By Jason Dearen
ON THE SILVER RIVER | Wildlife managers in Florida say they want to remove roaming monkeys from the state in light of a new study published Wednesday that finds some of the animals are excreting a virus that can be dangerous to humans.
Scientists studying a growing population of rhesus macaques in Silver Springs State Park say that rather than just carrying herpes B, which is common in the species, some of the monkeys have the virus in their saliva and other bodily fluids, posing a potential risk of spreading the disease.
Human cases of the virus have been rare, with about 50 documented worldwide, and there have been no known transmissions of it to people from wild rhesus macaques in Florida or elsewhere. However, the researchers say the issue has not been thoroughly studied.
The findings, published in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, prompted the researchers from the universities of Florida and Washington to warn Florida’s wildlife agency that the infected monkeys should be considered a public health concern.
State wildlife officials say they are taking the problem seriously.
“Without management action, the presence and continued expansion of non-native rhesus macaques in Florida can result in serious human health and safety risks including human injury and transmission of disease,” Thomas Eason, assistant executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said in a statement.
Eason would not elaborate on what specific management tactics the state may employ, but a spokeswoman said the commission supports ridding the state of the invasive creatures.
“The commission supports the removal of these monkeys from the environment to help reduce the threat they pose. This can be done in a variety of ways,” spokeswoman Carli Segelson said in an email.
The macaques, native to Asia, are one of Florida’s many nonnative wildlife species. Their contacts with the public, including last summer when the monkeys chased a family, have made them somewhat notorious and have caused two partial park closures since 2016. The monkeys also have roamed far outside the park: Dozens were photographed recently swarming a deer feeder outside a home in Ocala. They have been spotted in trees in the Sarasota and Tallahassee areas.
The herpes B virus has been fatal to 21 of the 50 humans known to have contracted it from macaque bites and scratches while working with the animals in laboratories, according to the CDC.
The CDC said there is always concern about the threat that diseases like herpes B virus pose to people, especially in settings where there is frequent interaction between animals and humans where scratches or bites can occur.
“Herpes B virus infection is extremely rare in people, but when it does occur, it can result in severe brain damage or death if the patient is not treated immediately,” CDC spokesman Ian Branam said in a statement.
The researchers estimate that up to 30 percent of the scores of Florida’s feral macaques may be actively excreting the virus.
The findings suggest a public health concern, said David Civitello, an Emory University professor.