The Secret that Lies Off the Coast of South Carolina


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Morgan Island, a privately owned island off of Beaufort, S.C., is home to more than 3,000 monkeys.

Once used in research, the monkeys now roam the island uninhabited by humans. However, controversy lingers over reports that some monkeys are still being taken away for research. 

Set your course for 32.4774º N and 80.5195ºW, and you’ll reach Monkey Island, a real-life place many people considered a legend until only recently. Still, the island remains cloaked in secrecy.

Located in the St. Helena Sound between the Coosaw and Morgan Rivers, off the coast of Beaufort, S.C., 4,489-acre Morgan Island got its unofficial name when a breeding colony of rhesus macaques (aka monkeys) was relocated from the Caribbean Primate Research Center in Puerto Rico.

Monkeys carrying the herpes B virus had apparently escaped from the facility and caused panic among locals, resulting in relocation of the monkeys during 1979-80. 

"Over time, the colony of 1,400 grew to the present day population of 3,500."

Privately held at first, the island was sold to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (“DNR”) in 2002. The monkeys themselves are owned by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of NIH

The monkeys and 400 acres of upland where they reside were originally leased to Labs of Virginia, which later became Alpha Genesis (AGI), a nonhuman primate research facility and primate supplier located in Yemassee, S.C. (Former Beaufort mayor David Taub served on Monkey Island’s original management team.) In 2007, Charles River Laboratories (“CRL”), a $1.36 billion operation serving the pharma and biotech industries, acquired the leases. 

WHAT ARE RHESUS MACAQUES?

Native to Asia, these highly intelligent creatures are often revered as sacred. “They’re the ones you see running all over the temples in Thailand,” says environmental specialist Jeanette Klopchin. “The perfect experimental animals.”

NIAID says they can live naturally to about 25 years old. 

Perhaps the most famous is Able who was launched into space in 1959 to test the effects of space travel on humans. His body is preserved and on view at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. 

In the wild, these monkeys live in groups called troops, predominated by females. They have complex ingrained and long-lasting family and other social structures, and are the most wide-ranging primates, next to humans. 

LIFE ON MONKEY ISLAND 

DNR biologist Phil Maier says the 4000-plus acre tract includes creek, marsh, transitional areas and various small hammock islands. The upland portion is primarily maritime forest. 

The macaques are free-ranging, forage for acorns, insects, shellfish and plants, and “are the last standing group of rhesus monkeys used for medical research in the U.S.,” according to Klopchin. NIAID maintains that no research is conducted on the island, however. 

Klopchin visited Monkey Island many times to study whether the monkeys were having an adverse environmental impact. She concluded they had little to none, their presence actually contributing to a sounder vegetation structure on the island. 

Boaters have observed monkeys sunbathing, strolling the beach, and dunking in the marsh. Klopchin says they also have favorite places to hang out, play, and mate, and even a spot where elders go to die. 

To read more about Monkey Island and its furry residents, subscribe now or pick up the April/May issue of South magazine. 

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