Cruel and unusual? Or good sporting fun?

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Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Once upon a time in the Florida Keys there was a horrible monkey-infested island called Lois Key. A pharmaceutical company had released a bunch of rhesus monkeys there and left them to breed, thereby supplying research labs around the country with a fresh supply of experimental test subjects. The monkeys hated their new home. They were miserable there, howling and screeching and polluting the pristine waters with their feces. But as terrible as this place was, it harbored a far darker secret. For over time a sport evolved among the local fisherman that they called monkeyfishing, and it was cruel.

I joined a friend for a monkeyfishing expedition back in 1996 because I did not believe this kind of thing actually happened. We left Summerland Key in a small skiff one sunny afternoon and motored out down Lois’ way. We knew we were getting close to the island when the normally pellucid emerald waters of the lower keys gave way to a filthy brown, and the smell of monkey waste spoiling under the tropical sun rolled over us like a storm.

These were not the lovable anthropomorphic orangs of Dunston Checks In fame. These were wild, evil-looking, pissed-off screeching beasts. They glared at us from the shore, pacing. Their incessant yammering filled the air. The island itself was a blasted moonscape fringed by dying trees. The monkeys had eaten away most of the mangroves, and the only ones that remained were shielded by steel cages. Mangroves protect such islands from erosion, but there weren’t enough of them to protect this island anymore. As the monkeys reproduced their habitat shrank, and their situation became even more awful. If a zoo is a white-collar prison, this was Oz.

Once we found a nice spot, we prepared to fish. Sturdy deep-sea poles were the preferred tackle. I’ve never heard of anyone landing a monkey on lightweight fly rods, but I suppose it is possible. I have friends who have landed tarpon on them, and tarpon are much bigger than monkeys. A fully-grown rhesus monkey tips the scale at around 30 pounds, while a tarpon can easily break 200. However, monkeys have hands as well as the ability to use primitive tools, an advantage the fish do not possess. In any case, nobody keeps records about this sort of thing. There is no Saltwater Monkeyfishing magazine to lay out proper monkeyfishing etiquette. You can’t look up the all-tackle record for a rhesus monkey in the Florida Saltwater Fishing Guide. It’s more of the kind of thing that is weepingly confessed around 4 a.m. underneath the bar at El Loro Verde on Whitehead Street in Key West.

Fruits were the bait of choice. Apples were good because they stayed on the hook well. Red Delicious were chosen over Granny Smith for the advantage in contrast. Other baits included kiwis, which were more deceptive, but trickier to cast due to their mushy flesh. Oranges worked well; their rinds combined with their bright coloring made them a natural choice. And after a long day of eating its own feces, what monkey could resist a tasty orange?

Now came the cruel part. Once the bait was on the hook, I watched as the monkeyfisherman cast it onto the island, then waited. Not for long. The monkeys swarmed round the treat, and when the fisherman felt a strong tug he jerked the pole. I knew he had  hooked one by the shriek it made—a primal yowl that set my hair on end. The monkey came flying from the trees, a juicy apple stapled to its palm.

He didn’t actually land the monkey on the boat, since having a pissed-off, screeching monkey on the end of a hook running around a small skiff trying to bite you is the stuff of nightmares. He practiced a form of  “catch and release.” Monkeys can’t really swim, but the water round the island was shallow. The line was cut and the monkey floundered back to await medical testing.

This was an awful thing to watch. I did not actually hook a monkey, but simply being there made me an accessory to the crime. I was not the kind of kid who tortured animals. Quite the opposite, actually. So what was I doing here watching grown men snatch monkeys from trees with quality tackle? A fascination with the bizarre. But still it made me sick.

I have a friend in Baltimore who told me about a similar sport involving rats. A local bar, upset about a vermin problem the city was doing nothing to correct, found a unique way to bring attention to the issue. They established a rat-fishing league, complete with uniforms and teams. Hot dogs were the preferred bait. The plan worked—they got plenty of attention—but how it affected the actual issue I am not sure.

But why does fishing for rats seem to me to be less barbaric than fishing for monkeys? Both are mammals; they bear live young and nurse them with milk. Both are bitchin’ in laboratories. Yet monkeys are several shades closer to ourselves than rats, and that creeping association amplifies the discomfort we feel. But how can torturing one animal be any less cruel than torturing another? If fish could scream, would we still fish? If Bob Kerrey had revealed that he monkeyfished to the New York Times, would we forgive him?

Perhaps cruelty is a matter of contrast. When I feel bad about this all I need to do is look to the Chinese. When it comes to torturing animals, they take the cake. I’ve been in Beijing markets where puppies were crammed into cages to be sold as food, snakes are regularly bled for an aphrodisiac, and a fancy dish called “Three Squeaks” features a live rat embryo. Their voracious appetite for lavish meals and folk remedies are the stuff of World Wildlife Fund nightmares. Yes, all things considered, my crimes are small compared to the Chinese. But then again, that argument works for almost anything.

Was this sport barbaric? Yes. Is this a sport, even? Consider fishermen who practice “catch and release” with fish. They basically torture the fish for fun. So in this case torture is a sport, as opposed to, say, murder. Murder is acknowledged as a sport in hunting, so long as you eat the victim and don’t merely kill him. This is not the case, however, in war, which is government-sanctioned murder where you do not eat the victim, according to the Geneva Convention. Some people do however collect the ears. This is where war and “trophy” hunting meet.

Perhaps I should have eaten the monkey. That would probably have tied up the loose ends. Maybe not even the whole monkey; maybe just go the ritual cannibalistic route and eat the heart for its strength and so on.

What I was witness to was cruel. Not like Rwanda cruel but cruel still. It hit home on a gut level, because these animals really are a lot like us. I wish I was not telling this story. Admitting that does not make me any less complicit. But perhaps that is the first step toward coming to terms with it. And after all, I’m the one who has to sleep with myself.

The monkeys were removed from the island in December 1999 after years of complaints about their effect on the environment. Rumor has it that the company missed a few, and they still haunt the wreckage of Lois Key.