Colonel S. (first name uncertain) Tooey certainly did not. In the 1930s, Tooey brought a troop of rhesus monkeys to Silver Springs, Florida, to liven up his Jungle Cruise tourist attraction on the Silver River. Assuming they weren’t swimmers, he released them on an island mid-river. That’s when Tooey discovered that monkeys can swim — and that they procreate furiously. Ever since, Central Florida has had what it calls “the monkey problem.”
Story by Jordan Blumetti | Photographs by Jacob Harn
Archival Material Courtesy of The Florida Ephemera Collection, P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History, Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida
It was July in Florida, when even the mornings are punishing. Just when you think it can get no hotter, invariably it does. By noon, the dew had burned off, leaving only ubiquitous white light and broiling, pulsating heat.
The parking lot at Silver Springs State Park was mostly empty. Reasonable people would be heading for a body of water where, unlike Silver Springs, swimming is permitted.
There were a handful of families scattered across the blacktop, applying sunscreen and cinching down rations, looking morose, like little platoons preparing for battle. Some children went willingly, others were being frog-marched.
Dead center at the park’s entrance stood a sandwich board — SAFETY ADVISORY: RHESUS MACAQUES CAN BE FOUND IN THIS PARK, followed by a bulleted list of proscriptions. At the bottom, in red lettering, was this declaration: DO NOT APPROACH OR FEED RHESUS MONKEYS.
Just days earlier, there had been a widely publicized spate of altercations between the monkeys and some patrons. A preteen armed with only his smartphone and a nascent eye for drama had captured and narrated the whole ordeal. It had gone viral on YouTube overnight under the title “Monkey Attack!!! Silver Springs State Park Florida.” The location represented in the video — the Sea Hunt Deck, named after the television show starring Lloyd Bridges filmed at Silver Springs in the late ’50s — was shut down indefinitely.
The exact number of monkeys in Silver Springs State Park is unknown. If you were to pick up any reference material published before 1980, it would tell you the macaques escaped from a production of “Tarzan Finds a Son!,” starring Johnny Weissmuller, which was filmed there in the late 1930s. However, a park ranger (as well as several others who knew the history) told me this was fallacious. The monkeys in the Tarzan films weren't rhesus macaques. Opinion still seems to be divided on the origin story — a fitting point of contention for a community animated by its folklore and fabulists.
“They like the boardwalk because they can corner people and try to steal their food,” the ranger said. “They’ll eat Cheetos, watermelon, bananas … just about anything.”
She pointed to an air horn at her waist. “This is our only line of defense.”
The park’s employees were not cowed by the predictable spike in attendance following a well-publicized news event. A spike in attendance was better than none at all. They were ready to field questions. Despite all the written advisories, adults and children alike were hoping to have encounters of their own, a kind of brash insubordination that we never seem to outgrow.
A Scandinavian family waited at the ticket counter in front of me. I overheard their travel plans: Tomorrow, they'd be in Orlando, and then the Keys next week to charter lobster boats. They bought tickets for the glass-bottom boat tour, a staple of the park since the boats were invented in Silver Springs in the late 1800s.
“You might see some monkeys,” the attendant said in response to their query. “But it’s pushing late morning now, so they probably won’t be out.” He explained: During the summer, they typically make appearances only in the early morning and the evening.
They pried about the incident they’d seen on YouTube, and he quickly grew defensive.
“That’s what happens when they’re provoked,” he said. “We tell guests repeatedly not to approach them, especially the babies, but they don’t listen.”
Silver Springs State Park features a remarkable convergence of artesian springs that form the headwaters of the Silver River. In 2013, the Florida Parks Department acquired the land — a few miles from the junction of U.S. Route 301 and State Road 40 in Marion County, one of the most well trodden tourist areas in the country during its heyday — which had been in private hands for over 150 years.
On the east side of the park begins the coniferous Ocala National Forest — a 607-square-mile network of verdant pinelands and tea-stained rivers and floodplains. It is the oldest national forest east of the Mississippi River.
