When I first heard about Morgan Island - more descriptively known as ‘Monkey Island’ — I conjured up images of H.G. Wells’ 1896 science fiction novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau. Later adapted for the movies, both Burt Lancaster and Marlon Brando were brilliantly cast at different times in the demonic role of the mad doctor, hell-bent on conducting science experiments on animals and humans. Set in the South China Sea between the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, that ominous setting added to the tale’s chilling storytelling.
Man is an island . . .
However, upon reflection, I questioned the similarities of the locales and the type of experimentation? How could an island off the coast of the bucolic countryside of Beaufort, SC, where I currently reside be the site of an animal laboratory? After all, the novel dealt with human-like hybrid-beings created from animals via vivisection on a private enclave. Monkey Island, on the other hand is home to over 3500 Rhesus monkeys and is owned by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources since the late 1970s.
Well, perhaps my imagination ran away with me, and there was is a marked difference between fiction and reality?
In fact, on this island, ‘monkey business’ is the name of the game, both literally and figuratively.
The monkey colony that inhabits Morgan Island today came from La Parguera, Puerto Rico.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), when incidents of the free-ranging monkeys were infected with the herpes B virus became known, South Carolina offered their uninhabited island for the monkeys to be housed. In 1979, over 1400 were shipped to the 370-acre upland just north of St. Helena Island, surrounded by a semi-tropical maritime forest.
Today the breeding colony is overseen by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is part of the National Institute of Health, for research.
The research conducted helps develop life-saving prevention and treatments for diseases affecting public health, according to the institute. But it could not provide a specific example of a treatment the S.C. monkeys have played a role in given the long history of the colony.
"It could be said that its members potentially had roles in many of the public health advances of this generation," according to an institute spokesman.
Monkey Island remains off limits to Beaufortonians and tourists, but according to one report, the ban has less to do with any dangers the monkeys may pose to humans and more to do with "concerns that people could give diseases to the monkeys."
Jeanette Klopchin, who studied the island as part of the requirements to receive her Master's degree at the College of Charleston had the privileged opportunity to visit the island a few years back.
"I only stepped on the island during one visit. The monkeys have distinct social groups and are not accustomed to people at all, so they do not approach humans by any means," she says.
"The island itself is quite beautiful. Historically tall oaks and loose underbrush made it easy to walk through the trails. There is a small facility and a dock, where the caretaker resides. There are large feeding stations and corrals set up at three to four stations around the island. I explored the tidal creeks and hammocks thoroughly, and documented an abundance of wild flora."
All's Well that Ends Well . . .
So that’s my tale of Monkey Island. No Doctor Moreau to speak of — just miles and miles of monkeys — living the life!
However the story has intrigued and motivated me to purchase a high-powered pair of binoculars to see if I can catch these animated primates walking the beach, sun bathing, dipping in the marsh or hanging from the treetops.
Here’s a map if you are also so inclined. “X” marks the spot. I’ll report back in a future blog of my findings. Please do the same. See you somewhere between the Morgan and Coosaw Rivers — checking out Beaufort's very own 'Monkey Business.'