LAJAS, PUERTO RICO -- An army of marauding monkeys is plundering Puerto Rico, skulking the island in packs of 20 to 30, tormenting farmers and homeowners, endangering rare birds and attacking household pets.
They're a clever lot, too, sneaking around so humans can't get too close, and rotating their feeding areas so their food supply can't be contaminated.
"You should see when they cross the road: One of them will stand in the middle of the street and let all the others pass," said Freddie Cruz, who directs the Lajas Civil Defense Agency. "I get calls all the time from homeowners wanting me to come over and get these things out of their yards."
Frustrated farmers, fed up with the loss of their crops, have responded by shooting the pesky primates.
And their actions, predictably, have outraged animal-rights groups, which are insisting that the monkeys be trapped and returned to their native homelands on the other side of the world.
On this much everyone agrees: A solution must be found because these animals -- descendants of the patas and rhesus monkeys that escaped from a medical-research lab years ago -- are a fertile, aggressive bunch.
The population stands at 1,000 to 2,000 and is growing every day.
"We recognize there's a big problem," said José Chabert, a director of Puerto Rico's Department of Environmental & Natural Resources. "If we don't get a handle on this problem soon, we are going to see these populations of aggressive monkeys all over the island."
In a few weeks, Chabert's organization will convene a series of public hearings to look for solutions.
So far, shooting the animals, trapping them, sterilizing them and baiting them with poison are all on the table.
Monkeys used for research
Monkeys have been traded in the Caribbean for more than 300 years, mostly for research purposes. Today, several islands in the region have burgeoning populations of these primates.
The monkeys have been used for research in Puerto Rico since the 1930s. Several hundred were released on a tiny island in the Boquerón Commonwealth Forest, an island only about a quarter-mile offshore.
By the 1970s, the first sightings of monkeys began to surface in the southeast corner of Puerto Rico.
Lajas Mayor Marcos Irizarry thinks strong hurricane winds have brought dozens of them onto mainland Puerto Rico in recent years.
"After hurricanes, you would see dead monkeys washing ashore. You know some of them had to be blown onto the island," he said.
Problem elsewhere, too
On the nearby islands of St. Kitts and Barbados, where primate populations have existed for more than a century, the governments have been unable to control them.
And that has become the great fear in Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico's agricultural community suggests action should have been taken years ago when the problem was emerging. A spate of wildfires that hit the region in recent weeks has begun pushing the primates into the mountains, where it will become nearly impossible to control their numbers.
The monkeys, some of which stand 3 feet tall and weigh 40 pounds, have no natural predators on the island. And there's no demand for domesticating them.
"The hour is late," said Francis Perez Riveiro, a farmer who each year loses thousands of dollars in crop damage from the monkeys.
"The animals contaminate the crops because the monkeys carry diseases, and no one wants to buy vegetables like that," he said. "This is a pocketbook issue for us -- like any other pest that comes into the fields."
The monkeys survive on plantain, banana, mango, squash and a variety of other plants. One telltale sign of the monkey invasion: a squash with small bite marks.
Economic mainstay at risk
The harvest of plantains and bananas generates more than $77 million for the island's economy.
The primates are known to rip apart the plants, exposing their inner stalks to air and sunlight -- which kills them.
The monkeys also strip the bark off mango trees, severely damaging their ability to bear fruit.
The going rate for research monkeys is about $1,000 each. Some of the farmers who recently have suffered crop losses have suggested the monkeys be trapped and sold to help recover their losses.
Farmers: Killing necessary
Farmers say the island's lack of response has forced them to begin shooting the animals. Others have tried to poison them.
"If we hadn't been shooting them, you would see twice as many of them," said one farmer who asked not to be identified because he fears retribution from animal-rights groups.
"These are not cute little monkeys that you want to hug," he said, standing amid a field of partially eaten squash.
Homeowners are constantly complaining, too.
When they call Cruz, of the Civil Defense Department, "I tell them to just bang on the pots and pans," he said.
"If that doesn't work, then maybe you should just let them move on when they're ready."
The monkeys also eat the eggs of Puerto Rico's native birds, Cruz said.
Animal-rights group's ideas
The animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has joined Puerto Rico's Natural Resources Department in speaking out against allowing farmers to shoot the monkeys.
That won't solve anything, the groups say. And it might cause problems such as hunters spraying the countryside with stray rounds of bullets that might hit homes.
Ideally, PETA officials say, island officials could trap the monkeys and return them to the wild.
But because that seems remote at this point, learning a little tolerance might be the only thing that can be done at this juncture.
"Whether they are native or not, the government should not allow their wholesale slaughter," said Mary Beth Sweetland, a PETA senior vice president from the group's U.S. offices in Norfolk, Va.
From Pesky monkeys pit animal lovers against farmers in Puerto Rico