To the west is the city of Ocala, taken from the Timucua word Ocali, meaning “Big Hammock.” Its confines are charming, touches of modern chic mixed with despair. Along State Road 40, Victorian bed-and-breakfasts abut bail-bond offices. The historic downtown square — done up with ornamental brickwork, pristine plaster columns, and cornices — is now lined with new-wave whiskey and burger bars.
If Ocala has the flavor of its patrician, 19th century settlers, the unincorporated community of Silver Springs feels like a 1950s tourist town. Relics of the post-war leisure boom pepper the landscape — mid-century motels, neon signs, diners, drive-ins — now passé and muted from decades of sun damage.
But the springs themselves still retain the preternatural beauty and magnetism that made them Florida’s original tourist destination. They’ve been drawing visitors since the community’s founding in 1852, though the region’s history reaches back much further — long before statehood.
I was rightly warned that Silver Springs refuses summary. It is a small tract of Central Florida with more history and novelty than those in charge or anyone visiting knows what to do with.
Trying to plot the timeline is a harrowing, futile enterprise. That said, it spans from prehistoric to postmodern. Mammoth bones have been found next to beer cans. Human and megafauna remains discovered by a local truck driver in 1973 were estimated to be 10,000 years old — one of the earliest Paleoindian civilizations on the continent. The springs are replete with artifacts from the notorious Timucua tribe. Every wild boar in the Ocala National Forest can be traced back to de Soto's first passel of hogs.
Following the Treaty of Moultrie Creek, negotiated by Chief Neamathla, the Seminoles made a brief stop here before their final banishment to the Everglades. A century later, they returned as a sideshow. The river was used as a shipping conduit during the Civil War. Before that, it was traversed by African-American slaves who poled their masters — Florida’s cotton and sugar barons — along the Ocklawaha and St. Johns rivers to trade their wares. A century later, Paradise Park opened across the street from the Silver Springs concessions — a “colored-only” amusement park during Jim Crow, the first of its kind.
During Reconstruction and into the Gilded Age, the land surrounding the headspring was traded among a cadre of wealthy developers before finally settling into the hands of Ed Carmichael.
Two sure-footed local businessmen, Carl Ray and W.M. Davison, signed a lease with Carmichael in 1924, vowing to a create a world-renowned tourist destination. They christened it “The King of Florida’s Roadside Attractions.”
Ray and Davidson recruited concessionaires to install permanent attractions in the park. The two most (in)famous were Ross Allen and Colonel S. Tooey. Allen — a barrel-chested herpetologist who wrestled alligators, milked rattlesnakes, and kept a harem somewhere out in the woods — managed the Reptile Institute and the Seminole Indian Village, an ostensibly Native American community that lived at the park during the tourist season.
The apogee of Silver Springs’ success was spurred by Ray and Davidson’s advertising gimmicks. There were billboards, stickers, and mileage counters on roadways across America carrying the same campy arrow and SEE SILVER SPRINGS in block lettering. They enlisted a local named Dizzy Thomas, “Big Diz,” to drive cross-country and dole out stickers, brochures, and prints of Bruce Mozert’s iconic underwater photography. (The latter is an undisputed high mark in the region’s cultural output, although there is an idolatry of the Mozert oeuvre I don't quite understand. I realized this after being spurned in the local museum for calling them “kitschy.”) Motels began to crop up in the early ’40s. By the end of World War II, Silver Springs Boulevard had dozens.
I bought a ticket for the glass-bottom boat tour in the gift shop and walked down to the boathouse, which overlooks the headwaters of the Silver River. At first glance, the river looked like any other in Florida, dark green and brackish. Upon closer inspection, I realized the water was actually as clear as grain alcohol. The green I saw was the eelgrass growing on the riverbed.
The springs were a different story. Truly, as the great Florida novelist Padgett Powell once wrote, “the water cannot be captured by a camera or by a boob saying it’s incredible.” The water gushing from the springs is outrageously blue: royal, cobalt, Blue Curaçao blue.
I stepped into the boat, aptly named Chief Neamathla, and sat next to Captain Roosevelt at the helm. Roosevelt was stolid, with a thin silver mustache and the mien of an oracle. He backed us out of the boathouse and set our course, his foot propped on the bench in front of him, operating both throttle and steering wheel with one hand. We prowled over the eelgrass and the striated limestone. In the center was the spectacle: a rectangle of glass enclosed with a teak banister. We leaned over the rail on our elbows, communally, as you do with strangers at a craps table.
