A capuchin monkey broke free from its owner and caused an hour's worth of havoc Monday evening on a stretch of U.S. 1 near Key Haven, said witnesses and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Kayla, 11, was captured by three animal control officers from the Florida Keys SPCA after the nonprofit's executive director, Tammy Fox, spotted the monkey walking alongside U.S. 1 during her drive home after 5 p.m.
Fox, a 20-year veteran of animal shelter work, said at first glance she figured it was a raccoon. But then it became clear.
"My mind went, 'It's not a raccoon, that's a monkey!'" Fox said Tuesday. "I knew it was someone's pet. She had a strap around her waist and was in a shock collar."
Fox started calling for backup and made a U-turn, only to find the monkey had taken a seat on a guardrail and was watching traffic passing between the Boca Chica Channel Bridge and Key Haven.
While the monkey's spree ended peacefully, with no injuries reported, the capuchin led animal control officers on a frenetic path that included crossing the Florida Keys' sole highway three times and delving into mangroves.
The frenzy lasted nearly an hour. "She was freaked out; she ran across U.S. 1," said Fox, who immediately called for help and alerted the Sheriff's Office. "We're trying to save this thing's life and traffic is coming in both directions."
Kayla was caged and taken to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' shelter, where FWC officers and SPCA staff met to compare notes.
By night's end, the monkey was back with owner Cindy Lee Berger of Spring Hill, Fla., who has a Pennsylvania driver's license. Berger, 43, was fined $100 for failing to keep her pet on a leash, and faces a misdemeanor charge of failure to prevent the escape of captive wildlife, said FWC Officer Bobby Dube. She has a FWC permit for the capuchin, records show.
The $50 license, which was issued Jan. 10 and expires Jan. 9, 2014, is for "Class 3" mammals, which include capuchin, spider and woolly monkeys.
"They have to be permitted and there are caging requirements and all this other stuff," said Dube. "She's had issues in the past."
In a handwritten statement to FWC, Berger said she was fishing with her father on a nearby island when Kayla took off her leash. "When I went to get her, she disappeared in the trees," Berger wrote. "I was not aware that that patch of trees connected to lead to the highway."
Berger said she quickly realized the highway was "connected" to the patch of trees and headed toward U.S. 1, where she saw "SPCA trying to catch her."
"She then came to me and they made me put her in the van," Berger wrote.
Fox recalled Berger approaching and coyly asking what the animal control officers were tracking. When told it was a monkey, Fox said, she asked how long they had been trying to catch it.
"I asked, 'How long have you been missing it?'" Fox recounted Tuesday.
Animal control officers Mitchell Smith, Matney Smith and Jared Daeffler gave chase to the monkey, cornering it in the mangroves, according to an FWC statement.
"We both had it blocked in the mangroves and were trying to close in on it," wrote Mitchell Smith. "By the time we saw it again the owner was there and Kayla ran into her possession."
Daeffler said, "It was truly a unique experience."
Brown capuchins typically live in subtropical or tropical forests, and are found east of the Andes, from Colombia and Venezuela to Paraguay and northern Argentina.
But with their pint-sized features and humanlike abilities to press buttons, turn pages or open bottles, they have become pets for some. Experts estimate there are some 100,000 capuchins in the United States.
Wildlife officials almost uniformly oppose having capuchins as pets or service animals, citing health and safety concerns along with the often questionable business trade that allows the sale of monkeys.
Fox said watching the monkey -- and her staff -- darting across U.S. 1 and sloshing through the mangroves only reinforced her personal philosophy that the Kaylas of the world weren't meant as house pets.
"It's my personal belief exotic animals belong in habitats they were born to be in, not in homes or on U.S. 1," said Fox. "This is a wild animal. She's got it with a blanket and a bottle."
The Keys SPCA's last monkey scare was in 2008 and involved a severed earlobe.
"Someone had him on their shoulder and it jumped on someone else," said Fox. "Took off their earlobe."
Unlike Kayla, the spider monkey's attack led to the state revoking the permit of the owner, who lost possession.
But that monkey since has been thriving at the Jungle Friends Primate Sanctuary, a nonprofit with 12 acres in Gainesville that takes in abused and unwanted primates, along with those retired from lab work or ex-pets.
"He has a girlfriend now," said Fox of the earlobe-slicing spider monkey. "They paired him up with Isabelle. He had a vasectomy. They're happy."