Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Monkey Island



By Todd Morehead

We were half a mile from shore when the boat started to take on water. Thomas (Tommy) Bishop, captain of our foundering johnboat, used the ridiculous white yachtsman’s cap he’d been wearing to bail out the backend, while the two of us up front shoveled out what water we could with a plastic cup and a bait bucket.

“ ‘Plug came out again,” Bishop grinned and slapped the wet hat back on his head. Seagulls dive-bombed a couple of shrimp boats to our east, off the northern most tip of Hunting Island where the Atlantic feeds seawater into St. Helena Sound near Beaufort. The water was calm that day and a small pod of dolphins cruised along beside us, feeding on the schools of finger mullet we’d been netting for bait. But we weren’t just there for the fish.

We were headed across the channel and up the Morgan River from Coffin Point toward the mysterious shores of Morgan Island (a.k.a. “Monkey Island”), a state-owned 400 acre patch of land, which has housed a free ranging monkey colony since 1979. Tommy has been fishing and swimming these waters since childhood. One evening he mentioned the island to me nonchalantly. “Yeah, man. They’re quarantined on the island. Sometimes they’ll come right to the water and screech at you and throw sticks. I think they’re used for medical experiments.” I’m no fan of animal experimentation, but this place was just too weird to go unobserved, something I felt I had to see to believe. Before our trip, though, Bishop made one thing perfectly clear: there was no way we were getting near the beach –even if it wasn’t a federal offense to do so.

I balked.

“Dude,” he’d said, “would you really want to be stuck on that island with thousands of them? These aren’t cute little zoo monkeys. …They’d probably attack.”

He had a point. And there were other variables to consider; we didn’t know, for instance, if it was breeding season for the monkeys. Being bum-rushed and savagely raped by an overgrown male macaque wasn’t how I planned to cap off our fishing trip.

Currently, the islands population has reached an estimated 6,000 monkeys. Each year, Alpha Genesis, Inc. (AGI), the lord and leaseholder of the island, exports roughly 700 monkeys (or “nonhuman primates”) of varying breeds to various private sector companies and the US government for use in scientific research.

Recently, rumors have surfaced that South Carolina might not renew the colony’s lease, opting instead to sell the land to potential developers. But Dr. Greg Westergaard, President and CEO of AGI confirmed to City Paper that the monkeys are staying where they are for the foreseeable future.

“To the best of my knowledge,” he said, “there are no plans to develop Morgan Island, which is currently owned by the state of South Carolina. AGI is in discussions with the state of South Carolina for continued use of the island.”

According to the Humane Society of the United States, between $500 and $800 million is spent on monkey research each year. The South Carolina Humane Society has expressed concern about the existence of the island, but Westergaard maintains that the facility offers the best environment possible for the monkeys.

“The Morgan Island project is extremely important. The monkeys on the island are in optimal conditions and are extremely well looked after. The natural fauna and flora of the island continue to thrive as well. We are proud to play an important in the continued maintenance of this critical resource and national treasure.”

Labeling it a “national treasure” might be a stretch, but the island certainly is a natural beauty; an unmolested piece of land, overgrown and wild, on a strip of coast mostly dominated by multi-million dollar vacation homes.

Bishop swung the boat in close to the islands southern beach and we cruised along silently, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the big rhesus monkeys, some of which are rumored to have numbers tattooed on their chests. Driftwood littered the beach, daylight barely penetrating the thick canopy of trees. It seemed like a good place for a monkey to raise a family… well, until the guys in lab coats came to stuff them in cages and ship them off to be injected with bird flu or sprayed in the face with experimental household cleaners.

We cut the engine and fished the Morgan River for bait. Up on the island, the monkeys stayed hidden in the shade. I had mixed feelings for the hairy little guys– something between curiosity and pity– and felt, almost, like I was gazing up at a very beautiful open-air death row. But, until that day came, at least, the monkeys couldn’t have hoped for a better place to grow up.

A few long moments passed.

“Man, you could probably catch bull sharks in this river channel,” I observed.

Tommy shrugged and Jeff, who’d been fishing from the bow, pulled up his line quickly. We had just enough gas to get us back to the dock and decided to call it a day. As we made our way back toward Coffin Point, trolling a line for Spanish mackerel, I looked over the tip of the pole in the direction of Monkey Island and wished them all luck.

bishop Exploring one of South Carolina’s most bizarre semi-natural wonders File photo. Bishop and johnboat afloat in an inlet off St. Helena sound. A resident of Monkey Island checks out the boat Each year, Alpha Genesis, Inc. (AGI), the lord and leaseholder of the island, exports roughly 700 monkeys (or “nonhuman primates”) of varying breeds to various private sector companies and the US government for use in scientific research.

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