Roosevelt’s manner of speech was slow and staid, antiquated yet deeply appealing. Certain consonants whistled through his teeth. When we asked questions, he answered as if we should have known the answers already.
“What was that canoe made of?” a woman asked.
“The canoe is cypress.”
“Where are the monkeys?” another woman asked, perhaps speaking for all of us.
“The monkeys are everywhere.”
He pointed out gar, blue shad, and easily the biggest mullet I have ever seen, like double-wide Pringles cans.
“Very good eatin’,” Roosevelt said.
A Timucua dugout from the 1500s and the hull of a Spanish pirogue were permanently settled on the bed. If they were ever taken from the river, they would promptly rot, but instead are suspended in time, like cadavers in formaldehyde.
The headspring, Mammoth Cave, is the largest artesian spring in the world. For 60 feet it narrows towards a small fissure in the brittle karst which boils out over a half billion gallons of water — 99.8 percent pure — from the Florida aquifer every 24 hours. Tiny cyclones of snail shells and sediment spun off the limestone shelf and into open water.
It was difficult for me to reconcile the length of this “cruise” with the price. It was more of a taxi from one boat slip to another. We hadn’t seen any monkeys, and the passengers were visibly upset by it. But this wasn’t the captain’s fault, and he knew it and couldn’t care less. He was not a safari porter. He was solely responsible for maintaining steerageway on the marine equivalent of a golf cart.
I managed to steal a few minutes with Roosevelt when we disembarked. He told me he has captained the riverboat tours for more than 60 years. He grew up in Fort McCoy, a small town about 15 miles north of Silver Springs, on a family farm where he still raises cattle and fishing worms. “Blink your eyes and you’ll miss it,” he said.
I asked him about the recent altercations.
After complaining about not having seen any monkeys during his tour, a mother and her kids caught wind of some action on the Ross Allen Boardwalk. “But it was birthing season,” he said. “People just won’t leave them alone.”
Colonel S. Tooey (the meaning of the “S” is lost somewhere in the annals of Floridiana). One could imagine a man with a name like that as wily and impudent. One would not be far off base. By all accounts, Tooey was full of shit. A jab from the late Christopher Hitchens concerning Rev. Jerry Falwell comes to mind: “If you gave him an enema, he’d be buried in a matchbox.”
That’s not to say he wasn't canny. Colonel Tooey (not to be confused with General Tooey, who ordered the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the closing act of World War II) was an avaricious concessionaire, operating his Jungle Cruise on the Silver River for over 30 years.
The problem with Tooey is that accounts are scarce, and while he had a very calculated public persona, testimonies also suggest he was a deeply private man, whose life outside of the park was largely unknown. Such restraint — for someone who drastically altered the ecology of Central Florida — is almost commendable. As far as anyone can tell, Tooey was single-handedly responsible for the scores of wild rhesus macaques that have populated Silver Springs and Ocala since the 1930s.
In the early ’30s, Colonel Tooey bought a small troop of monkeys from a carnival outfit in upstate New York. At a bend in the Silver River known as Devil’s Elbow, he dredged an island and released them. Tooey thought the monkeys would heighten the experience for his Jungle Cruise customers. Tooey did not think the monkeys could swim, which they indeed could. The troop promptly left the island and went feral, populating the banks of the river and the Ocala National Forest.
Under Tooey’s regime, feedings were encouraged. They got fat and indolent on half-eaten cheeseburgers thrown from riverboats, and about 10 years after the initial release, noticing that their numbers were starting to decline, Tooey introduced another troop.
This remains the only free-ranging rhesus macaque population in the North America, which is both good and bad news: good because it’s the only one, bad because there’s one at all. One of the immediate problems is that this species is a carrier of the herpes B virus. It is generally harmless to the macaques, but a scratch or bite left untreated could be fatal for humans.
