Slate on "monkeyfishing"

Carrie McLaren carrie at
Thu Jun 14 22:26:46 EDT 2001

"Monkeyfishing: Cruel and unusual? Or good sporting fun?"
By Jay Forman

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

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

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.

- - - -
Slate's editor, Michael Kinsley, responds to reports challenging the truth
of this column:

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