Wild monkeys with herpes in Florida: Population on the verge of doubling

A population of monkeys that live in Silver Springs State Park in Central Florida may be carrying a herpes virus that is deadly to humans, which could double in the next few years.

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The troop of rhesus macaques were brought to Central Florida in the 1930s as part of a long-since closed attraction in the park. They were placed on a small island, but the monkeys didn’t stay there.

There have been monkey sightings all over Central Florida, including one caught on camera in 2015 when students spotted a rhesus macaque running around on the roof of their school in Lake County.

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In 2017, cellphone video recorded aggressive monkeys taking over a park pavilion and going after people.

The monkeys carry a herpes virus that is deadly to humans and can be spread through a bite or scratch.

“People should never approach these animals,” said University of Florida professor Steve Johnson, who was part of a team that spent years studying the monkeys. “People shouldn’t feed them. It’s not legal to feed them anymore.”

Researchers estimate the monkey population in Silver Springs is around 200.

“By the year 2022, there are probably going to be around 400 animals,” Johnson said.

Johnson said at some point, the state will be forced to decide what to do with the animals.

“Remove the animals from the environment … [or] remove the animals, sterilize the females and put them back,” said Johnson, admitting the second option could be expensive and dangerous for those who have to capture the monkeys -- and, in the end, may not make much of a difference.

"It's going to be a problem … Continual growth of that population is going to occur without intervention," Johnson said.

According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in humans, the virus causes a devastating brain disease that, if left untreated, is deadly about 70 percent of the time.

The CDC said that only 50 people have contracted the disease since 1932 and there hasn't been a single case documented from wild macaques. But 21 of the 50 recorded cases were fatal.

“This pathogen should be considered a low-incidence, high-consequence risk, and adequate public health measures should be taken,” the researchers wrote.