They are no strangers to Silver Springs and the surrounding area, but have reportedly spread elsewhere: Jacksonville, Apopka, St. Petersburg, Tallahassee. When the males mature, they are kicked out of their troop, forced into the wilderness to either build their own cohort or die off.
Sterilization was attempted in the ’80s and ’90s but proved inconclusive. Freelance animal poachers also put a dent in the population during that time. The captured subjects were sold to a lab in Beaufort, South Carolina — a lucrative enterprise for the huntsmen until the monkeys learned to stop taking the bait (candy laced with tranquilizers) and animal-rights groups began to mobilize.
A few days following my initial visit to the park, I met with David Cook, a local historian and former editor-in-chief of the Ocala Star-Banner. Photographer Jacob Harn and I met at a diner in the morning, and we took his truck out to Cook’s 400-acre cattle farm. It had been in his wife’s family for a century, purchased by her father, A.J. Katiba, a Syrian immigrant, in 1917. Cook inherited the property two years ago when she died.
We found him in the backyard which was overgrown with knee-high sedge and patches of crabgrass. He was standing underneath a newly planted fig tree, hands folded behind him and his torso pitched forward from a bad back. He had big features — a round face, broad mouth, a few flyaway white hairs on the dome of his head. His 90th birthday would arrive in two days.
“They’re budding,” he said, beaming. He pointed up underneath the leaves and gently flicked the veiny green bulbs.
The house was single-story, mustard yellow, constructed with Ocala block. He showed us in through the backdoor, which led through the music room. Over 10,000 opera, big band, and classical albums arranged alphabetically.
He leases a few hundred acres to a farm manager who, along with his grandsons, raise what cattle are left — Brahman and Black Angus. “Quite the operation,” he said. “If you don’t know what land-poor means, own a lot of land and have very limited income.”
Cook had a sylvan childhood, the river as his personal swimming hole and the forest his playground. Think Jody Baxter from “The Yearling,” which was based on nearby Cross Creek, though the film version with Gregory Peck would eventually be shot in Silver Springs, a discrepancy that some locals found unconscionable.
Though he touts being “conceived in Ocala,” Cook was born in 1927 in Delray Beach. In 1928, the San Felipe Hurricane barreled through South Florida. His father worked for a chain of citrus packing houses that were blown out into the ocean.
“That’s when my dad threw up his hands and said, ‘This part of Florida will never amount to a damn.’” The family moved back to Marion County in 1931, and David has lived in Ocala more or less ever since.
He told me that in the first half of the 20th century, multiple land booms in Marion County ended in disaster, with developers from all over the country holding worthless deeds. Projects were abandoned. Areas that were platted for housing developments were fated to become small grids of asphalt that led nowhere. The remnants of these land deals lingered for decades. He remembered riding his bike through unnamed streets and subdivisions.
Yet, through all the economic blight, the Depression, and the war, Silver Springs persisted, in part because of Ray and Davidson’s marketing campaigns and the fact that they had enough political power to ensure that every road running south came through Marion County. The four major highways — 301, 441, 27, and 41 — all converged in downtown Ocala. This was before the great Interstate Highway System — conceived in the New Deal and ratified by President Dwight Eisenhower — that would turn the country’s early federal highways into corridors of capital flight.
When I asked about the monkeys, Cook said, “I don’t think anybody ever noticed them. They stayed in their clans out in the woods; they were never pests. Occasionally, we’d see one at the headspring.”
He confirmed that Tooey was responsible. “But something keeps pricking my memory,” he added. “There was another guy involved; the last name started with a W — it’ll come to me.” But he brought up a different recollection instead — perhaps to illustrate how unyielding and indiscriminate memory can be — one he had when he was 2 years old: the stillborn birth of his brother. He remembered the little box they put him in. He remembered his mother lying in bed.
We had spent much of the afternoon sparring with Cook’s memory. He’d break off in conversation and stare at the wall, issuing little puffs of exasperation from his fleshy nose. I could sense him rifling through a century’s worth of names and details. “It’ll come to me,” he kept saying. But it didn’t, not once.
