Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition
Island stirs controversy with plan to euthanize monkeys
St. Maarten’s government recently funded a plan to control the territory’s invasive vervet monkey population by capturing and euthanizing the primates.
The plan is part of a partnership with the Nature Foundation St. Maarten, a nonprofit focused on conservation, which conducted studies on how to best manage the primates’ population.
In their findings, they cite residents being upset by the monkeys’ ability to pilfer their gardens, as well as the primates being a possible threat to children, indigenous wildlife and migratory birds.
The Guardian reported in December the territory’s ministry of tourism, economic affairs, transportation and telecommunication approved $55,000 per year for the project, which is expected to take five years to complete.
The vervet monkeys in question are the same species as a colony that has survived in a swath of mangroves in Dania Beach near the Fort Lauderdale airport for the past 70 or years or so, after escaping from the Dania Chimpanzee Farm, which imported monkeys from Africa to the U.S. for use in laboratories. There are currently around 40 wild monkeys living in Dania Beach.
At last count, in 2020, the St. Maarten population stood at around 450 monkeys, though the Nature Foundation St. Maarten said in a release that preliminary numbers from their 2022 survey indicate “a large increase in troop size over the last two years.”
The monkeys, which weigh between 12 and 15 pounds when mature, are considered an invasive species. Native to Africa, they are believed to have been brought to the Caribbean as pets in the 17th century and first came to St. Maarten in the 1970s. They have no natural predators on the island.
“They’re very clever,” said Deborah “Missy” Williams, founder of the Dania Beach Vervet Project, which sterilizes captured Dania Beach monkeys and houses them in a shelter. “They’re very smart. They do great living in urban areas. This is the issue — they can adapt. They know where to go to exploit food. They know people equal food.”
A proposal written by the Nature Foundation of St. Maarten in 2021 warned that without natural predators present, the vervet population on the island could double within a year. “The consequences on St. Maarten’s native ecosystems will be severe,” the proposal said.
Vervet monkeys reproduce relatively quickly compared to other wellknown primate species. “They are typically seasonal breeders, so will give birth to one infant once a year, and sometimes females will skip birth seasons,” Williams said. “It depends on environmental factors.” Rhesus macaques are similar, giving birth to a single baby every one to two years. Howler monkeys reproduce every 16 months or so and chimpanzees every three to four years.
As a cautionary tale about potential population increase, the Foundation noted that St. Kitts, an island to the south, now has as many invasive monkeys as it does humans — 40,000.
As omnivores, the monkeys consume fruits and vegetables, but can also prey on birds and birds’ eggs. The Foundation fears that if the population continues to increase, it could harm indigenous and migratory bird populations.
According to the Foundation, vervets on the island are known to raid the crops of local farmers, and they have ventured onto school grounds on a daily basis.
“I’ve seen over the years a huge increase in the population,” said Ricardo Perez, a hotel manager who’s lived in St. Maarten for 31 years. “I see it in my neighborhood. We have fruit trees, and we see that when it’s mango season, they basically live in the trees. They chew on the fruits and just throw them and defecate all over the place,” he said.
He said he does not know enough about the details of the situation to have an opinion on whether euthanization is the best management option.
Jeffrey Sochrin, a radio personality on the island, was surprised the monkeys were considered an urgent issue, but said they’ve become “creative about how they get to the bananas or whatever else you have growing in the yard.” He said that he would hate to euthanize an animal if it wasn’t completely necessary. “If there’s a way to sterilize a population and reduce a population, that’s the preferred approach in my mind.”
Dutch St. Maarten shares the island with French St. Martin to the north, where the monkeys also live.
Experts say the vervets would have to be eliminated from both territories for the plan to work, otherwise the northern monkeys would simply fill the void in the south.
Leslie Hickerson, of the Nature Foundation St. Maarten, said that the French side was having meetings regarding the monkeys on their half of the island.
Online commentary on the plan has been critical.
“Shame on the Nature Foundation! What you’re is [sic] doing is so wrong on every level,” wrote one observer on Facebook. “Even the expert says spay and neuter the beautiful monkeys. Why don’t you listen? Especially since you have to catch the monkeys first to kill them, you could easily get them fixed instead.”
The Foundation responded that, “Our office did not choose what program to be funded. The goal is also to manage the population, not … to ‘destroy entire population’.”
Studying the monkeys
The Foundation set up an invasive species study in 2020 and came up with two options for managing the monkey population. One called for sterilization, the other for humane euthanization.
Though the Foundation did not make the final decision on which method to use, they strongly recommended that the government use humane euthanasia to manage the monkey population in a 2021 project that studied the conundrum.
Humane euthanasia was “the most time and cost effective and has received the most support from residents, according to the survey conducted,” they said.
According to the Foundation, 54% of the local residents surveyed thought eradication was the best management solution, 33% thought sterilization was the best solution, and 13% thought doing nothing about the monkeys was fine.
The sterilization option would have focused on females, as they reach sexual maturity earlier. The cost would be $300 per operation (not including capture and sedatives).
They estimated it would take five to 10 years to sterilize the females and another 10 years for the sterilized females to die in the wild.
According to the Foundation, the goal is not necessarily total eradication.
Their report estimates that five years of euthanasia activities could lead to a population decrease of 25% up to 50%. If the population were halved, the Foundation predicted that “St. Maarten’s native biodiversity, local agricultural prospects, and resident’s safety will be significantly improved.”
Outside groups offer alternative
Since the announcements, some animal advocacy groups have piped up to potentially offer an alternative solution.
“I really think a humane solution is to sterilize the population, and over time the population should naturally die off. I think that’s the best approach,” said Williams, of the Dania Beach Vervet Project. She said that their veterinarian has offered his services free of charge to sterilize the monkeys.
Liz Tyson-Griffin, programs director for Born Free USA, an animal advocacy group, said that her group “is working in partnership with other expert nonprofit organizations and will be reaching out to the government of St. Maarten in the coming weeks. We plan to request further information about their current plans and will offer to work collaboratively with them in delivering an effective sterilization program.”
The logistics of such offers, as well as whether the St. Maarten government would accept them, remains to be seen.
“Working with these monkeys every day — to think about something like that happening to them, it breaks my heart,” said Williams.