The Legendary Snow Monkeys of Texas

A brief open season on monkeys resulted in protections for them in the Lone Star State

A young Japanese macaque in his adopted home in 1989
A young Japanese macaque in his adopted home in 1989 (Photo By Karen Dickey)

It was Jan. 21, 1996, the last day of the winter buck season. Missy, Lilly, and Meggy, two of them nursing mothers, had been shot dead – "blowed apart," according to the game warden called to the scene. A fourth survivor, Jason, was left with only a stump for an arm. All had been shot a few feet outside their home fence line, while snacking on deer corn that had been spread as bait.

At the time, many locals could have predicted this would happen. But the actual chain of events, the true story behind one of Texas' most persistent rural legends – the 1996 open season on monkeys – is a story that has steadily faded. How had monkeys come to be standing in the Texas hunters' firing line?

The troop under fire consisted of wild but rapidly acculturating "Snow Monkeys" (more precisely known as Japanese macaques, or Macaca fuscata). This particular troop began as about 150 in number, previously evicted from the encroaching suburbs of Kyoto, Japan. They had been brought to the South Texas Primate Observatory in 1972, in the first attempt at the relocation of an entire primate population. The observatory's ranch near Dilley, in Frio County, was much hotter than the macaques' Japanese home, and at first many perished. But South Texas eventually provided the conditions the monkeys needed to thrive: a wild setting, water tanks, plenty of mesquite beans, cactus fruits, and lots of tall brush to climb around in. Things went very well – at least for the first couple of decades.

The troop grew and evolved, retaining some wild traits while expanding their human-adapted behavior. They took advantage of man-made perches, row crops, and food provided to them, as well as feed pilfered from local farms and ranches. They learned to defeat fences, locks, and gates. Much like farm animals, they became semidependent on the proximity of humans. They multiplied, to an estimated 600 by 1995.

Twenty years of success opened the door to one legendary failure.

First, a bobcat or cougar killed the troop's leader among his companions. The frightened survivors began, understandably, to hang more closely around the roofs, fences, and compounds of both their own home and the neighboring ranches. Someone called authorities to complain. Surely it wasn't acceptable to set loose a bunch of foreign primates on a quiet rural county? Not that they were as bad as fire ants or salt cedar, but still, there had to be rules about these things, right?

Well, there had been. Until 1994, the monkeys had been protected officially as a "threatened species" under the Endangered Species Act, and unofficially by observatory neighbors who felt protective of them, and would call the observatory if one escaped. But as the troop grew, so did the nuisance, and with the observatory short of maintenance funds, nearby ranchers increasingly complained of escaped monkeys stealing food, damaging trees, or just being where they didn't belong. In June of 1994, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service ruled that this particular troop of macaques was not a protected species.

At least initially, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department agreed, saying there was nothing in state or federal law forbidding the shooting of feral macaques, because they were classified as an "exotic unprotected species" – as in, you can make a game of shooting them any time you want. It wasn't true – as research animals belonging to the observatory, they were protected in the same way privately owned cattle are protected, even if they escape their ranches. But the TPWD was slow in clarifying the situation, and the damage was done in terms of perceiving the monkeys as fair game – just before the opening of the 1995 hunting season.

Almost simultaneously, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began pressuring the volunteer observatory managers to improve the Dilley facility, citing violations ranging from inadequate monkey housing to failure to construct a secure perimeter fence. The refuge providers moved to acquire a newer, larger facility, but they needed time to raise money, fence the new site, and transfer the animals. While they waited, the monkeys continued to wander – as hunting season opened. With all the media coverage, the monkeys' protectors and the neighbors feared that someone would attempt to hunt the monkeys.

A 1997 National Geographic documentary, Snow Monkeys of Texas, directed by UT professor and filmmaker Richard Lewis, would later confirm that all through the fall 1995 hunting season, would-be big-game hunters were coming into the nearby towns of Dilley and Millet, searching for guided monkey hunts, monkey tags, a monkey lease, monkey ranches, or just anybody willing to let them bag a monkey.

But as the winter months slowly passed, the animals remained safe, and the primate protectors began to breathe easier. It was the last week, and then the last day, of hunting season. And then …

On the final day of the 1995-96 hunting season, the four snow monkeys were shot. They had survived into a second generation as refugees from a sprawling suburb on the other side of the world, but they made the mistake of crossing a fence line in Texas. Five San Antonio hunters, described as guests of guests of people with a hunting lease, were the suspected villains, but for lack of evidence, no charges were ever filed. Too late to help Missy and her mates, TPWD spokespeople finally clarified the legal status of refuge primates. You can't shoot someone else's animals. You can't shoot a trespassing monkey. There is no monkey hunting in Texas.

The martyred monkeys didn't die entirely in vain. The shooting led entertainer Wayne Newton to San Antonio for a fundraiser. Other people gave cash and their time. From its small beginnings in Texas, the primate refuge movement has grown nationwide. Shortly after the shootings, the snow monkeys were able to move to a larger and more secure facility – now known as the Animal Protection Institute Primate Sanctuary – where they live to this day.

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snow monkeysanimal sanctuary, Missy, Lilly, Jason, Meggy, Snow Monkeys, Japanese Macaques, Macaca fuscata, Kyoto, South Texas Primate Observatory, Frio County, Endangered Species Act, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Dilley, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Snow Monkeys of Texas, Richard Lewis, Millet, Wayne Newton

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