Finally, he sat up. “Let me go get my monkey file,” he said, and retreated into his study. He returned with a slim green file folder and pulled a 1936 article from the Star-Banner: “Ocala and Silver Springs Are Going to Have a Monkey Island,” the headline read. “Colonel S. Tooey located an island near Devil’s Elbow …” He trailed off. “That’s all it tells you.”
He began shuffling through the rest of its contents. For whatever reason, he was loath to release the folder, and only circulated one press photo of a buxom female model with a monkey perched on her shoulders. “That’s how they got so much publicity. People ate it up.”
Cook could only bookend the life of the Colonel. He said Tooey was from the Wisconsin Dells area, where he operated sightseeing tours amid the sandstone formations and glacier-carved gorge of the Wisconsin River. (Though I would later read that Tooey also ran cruises on Conesus Lake in upstate New York, which Cook did not mention, and it began to feel like I was charting an apparition.) Seduced by the idea of a year-round tourist season, he brought his family to Florida in the early ’30s.
Ray and Davidson would eventually sell out to ABC in 1962. Davidson died that same year, and Ray followed a few later. Just about all the permanent residents of Silver Springs were bumped once ABC took over. Tooey disappeared shortly thereafter. Back to Wisconsin, Cook supposed.
I continued prying about Tooey and his monkeys, but I wasn’t getting anywhere. We changed the subject to present-day Ocala.
Marion County was mounting in popularity again, in ways strongly redolent of past blunders. “Land is being sold just as fast as the developers can gobble it up,” Cook said. “Developments are proposed every day, but most are still rejected for the assumed environmental repercussions. Almost every inch of Marion County has been subdivided. I’m one of the last holdouts, but I can’t say the same for my children.” He had willed all the land to them. “Who knows what they’ll do after I’m gone?”
Cook chuckled. “I guess it won’t matter to me either way.”
You can now count the number of roadway signs advertising Silver Springs on one hand. And if the park is ever brought up in conversation, it’s usually an oblique reference to the monkeys that have colonized it. But the truth is that most Floridians don't even know about this ecological gumbo — this thing that state wildlife officials now dolefully refer to as “the monkey issue.”
Trying to get an expert analysis proved to be difficult. I was confronted with several dead-ends and gruff dismissals. The most memorable (and indicting) one happened when I contacted a renowned primatologist who studied this colony in the 1980s.
I was returned a curt, mildly rancorous email: “Here are my feeling[s] on another story about the monkeys of Silver Springs. The more that people write about them, the Fish and Game cops go after them. I wish you and everyone would just let them be.”
I can’t be sure what type of crooked or sadistic policing this primatologist had seen during her time in Silver Springs, but I do know that what I had asked for was not feelings. I was looking to be improved by science. If I wanted feelings, I would have gone to the bar, which I planned to.
The next and final line of the email read: “If you are a good researcher you will find all you need to know about the monkeys. Just know that by writing about them you are further endangering their lives.”
In no small part, my shot at being a good researcher was hinged upon the cooperation of this primatologist, which it appeared that I did not have. But I made the logical next step, and called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. Greg Workman from the Marion County office referred me to several reports that, as it happened, were authored by the primatologist in question.
“In conclusion,” a report from 1987 reads, “there is no reason to believe that the present problems are grave or unmanageable. The rhesus monkeys of Silver Springs could, however, prove to be troublesome in the future if their numbers grow unchecked.”
The most effective way to deal with the predicament, the report said, is “educating the public about appropriate behavior in the presence of wildlife.” That education must be expressed through, presumably, the written or spoken word. It now seemed to me that — coming from someone who has written extensively on the subject — the last bit of that email was pure cant.
Workman didn’t know exactly what the primatologist was referring to, but he said “fish and game cops” was antiquated terminology. Wildlife officials will only go after individual monkeys if they pose an immediate threat. Though sometimes, he conceded, their actions might be prophylactic. An incident involving a rogue male named Sourpuss comes to mind. An issue of the Ocala Star-Banner from 1938 explains that Sourpuss was shot by a local police officer because he “threw a fit.”
Workman said that targeted captures are all that can be done to preserve cohabitation. Since the sterilization campaign, no coherent plan to curb the monkey population has been negotiated or proposed.
