health, are killed by injection in Puerto Rico each year. Both cases sparked widespread criticism.

But the elimination of pesky monkeys has not spawned public protests.

"My personal opinion is that I would rather see them put to sleep than put through horrible experiments,'' said Sally Figueroa, a board member of the animal-welfare group Pare Este in the eastern city of Fajardo.

The scourge of nonnative animals is particularly acute in Puerto Rico because of its lush climate and lack of predators.

Several species of dangerous snakes, crocodiles, caimans and alligators -- imported, kept as pets, then released into the wild -- now flourish in more than 30 rivers, said Sgt. Angel Atienza, a ranger who specializes in exotic animals.

As Atienza spoke, his agents were investigating reports of a mountain lion running wild in hills near the small central town of Adjuntas. Behind his office, cages confined snakes, monkeys and a 400-pound (181-kilogram) black bear confiscated from a private menagerie.

The Lajas monkeys arrived in the 1960s and '70s after escaping research facilities on small islands just off the mainland. They adapted easily, fueled by plentiful crops, including pineapple, melon and the eggs of wild birds.

The creatures cost about $300,000 in annual damage and more than $1 million in indirect ways, such as forcing farmers to plant less profitable crops that don't attract the animals, according to an analysis by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other agencies. The monkeys are also blamed for a dramatic drop in the valley's bird population.

Lacking resources, the Puerto Rican government has made only sporadic attempts to control the monkeys in the past. Last year, however, the island's agricultural and wildlife agencies secured $1.8 million from the territorial government, allowing them to track, study and begin trying to eliminate the Lajas Valley populations.

The patas, natives of Africa, are not considered desirable for research, and there's little demand from zoos. The rhesus monkeys, from Asia, are believed to be infected with a variation of the herpes virus and hepatitis, making them potentially dangerous to humans, Velez said. Patas can also harbor the viruses.

Authorities have kept their monkey-control campaign relatively quiet.

"I don't want to have a protest by people who don't understand this,'' Velez said. "We are dealing with a plague of animals that do not belong to Puerto Rico that are very dangerous.''

Controlling them, Velez said, will require money and time -- both of which are scarce. "If they reach the central part of the island, especially the forest,'' he said, "there is no way we can finish them.''

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