In Andrew's wake, a new Wild Kingdom Monkeys, cougars still running loose weeks after storm

September 20, 1992|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

MIAMI -- The woman on the phone was frantic. She'd jus seen five monkeys emerging from the smashed window of a neighbor's home. They'd been looting the house.

"Please don't think I'm crazy," she pleaded, "but I'm not making this up."

Todd Hardwick didn't doubt it for a moment. He makes his living rounding up loose animals, and by this time he'd seen it all in the wake of Hurricane Andrew.

Even now, four weeks after the storm, wildlife experts say there is plenty to see on this landscape where the wind made mincemeat of cages and holding pens.

There's the baboon that shook off a blast from a 9mm pistol and lumbered away. There are monkeys, still uncaptured by the hundreds. Llamas are on the loose. Hundreds of exotic birds dart in flashes of brilliant color through the recovering foliage. Scorpions crawl for cover. Three cougars lounge near a highway. Peacocks wander through a gutted beer warehouse.

A strange species of deer, unlike any found in North America, leads three National Guardsmen on a merry chase.

Escaped pythons curl up in dark nooks and crannies, though it would be better to meet up with them than the few mambas and gaboon vipers that have slithered off to points unknown.

Then there's the lion. It's a big one, Mr. Hardwick says. He's seen the tracks. At last report it was still out there. Somewhere.

So goes life in the new Wild Kingdom of south Dade County. It is a zoological chaos created in a matter of hours when Andrew's winds tore through monkey breeding centers, farms for tropical birds and fish, exotic animal dealerships, small-time exhibitors, and neighborhoods that housed one of the nation's largest populations of exotic pets, not all of them legal.

"It's like a Disney World of exotic animals out there," said Mr. Hardwick, whose animal-capture business is called Pesky Critters. "It's beyond my wildest dreams and my wildest nightmares. This is something you'll never see again, and it's never been like this before."

Though hundreds of animals have been rounded up, and hundreds more may well be captured in the weeks to come, wildlife specialists say many will never be caught.

But the biggest question is not which ones will stay free, but which ones will breed and become a permanent part of southern Florida's wildlife.

"It may be years before we are able to say how many of them made it," said Dave Maehr, a wildlife biologist with the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission. "But if there was ever a time we were going to see [establishment] of new species, this is it."

Lt. Tom Quinn, a state wildlife inspector who helps keep tabs on keepers of exotic animals, sees nothing but trouble ahead.

"It's an ecological disaster," he said. "Even before the hurricane you had things in the Miami area running around and propagating, setting up miniature ecosystems. Now they're all over the place."

Others aren't so pessimistic.

"The things that have had the greatest negative impact on south Florida have not been the exotic animals, it has been exotic plants," Mr. Maehr said. "The further away most of these animals get from human habitation, the harder the time they're going to have making it."

Whatever the case, just about everybody agrees that south Dade County was ripe for a plague of escaped animals when Andrew struck.

In all, there are more than 200 places in south Dade County licensed by the state to keep some sort of exotic species.

They range from the big ones, such as Miami's Metrozoo with its 1,600 species (though few of them escaped because they were placed in sturdier "night cages" as the storm approached), to individuals who might keep a snake or two in their homes.

The prevalence of so many exotic breeds in Dade County can be explained by one simple reason: the tropical climate. That makes the place ideal for raising exotic birds, reptiles, fish and mammals.

The state is now trying to track down all the people who kept exotic animals to compile a rough list of how many creatures, and which ones, might be on the loose.

But even when that's done there will still be the great unknown of all the unlicensed animals.

And, as Lieutenant Quinn put it, "In my experience with Dade County, you had about as many illegal animals possessed as legal ones."

The rogue lion, for example, hasn't shown up on anybody's list of missing animals. Yet it has been sighted by several people, including a few National Guardsmen, and Mr. Hardwick has twice found its tracks.

But of all the animal escapes pulled on the night of the storm, the greatest occurred in a far southwestern corner of the county smack up against the Everglades, at the Mannheimer Primatological Foundation, a non-profit breeder of monkeys and baboons for various medical research projects.

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