At the bar, Jacob and I were greeted by two young waitresses. Both had blond hair with dark roots. Both were wearing cropped tank tops. Alyssa, the friendlier of the two, had a tribal sun tattoo on her stomach. In the center was a mandala-shaped belly-button ring.
She set down two beers.
“What are you guys up to tonight?”
I told her our business in town, and that we were staying at a motel up the road.
“Ooh, a story about Silver Springs, how exciting,” she said, playfully. She couldn't have been more than 21, but she had a self-possession that seemed beyond her years.
Jacob didn't waste much time before bringing up the furry muse.
“So, do you see them often — the monkeys?” he asked.
Alyssa threw her head back. “Ha!”
The other bartender, Jamie, darted over to our section. They started talking over each other, couldn’t get the words out fast enough.
“Oh, yeah. We see them all the time,” Alyssa said.
“Just about every time we’re on the river,” Jamie said.
“Last time I was out with my parents, they hopped on board our pontoon boat,” Alyssa said.
The conversation turned to echolalia, a type of call-and-response routine that almost seemed choreographed, but in a bantering way so as not to mistake it for contempt.
“They try to steal our food!”
Alyssa slid us nips of whiskey when her manager wasn't looking. From the corner of my eye, I noticed a gentleman eavesdropping. He was wearing khaki pants, and a red collared shirt with the placket open. A bank teller, I thought. No question.
He was dour, wrist-deep in a basket of curly fries, his hand stationary as though he were warming it.
He broke his cold start and said, “Those little bastards are everywhere!” He raised his glass to mime a toast. “If you really want to see ’em, you should paddle downriver. Better not get near ’em, though.”
“Yeah, they have herpes,” Alyssa said, which I knew was true. “They have hep C and tuberculosis too,” which I didn’t know was true, but I suspect isn’t.
Perhaps I could have formally debunked this with the help of, say, an expert primatologist. But I was denied that association, and my ineptitude as a researcher has brought me up short. Nevertheless, the important thing here might not be the veracity of the statement but the idea that some people understand it to be true.
Before we left, Alyssa told us where to launch our kayaks if we wanted to get on the river before the park opened.
“It’s down State Road 40. A small parking lot, right before you hit the forest,” she said.
We both thanked her for the tip, and the free booze.
“Ever been out there? To the forest?” she asked.
“A few times, but I don’t know it well,” I said.
“My paw-paw lives out there. He’s a real loner.”
I asked about her favorite camping spots, but she parried specifics with a coy smile and tautologies.
“You just have to know where you’re going.”
Sunrise the next morning revealed a curious scene.
The motel we stayed in was almost fully booked, something I noticed the previous night but quickly dismissed due to a light buzz. It was early, about 7 a.m. We were in the parking lot, packing camera gear into the truck. A man ripped his door open and fumbled out of his room while still buckling his belt. He asked for the time. Another door opened. Two sisters stood on the threshold studying our movements. They had their tummies out. The oldest one approached me and asked if I had been to the pool yet. I told her no, and she said that it’s not half-bad.
More lodgers were waking up and exiting their rooms, half-dressed, rubbing their eyes. They all greeted each other. Some patio furniture was arranged in the center of the complex where they convened. It was communal, even ritualistic, as if at any moment someone was going to turn up with the crullers and a box of coffee.
It wasn't until I spoke to the motel owner during check-out that I got a handle on the situation. Molly, a seemingly warm, convivial woman in her twilight years, told me that this little forecourt had the subtle quirks and camaraderie of a neighborhood because, by and large, it was.
“I get a lot of long-term rentals here. Most them are local, just looking to get settled for another month. Many have been kicked out of their houses.”
I was not expecting to hear this. I thought that perhaps I was witnessing the travel day for an extended-family reunion. But these were strangers, now neighbors, corralled by circumstance.
As Cook mentioned the previous day, property value in Ocala has taken off again — the same was true for much of the state — making it difficult for a large portion of Marion County residents to buy a house. But these people hadn't owned in years, “ever since the foreclosures back in 2008,” Molly said. They were now renters, and affordable rentals have become scarce.
