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MORGAN ISLAND -- A troop of about 30 monkeys begins to emerge from the woods as Scott Cheslak cascades handfuls of corn kernels into the air from a paint bucket on Morgan Island.'
"It's like candy to them," Cheslak says, sparsely coating the surrounding ground with large kernels, then moving to his nearby all-terrain vehicle to watch.'
"The animals are very social," Cheslak says, observing the monkeys before him just as he has done many times over the past 25 years. "They have a hierarchy of males and females, a very complex social order."'
Morgan Island, a 4,000-acre island in the ACE Basin just north of St. Helena Island across the Morgan River, is home to about 3,500 rhesus macaque monkeys.'
The monkeys are part of a federal project regulated under the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration maintained by Alpha Genesis, a leading primate research and development company.'
Cheslak, 51, is the colony manager and one of seven people who work regularly on the island, which serves as a breeding ground for the monkeys. They are selectively transported to research labs nationwide to aid scientists with medicinal and behavioral research.'
In addition to Cheslak, three island employees are responsible for general care and maintenance of the animals, and three others are dubbed census technicians who go in the field daily to observe the animals.'
Cheslak said the monkey population is divided into three segments, and each census technician is assigned a group to watch over.'
"If we don't see an animal for a year," Cheslak said, "we assume they're dead."'
Four times a year, monkeys are culled -- trapped, and driven to labs in Washington in climate-controlled trailers. Trapping the animals can prove difficult, but the team has the procedure down to an art form.'
The island has 17 watering and feeding stations. When it is time to cull the animals, feeding is stopped at the regular stations and food is placed within 10 tin corrals. The monkeys swoop down into the pens and cannot climb back up its smooth walls.'
A guillotine door in the corral leads the monkeys through a shoot system. Once in the shoot, each monkey is compartmentalized and given a tranquilizer. The monkeys are tattooed for identification and their information is entered into a database.'
Staff is attempting to increase the population of monkeys on the island so females and select adult males are set free. Male yearlings are put into small cages and taken by boat to Sams Point Landing or another Alpha Genesis research site in Yemassee, where they are loaded into trailers.'
The island is the largest of six federal primate centers in the United States. It is the only free-roaming federal monkey facility in the nation.'
Rhesus monkeys are used in research because of their small size and low-maintenance lifestyle, Cheslak said.'
Morgan Island was chosen as a breeding site because it shares the same moderate climate common throughout Afghanistan to northern India and southern China, where the monkeys are endemic.'
Morgan Island is surrounded by water, which confines the monkeys to the island, Cheslak said.'
THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY'
In late April, a 10-year-old, 20-pound monkey swam off the shore of Morgan Island and was captured, alive, in a tree in the backyard of a Royal Pines home on Lady's Island.'
Cheslak said rhesus monkeys are fair swimmers but do not like to swim long distances. But, he said, a rhesus will leave an area for several reasons.'
Cheslak theorized that the monkey in question probably escaped for social reasons. Rhesus monkeys form social troops that range in size between 30 and 200 monkeys. Morgan Island has about 30 social troops.'
The troops' complex social structures of both male and female monkeys of various ages and hierarchy are made up of dominant and submissive roles. Adult male monkeys emigrate in and out of troops several times in a lifetime, perhaps a natural response to genetic diversity, Cheslak said.'
But in some situations, Cheslak said a "floating" or emigrating male monkey will not be accepted into a new troop. In those cases, the floating monkey will form a "bachelor troop," comprising other floating monkeys, or will leave an area completely in search of a new set of troops.'
Because the latter is not an option on Morgan Island, Cheslak thinks the escaped monkey was psychologically desperate and decided to take his chances by swimming off the island.'
Cheslak said the surrounding community seemingly is captivated with the details of the monkey population on Morgan Island, but only recently has he felt comfortable discussing the island with the public.'
"A lot of people don't support what we're doing," Cheslak said. "But if you reach for a bottle of aspirin -- and all the drugs and pharmaceuticals available on the market today -- if it weren't for the animals, they wouldn't have access to vaccines."