Image: Vervet monkey captured by trapper
Ramon Espinosa  /  AP
Tapper Joe Cadey holds a vervet monkey he captured in the mountains in Basseterre, St. Kitts & Nevis.
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updated 10/4/2011 4:35:25 PM ET 2011-10-04T20:35:25

Residents of this tiny two-island federation say Public Enemy No. 1 stands 2 feet tall, weighs 12 pounds, and craves ripe fruit, but will gladly settle for squash or cucumbers on the vine. Even flowers or fiery hot peppers will do in a pinch.

The fact that the vervet monkeys will eat just about anything they can get their furry hands on is precisely the problem for island residents who have struggled to coexist with the pesky primates since they arrived three centuries ago on slave ships from West Africa.

The monkeys have always been a nuisance, emerging from their forest homes to raid farms and gardens despite efforts over the years to deter them with baited cages, poisoned fruit and walls fashioned from chicken wire.

But the problem is now more urgent than ever, frustrated residents say, especially at a time when more people than ever are trying to grow their own crops to save money and supply tourist resorts with local produce.

"Crop losses are tremendous. We have some farmers who lose everything," said Randy Elliott, agricultural supervisor in Nevis, a 36-square-mile island whose peak is a dormant volcano often hidden in clouds, its slopes leveling off to fields where sugar plantations once thrived.

Elliott says the black-faced primates also seem to be bolder and stronger than before, and leaving their highland homes in greater numbers to raid lowland towns. "They're getting more muscular," he said. "I've seen males with six-pack abs."

A 2 1/2-acre government parcel in eastern Nevis that Walcott James invested $10,000 in a few years ago has been ravaged by monkeys.

"I've been farming it since 2007 and it's been straight losses since," James said on the ransacked coastal parcel near abandoned colonial-era sugar mills.

The monkeys, whose long arms and legs allow them to scramble quickly on the ground and leap from branches, sample from cultivated fields year-round. But they intensify their raids on farms and orchards in September and October, when mango season ends in the mountains.

The vervets' favorite is fruit, but they have a highly varied diet. Besides agricultural crops, including root vegetables such as yams, they will eat sea grapes, leaves, vines, bugs — even eggs.

Lacking resources, the federation's government has made only sporadic attempts to control the animals, which are highly observant and quick to learn.

Officials, nervous about upsetting animal-rights activists in Europe and the United States, have kept any previous monkey-control campaigns relatively quiet, including a short-lived government program in the 1990s that paid trappers a bounty for the severed tail of each primate killed.

In St. Kitts, government officials say they have no current programs in place to thin the monkey ranks. They leave that to a few trappers and farmers who take matters into their own hands.

Gene Knight, policy research analyst for St. Kitts' agriculture ministry, said the government is still measuring the amount of agricultural damage the monkeys leave in their wake. He understands the frustrations of farmers, some of whom have switched to livestock farming or abandoned their plots altogether. But "to devise a strategy to solve a 300-year-old problem requires reliable information and data," he added.

Image: Vevert monkey and baby
Ramon Espinosa  /  AP
A vevert monkey and her baby sit in a cage at the St. Kitts Biomedical Research Foundation in Basseterre, St. Kitts & Nevis, on Sept. 22.

Future strategies could include ramped-up trapping, but what to do with the monkeys once they are caught, whether they should be "simply euthanized, or sold, or used to manufacture dog food or eaten, or whatever, is still an ongoing discussion," Knight said.

Complicating matters, the primates, distinguished by tufts of white fur on their brows and cheeks, are beloved by tourists and are commonly depicted on T-shirts and souvenir key chains. Guide books suggest trails where visitors might spot a troop of monkeys.

Precise numbers of the vervet population are hard to come by. A study conducted by a Cuban primate specialist suggests there are now about 25,000 monkeys — one for every two people. But many locals on the two islands of 50,000 people insist there are more monkeys than humans.

The monkeys arrived in the West Indies in the 1600s and quickly thrived.

"Their frolics are mischievous, their thefts dextrous," a British visitor to St. Kitts by the name of Lady Andrews wrote in a 1774 letter that described the primates' destructive behavior on sugar plantations.

"They are subtle enemies and false friends. When pursued, they fly to the mountain and laugh at their pursuers, as they are as little ashamed of a defeat as a French admiral or general," she wrote.

Export to U.S. as lab monkeys?
Frank Ervin, a psychiatrist who set up St. Kitts' first vervet research station in the 1970s to conduct studies on behavior and disease, says one simple solution is to increase exports of the monkeys to researchers in other countries, including the United States, which is currently heavily dependent on China for macaque research monkeys.

"The biomedical industry needs this source of non-endangered, safe, and virus-clean animals and the island needs to get rid of this major agricultural predator," said Ervin, former professor at Department of Psychiatry at UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute and professor emeritus at Montreal's McGill University.

Researchers consider the islands' vervets relatively disease free. Still, they are not very popular: Scientists historically have preferred to use macaques.

"The resistance to changing species has more to do with gut reactions than logic," Ervin said. "This is slowly changing with time and experience."

St. Kitts & Nevis, which supports amped-up exports in theory, has been reluctant to take the initiative in approaching foreign governments, Ervin said.

The exportation idea is also opposed by the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, which instead calls for a spaying program to control the monkey population. The group says it is about to launch a website targeting the export of primates from St. Kitts for research purposes.

"The killing or export of monkeys is sometimes promoted as a solution to human-monkey conflicts. This is not only cruel, but it fails to address the issue" in the long term, the group said in a statement.

At the St. Kitts Biomedical Research Foundation, founded by Dr. Eugene Redmond, professor of psychiatry and neurosurgery at Yale University, about 600 vervets live in fenced pens in a field at a former sugar estate. The relaxed-looking research monkeys, each with an identifying tattoo, napped during a recent visit or chewed biscuits they picked from a hanging container. In one cage, a 20-year-old albino nicknamed Allison scratched her belly.

"The monkeys get better care than I do," quipped the lab's veterinarian, Dr. Ricaldo Pike, during a tour of the facility, which has conducted groundbreaking research on Parkinson's disease.

As food?
A small number of people on the islands do their part to control the vervet population by feeding monkey meat to their dogs, while others serve it on their own dinner tables.

Joseph Kelly, a Basseterre resident in his 60s, said getting more people to eat vervet is likely the only way of controlling the population. He said decades ago, monkey meat used to be found simmering in stews in most island kitchens. But only older people will seek it out now.

"When you skin it you'd be surprised at how much meat some of those monkeys have on their bones," he said. "Cook it up in a stew, well, it's very nice, very flavorful. Tastes a lot like goat. Why, I'd like some right now."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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