Molly proceeded to switch gears into a devastating polemic about the government with such swiftness and scorn that it seemed like she had been possessed. I tried to extricate myself from the situation by conspicuously taking out my credit card and setting it on the counter, which ultimately worked. She broke off and ran the card.
“If I wasn't so old, I’d run for office,” she said.
“If Reagan did it, so can you,” I replied.
Her eyes lit up, either from the encouragement or from her name being mentioned alongside the Gipper’s.
“We’re gonna make it because we’re a strong country. But it’s tough, and I see the toughest part.” She handed me the receipt. “We gotta say more prayers and hope for stronger people.”
“Amen,” I said.
After checking out of the motel, we paddled the river as Alyssa and the bank teller had instructed, but didn’t get our monkey. Jacob and I sat in the truck, ate sandwiches, and brooded over our fortune.
It was irksome that everyone seemed to have a monkey story except for me. I had been to the park on five separate occasions and still hadn’t seen one. When this whole thing began, I wasn't terribly concerned with having an encounter, but it seemed imperative to me now. All the conflicting yarns about Tooey and Tarzan had roughed out an inkling of conspiracy. It seemed like the monkeys were everywhere and nowhere. I had to see them for myself, otherwise they didn't exist.
A week later, Jacob and I decided to give it one last shot. This was it: either we were going to be together when we found them or when we — finally, fatefully — didn’t.
We launched kayaks from a creek near the entrance, next to a jungle-like outpost run by teenagers on summer vacation. The creek led out to the headwaters and downriver.
The sun was directly overhead. The refraction turned the top water iridescent. When no one was looking, we dove to the bottom and ran our hands across the limestone, then came up and floated on our backs. From that vantage — with the cypress and pine towering on both banks like sentinels — the sky looked familiar but changed, diverted through time.
There was something inherently Floridian about the place, but at the same time felt simulated — something like Florida’s idea of itself, “an identical copy for which no original ever existed,” in the words of the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. I had mapped out where the old land-side attractions had once been: the Seminole Village, the Reptile Institute. These were once snackable bits of cultural and ecological capital. Now they’re either parking lots or plots of scarred grass. Though clearly flawed, the exhibits at least gestured towards authenticity.
With its mythology, its little troops of monkeys, and actors portraying Native Americans, Silver Springs anticipated the concept of a theme park nearly 40 years before Walt Disney. I’m told by some Florida historians that Silver Springs was a virtuous attraction that the public adored because it was “pure, wholesome, and unspoiled.” This was hogwash; it was manufactured just the same.
Of course, Disney pushed this concept to its absolute limit. The historic land deal made by his team wiped every trace of Florida from Orlando. But the primary conceit of his world was also simulation, a simulation of just about everywhere — imagined and real — except Florida, to which it’s geographically bound, an incongruity that is essential to the Disney experience. Superimposed on Disney’s slice of Florida was the blueprint for America. The New World was borne of a desire to escape history, of “building a utopia sheltered from history,” as Octavio Paz wrote.
Jacob and I were fooling ourselves a little. In on the joke, as it were. This is a studied trait of Disney-goers. “Much of the pleasure to be had at Disney World comes from recognizing and negotiating its simulations,” Cher Krause Knight explained. Just the same, we weren’t confusing that riverbank with a natural habitat for rhesus macaques, but it didn't mediate our desire to experience them.
By day’s end, I began mistaking every cypress knee and toe along the bank for an upright, inquiring monkey. I heard them in every rustle in the trees, every staccato bird call, every mullet that flung its body through the air. We had gone somewhat mad trying to beckon them with open bags of potato chips (strictly verboten by park rangers) and by doing our best interpretation of a monkey call.
Whenever we encountered another group of boaters or kayakers, the interactions always went the same:
“Seen any monkeys?”
Evening on the Silver River outdid all else: The sun lost its intensity, became consoling, especially when mixed with the coolness emanating from the river and that final repose engendered by what appeared to be our decided failure as nature-show hosts.
All ranks of birds were flying in to roost near Mammoth Cave. Light was pouring in through the trees, the kind that seems to make the summer twilight hour last forever. We made our way back upriver in silence.
