Puerto Rico to ship pesky monkeys to Iraq

February 26, 2009 5:40:00 AM PST
Puerto Rico has found an unlikely solution to ease its surplus of pesky wild monkeys: ship them to Iraq.

About a dozen patas monkeys will fly across the Atlantic on a commercial carrier in upcoming weeks, courtesy of the Baghdad Zoo, according to the Caribbean island's Department of Natural Resources.

Puerto Rico is eager to rid itself of the estimated 2,000 patas and rhesus monkeys that have taken a toll on wildlife and agriculture in the Lajas Valley since escaping from nearby research centers 30 years ago.

"We will give them all the monkeys they want," said Sgt. Angel Atienza, a ranger with the department. "We don't have a problem with that."

Unlike rhesus monkeys, patas are not considered desirable for research, and there has been little demand for either from zoos - until now.

The U.S. military recently has spent more than $2.15 million to revive the Baghdad Zoo, which collapsed after the 2003 invasion when looters stole or freed almost every animal. Three lions were killed when they tried to attack U.S. soldiers.

The military rebuilt exhibits and trained Iraqi zookeepers. Last year, the zoo reported average weekly visits of between 8,000 to 10,000 Iraqis.

But animal welfare activists say the animals are not necessarily safe in Iraq.

"In the middle of the war, animals are the least of anyone's concern," said Lisa Wathne, spokeswoman for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "It's just reckless and insensitive to send these monkeys, who will be caged, helpless and completely dependent on humans to survive, to such a hazardous area."

Puerto Rico Natural Resources Secretary Daniel Galan said he believes the Baghdad Zoo is stable and has qualified zookeepers to care for the monkeys.

In Puerto Rico, officials already have been shooting some nonnative monkeys - a method they consider more humane than lethal injection - to control the population.

Other monkeys are captured, but finding adoptive homes has proven difficult.

Galan said officials have been pleading with zoos in the U.S. and across the world. But of the roughly 90 zoos contacted, only a handful have accepted and agreed to pay the shipping costs.

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