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VERIFY: What you need to know about the herpes-carrying monkeys on the First Coast

Multiple recent sightings of the invasive species in areas ranging from Julington Creek to St. Augustine have residents on edge. But how dangerous are the monkeys?

SAINT JOHNS, Fla. — Since First Coast News first reported on the spread of the rhesus macaque into areas along the First Coast, there have been many questions related to the monkeys. We're answering those with the help of mammal experts.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has taken the lead on the presence of the rhesus macaque in Florida.

Multiple recent sightings of the invasive species in areas ranging from Julington Creek to St. Augustine have residents on edge. But how dangerous are the wild animals?

Tracy Fenn, Assistant Curator of Mammals at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, spoke with the On Your Side team about the macaques in Florida.

"These monkeys were never domesticated animals, they're a wild species," Fenn said. "They're very common in research laboratories and tourist attractions which is of course where this population originated in Florida." 

The story of the rhesus macaque in northern portions of Florida beings at Silver Springs State Park near Ocala. If you're like me and grew up near Ocala, there is no doubt you have heard the rumor that these monkeys were left behind after the filming of the movie Tarzan the Ape Man in the early 1930s.

"That was a rumor that had spread like wildfire," Fenn said. "But I know [Florida Fish and Wildlife] has researched this situation pretty extensively, and they have traced it back to the Silver Springs glass-bottom boat operator back in the 1930s and 40s who put the monkeys on an island as a tourist attraction."

Fenn said it is a common misconception that the macaques are native to Florida, but they are not. She said they originated in Asia, particularly in India and China.

When it comes to the spread of the macaque into our area, many have voiced concerns about potentially dangerous interactions with the animals.

MORE: They're here! Invasive, herpes-carrying monkeys reach the First Coast

Fenn said there is not a reason to be worried if you live in portions of the First Coast where the monkeys have been spotted. 

"It's not necessary to panic about this," she said. "As long as you keep your distance and don't feed these monkeys, they're not going to cause harm to you. It's just about respecting them as wildlife even though they don't belong here."

Fenn said there are three things people should know when it comes to keeping the monkeys away from homes, and what you should do if you spot one.

  1. Make sure you secure trash outside your home. The monkeys are food-driven and will come near humans or other animals if there is food nearby.
  2. Never feed the animals. Feeding a rhesus macaque is a second-degree misdemeanor in Florida, punishable by a fine of up to $500 and 60 days in jail.
  3. If you see a monkey, try to take a picture without getting too close. Then, report the sighting to FWC here.

The solution to the growing spread of the macaques in Florida is still in the works. Fenn said estimates show the population currently numbers around 400 and is not slowing down.

"There's not one solution identified at this point, but FWC is very aware of the issue, and I think moving forward there will be more discussions between multiple agencies on how to intervene with this issue," she said.

According to Fenn, the bigger issue outside of dangers posed to humans is the effect the rhesus macaque will have on the food chain and native Floridian plants and animals.

"These macaques, they will compete for the same food resources as our native wildlife, creating more competition on that front for them," she said.

Fenn also added that while zoos and sanctuaries do not have the space to take in the macaques, homeowners can remove them from their own property if humane methods are used.

RELATED: Watch | St. Johns County woman spots invasive monkey in backyard eating oranges by the pool: 'I'm not going out there'