Just as soon as I had come to terms with the defeat, I saw the last glass-bottom boat of the day motor out from behind a spit of land. I could hear shrieking voices and saw fingers pointing out of the window towards the ramshackle Sea Hunt Deck, the same one from the YouTube video.
We paddled like hell, hugging the bank, and just before we arrived at the deck I spotted a lone monkey poised on a submerged log.
By the time we anchored, there were dozens. Jacob let his shutter fly.
They lined up on the banisters, clamored around the tin roof and rifled through the cabbage palms. The babies with their lolling heads and gangly limbs came out to the bank to inquire about us, but their mothers quickly ran out and pulled them back by their scruffs.
We spent nearly an hour with them, drifting back and forth between their opposite posts, Jacob shooting the whole time. I understood the superficial appeal: The monkeys were adorable, despite being lousy with infectious diseases and smelling like death.
Assimilation of a non-native species is not typically this fluid, perhaps because monkeys could never be truly alien in any temperate region on earth. We owe our lives to that axiom.
What struck me was how perfectly at home they were. They had turned moldering riverside shanties into their clubhouses; they were camouflaged by the tropical scrub. They gorged themselves on the oak berries and maple seeds. It gave the impression that they have always been here, which is all anyone in this landscape of transplants and settlers can hope for.And yet, their presence will always be provisional.
I thought of Ross Allen’s Seminole village and the folks that Molly has living out of her motel. I had the image of entire communities that had been downgraded to guests in their own home. I had a monkey story.
The colonial nostalgia of Ocala and the post-war nostalgia of Silver Springs were now connected by the same spectral highway. A new breed of roadside attraction — the decay, the cyclical emergence and disappearance of a middle class — a gyre of perpetual “boom and bust.”
David Cook told me that Ocala was once slated to become the nexus of Florida’s industrial, residential, and leisure markets. There were even multiple campaigns to relocate the capital building to downtown Ocala. This was back when Orlando was just a village. Disney and the coastal highways squashed that. New metropolitan centers began emerging. New highways made overland travel faster and more efficient, more concerned with arriving than getting there. If attractions weren’t accessible by I-75, I-95, or another shiny thoroughfare, they were considered two-bit tourist traps.
In the part about all those empty, nameless communities he saw as a child, Cook seemed to outline a phenomenon that’s still endemic in Florida, something George Packer referred to as “ghost subdivisions,” following the crash of 2008 in the suburbs surrounding Tampa Bay.
Cook noted that new subdivisions are beginning to crop up again, next door to those that were never filled, foreclosed or outright abandoned less than 10 years ago. Disquieting in the abstract and the geographical sense — staring at a mass of empty or unfinished houses evokes something of post-apocalyptic malaise, especially for a state made up of land that should never have been developed, due to its environmental providence.
I find myself driving the Florida Turnpike regularly — it takes me from one coast to the other, bypassing nearly all Central Florida, except for its axis which is cleverly plotted in the crosshairs of Orlando — and I’m always reminded of a quote from Baudrillard, “In years to come cities will stretch out horizontally and will be non-urban ... [they] will no longer have names. Everything will become infrastructure bathed in artificial light and energy.” He relates this to the sprawl of Los Angeles, but the thought is perhaps better suited for characterizing Florida. There are no land masses to negotiate; it’s all straightaway, like the desert without the desolation.
And, as Baudrillard predicted, there are unnamed communities everywhere, pushing the city limits. You can see them from the congested highways, poking out behind precast walls.
They are non-urban, yet also non-rural, and give an impression of never being fully thought out. Their precariousness reveals the fundamental problem with peninsular life: A great number of people were never meant to live in Florida to begin with. Neither were monkeys, but they seemed to have made it work.
After closing down for a little over a week following Hurricane Irma, which sent Florida into a state of emergency, Silver Springs State park has reopened. Officials stated that the park suffered virtually no damage and that the closures were procedural.
With mercurial weather patterns being the norm in Florida, the park’s wildlife is well equipped to gird itself for major storm events. On the Sunday after the park was reopened, kayakers were happy to report a gaggle of snickering primates near Devil’s Elbow during an afternoon passage down the Silver River.