Monkeying With Nature

Pink flamingos are synonymous with Florida, just as tumbleweeds say “Nevada.” But did you know both are foreign species? Yup. Don't assume everything you see in the wild belongs there, even if it does become a state bird like the ring-necked pheasant in South Dakota.

“I'm fascinated by the way so many exotic species become interwoven with our ideas of 'America,'” says Kim Todd, author of Tinkering With Eden: A Natural History of Exotics in America. She believes we all can do our part to keep foreign plants and animals from overtaking natives by exploring the origins of our garden plants and the insects on our windowsills. “All the effort up front to keep new species out, though it seems like an exercise in futility, is nothing compared with the difficulty of getting rid of a species once it has started to take root.”

Amen, say those who have tried mightily to evict such intruders as:

NUTRIA. The man behind the Tabasco sauce company, E.A. McIlhenny, thought he'd start a fur farm on Louisiana's Avery Island, so in the 1930s he released into the wild six pair of beaver-like South American rodents called nutria. A hurricane in 1940 pushed all 150 nutria onto the mainland—and the rest is history. The nation now harbors more than 10 million nutria, according to a report by James McCann of the National Biological Service. Nutria ended up along the Eastern Seaboard, in Texas and at least as far as Oregon, in some cases because they simply went there, in others through importation for fur farms and (failed) biological controls against plants like cattails. When Texas imported nutria to go after water lilies, the munching critters “eradicated the targeted plants and everything else in the area. In a short time, the lakes were changed into denuded potholes that were not even suitable habitat for the nutria,” according to McCann's report. Nutria also compete with native muskrat and waterfowl.

CANADA GEESE. Remember when it was cool—a rarity—to see a Canada goose? It still may be cool for fans like the New York-based Coalition to Prevent the Destruction of Canada Geese. But other people, vexed by goose droppings, notice that neither lasers, nor dogs, nor scare guns seem to send all of the widespread suburban Canada geese back to their native frosty North. It's considered a nuisance by some people, but don't blame the goose. Well-intentioned people caused the problem—After the migrating Canada goose almost went extinct due to hunting and commercial harvesting, people got excited in the 1960s when small groups of Canada geese were rediscovered at some refuges, according to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). So they relocated eggs and birds to new areas and coddled them. The geese didn't learn the migratory pathways, so they stayed year-round. Why leave? Wide lawns and big ponds, HSUS says, are “perfect goose habitats.”

The Canada goose has become a nuisance animal through much of the U.S., leaving its droppings everywhere and refusing to migrate.© Jason Kremkau

MONKEYS. Lore has it that the Tarzan film crew left behind the free-roaming rhesus monkeys that for years delighted tourists taking boat tours at the Silver Springs attraction in central Florida. In reality, the monkeys arrived before actor Johnny Weissmuller ever swung through those vines. In 1938, the attraction's then-owner—a man who's given name was “Colonel Tooey”—imported monkeys to live on an island he dredged in the river. Imagine his surprise when he released them onto the island—and moments later saw them swim to the other side and disappear into the distant woods. Tooey didn't know they could swim! Undaunted, he imported more, having seen how tourists loved watching him entice the monkeys to river's edge with food. A movement to remove the breeding troops of monkeys prompted a protest petition signed by more than 25,000 area residents in 1993. Most monkeys since were relocated, but, according to the Ocala Star Banner, “There are still occasional sightings of the rhesus in areas around Silver Springs and the [Ocala National] forest.”