It’s beginning to look like I’ll never make it to Monkey Island. Sitting on a small stretch of dock at the Eddings Point Boat Landing in Beaufort, I’m spending a warm Sunday afternoon approaching boaters as they prepare to push off. It’s a sleepy little spot, just a small parking lot and a short walking path that wrap around Jenkins Creek. During each encounter, I open with, “Excuse me, sir. Are you from around here?” before trying to hustle a ride to the nearby island populated with thousands of free-range Rhesus monkeys.
The first person I meet is a salty, older gentleman. He prefers not to give me his name, but he says he’s lived in the area since 1963. For a few of those years, he says his neighbor was a primate veterinarian who made regular visits to the island. His chocolate Lab roots around for moles as he tells me what he knows about the neighboring primate population. This moment is at once both very mundane and very bizarre, like discussing the weather with a minotaur.
“From what I understand they raise [the monkeys] for medicine, science, and all that,” he says, explaining that all the locals know about Monkey Island, but no one is really worried about the animals. “Unless they do some powerful swimming, they don’t get away. I think a few years back somebody went over there, and one got on the boat and left with them, but that’s about the only monkey that’s ever gotten away from the island.”
A 2005 story from the Associated Press backs up his claim. At least one primate managed an escape from Monkey Island. According to the report, a monkey was captured in the backyard of a home on Lady’s Island, a few miles from where it was supposed to be. The 20-pound male was first noticed missing over a week earlier. Alpha Genesis, the company who leased the colony for biomedical research and testing at the time, could offer no explanation for how the animal made its way off the island. Greg Westergaard, president and chief executive officer of Alpha Genesis, told the AP reporter, “I have been here eight years, and this is the first [escape] I can remember in the area.”
He added, “I’m at a loss at how it got over there. They probably can swim a little bit, but it really is a long way over there.”
This story highlights the special thing about Monkey Island: There remains a touch of mystery even for those who know everything about its origin and day-to-day operations. It’s exotic and out of place, but just close enough to be somewhat familiar.
I later meet Rich and Rick Adomat, a father and son who say they’ve seen the monkeys while out fishing. At first Rick doesn’t recognize Monkey Island by its official name, Morgan Island, but the mention of primates quickly jogs his memory.
“Oh, Monkey Island. Last year one time in the boat, we were running around, and we just drifted off the island about 100, 150 feet. We saw all kinds of monkeys,” he says. “It’s a government-owned island. … They’ve got signs out there. You’re not even allowed to get on the island.”
Monkey Island remains off limits to the general public, but according to a 2004 article from the Associated Press, the ban has less to do with any dangers the monkeys may pose to humans and more to do with “concerns that people could give diseases to the monkeys.” So consider that next time you think about exactly who is the most evolved.
Rich says he’s seen monkeys along the shore of the island while he was out boating.
“There are hundreds of them,” he says. “You think it’s a myth until you actually see it.”
Now, at the very least, he knows they’re there. The kingdom of Monkey Island is alive and well.
Birth of Monkey Island
On July 17, 1979, 216 rhesus monkeys arrived at their new home in South Carolina. The first of six shipments from the La Parguera breeding colony in Puerto Rico, the animals traveled 1,300 miles to 400 acres of high ground on Morgan Island just off the coast of Beaufort.
The monkeys were brought to the Southeast following an effort by the United States government to establish large-scale breeding programs to supply biomedical researchers with healthy primates that could be raised in self-sustaining colonies. Over the next nine years, the founding population of more than 1,400 monkeys grew to almost 4,000 and included animals from colonies in Florida, Texas, South Carolina, and the Caribbean.
One remarkable discovery was that even though many of the animals’ social groups were broken up during the lengthy shipping process, researchers found that within months the monkeys had reunited with the same groups they shared in La Parguera.
Monkey Island is currently owned by the state Department of Natural Resources, but the monkeys are the property of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Charles River Labs are the island’s caretakers.
In 2002, the DNR bought Morgan Island from a private owner set on constructing 64 homes — plans for which likely didn’t include thousands of primates hanging around. Since the monkeys arrived in ’79, Morgan Islanders Ltd. had leased the island to LABS of Virginia Inc., a research company based in Yemassee, which eventually became Alpha Genesis. According to the DNR, animals bred on the island were shipped off to be used for researching childhood diseases, AIDS, and bioterrorism. The $20.5 million used to purchase the island came from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In 2004, DNR Director John Frampton told the Associated Press that the agency would receive more than $1.5 million in federal funds over the next two years for allowing the monkeys to stay. While the animals proved to be better money-makers than your average deadbeat Capuchin, one question remained: What exactly happens when you introduce a free-range monkey colony to the Lowcountry?
It was at this time that researchers began to investigate the level of impact the colony was having on its surroundings. That task fell to Jeanette Klopchin, who studied the island as part of the requirements to receive her Master’s degree at the College of Charleston.
Now working as a pollinator protection specialist with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Klopchin had an indirect connection to the monkeys on Morgan Island before she arrived in Charleston. While studying at SUNY Oswego, she was mentored by Dr. Diane Chepko-Sade, who had previously studied the rhesus colony when it was still located in Puerto Rico. As Klopchin began looking at Morgan Island years later, she was likely researching the descendants of the very monkeys her former professor had studied.
Klopchin discovered that the monkeys had a minor impact on their environment. Over the course of her research, she had the rare opportunity to visit Monkey Island, and get a firsthand account of its inhabitants in their adopted home.
“I only stepped on the island during one visit. The monkeys have distinct social groups and are not accustomed to people at all, so they do not approach humans by any means,” she says. “The island itself is quite beautiful. Historically tall oaks and loose underbrush made it easy to walk through the trails. There is a small facility and a dock, where the caretaker resides. There are large feeding stations and corrals set up at three to four stations around the island. I explored the tidal creeks and hammocks thoroughly, and documented an abundance of wild flora.”
So that’s the story of Monkey Island. An oddity along the coast, it’s a reminder that you’re never too far from something wild. And no matter how hard I try to cling to civilization, I believe there will always be a part of me that longs for the shores of Monkey Island.