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One of the funniest, most remarkable stories I ever heard, I had to write it up. It is the tale of an escaped performing monkey that took up residence at Wakulla Springs in Florida, where it actually rode astride the local wild pigs.




by Lloyd Pye

Famous botanist/zoologist Ivan Sanderson once said the surest proof of mankind's close relation to apes and monkeys is to get to know one personally. While the universal truth of that statement will always remain debatable, there can be little doubt that in at least one case—that of Oscar the hog-riding monkey of Wakulla Springs, Florida—Dr. Sanderson knew exactly what he was talking about.

Wakulla Springs is a magnificent resort in Wakulla National Park, twenty miles south of downtown Tallahassee. It sits beside the deepest natural crystal spring in the world (185 feet), and is within the third largest bird sanctuary in the United States. The resort's lodge is an eclectic amalgam of early 20th century architectural styles, built in the mid-1930's by a wealthy lumberman and financier named Ed Ball.

Mr. Ball spared no expense in designing and furnishing his resort's twenty-seven rooms and suites. What isn't made of polished granite or marble is made of the very best woods available at the time of construction. It stands—and still serves—as a testament to the refined tastes and skilled craftsmanship of those who conceived and built it. It is a marvel of beauty and activity, and remains a legend throughout Florida's panhandle.

The most entertaining part of its legend goes all the way back to the time of its construction, when a small, gray-brown Rhesus monkey was purchased from a passing carnival show by one of the building foremen. Its owner was retiring and wanted to give his monkey, named Oscar, a good home. Oscar was a “perfect little gentleman,” the aging owner assured the foreman, “well-mannered and polite, like he went to Sunday school every week of his life!” Hyperbole aside, the nearly complete Wakulla Springs resort had a perfect use for the perfect little gentleman, so the foreman gladly took him on.

A large cage was built for Oscar on the grounds beside the spring, so people could be entertained by his antics while waiting to ride in the glass-bottomed boat (the first of its kind) that plied the surface of the crystal waters. For the first two years after the resort opened, everything went according to plan. Then one day Oscar's handler inadvertently left his cage unlatched and turned his back on his charge.

Apparently that was a break Oscar had been waiting for, because he bolted from captivity straight toward an isolated oak tree with wide, spreading limbs not thirty yards from his cage. It was a perfect target for a monkey on the run, though once up in it he would have been easy to net and return to captivity. Oscar flew right past it. Another isolated oak tree was forty yards from the first. Oscar rushed past that one, too, leaving himself nearly eighty more yards of open resort grounds before he could reach the first cluster of trees that led off into the Wakulla National Forest.

The frantic shouts of Oscar’s handler caught the attention of several people and two dogs being walked by their owners on the footpaths that wound through the resort grounds. Three boys and the two dogs gave chase, the dogs in the lead. Having already sprinted nearly a hundred yards and with half that more to go, it is hard to imagine how tired Oscar must have been, or what he might have been thinking. But whatever it was, “quitting” was not part of it. He scampered on all fours for the remaining distance and scurried up the first tree that led off into the woods, disappearing like a shadow into its topmost branches as his pursuers—human and canine—arrived, late and panting.

Oscar’s escape had been so swift, so sure, so adroitly carried out, it gave every indication of having been planned in advance. And even though all the facts pointed in that direction, the resort’s management scoffed at the idea. They were confident they could and would recapture Oscar in short order. After all, he was a mere monkey and they were…well, men…who soon found out the intelligence gap they were counting on was not quite as wide as they anticipated.

No scheme they tried brought them even close to catching Oscar. No chase on foot brought any human within 100 feet of him. Dogs were even more useless because one bark was all he needed to hear to be off like a shot. At his first glimpse of a net he would vanish like mist. No amount of his favorite foods—not even marshmallows—left as bait in his cage was enough to tempt him into it. He had apparently already seen—and maybe even fallen for—all of those common tricks.

The Wakulla resort's grounds became Oscar's personal play pen. He easily lived and comfortably moved among its thick canopy of trees, coming down when he felt like playing or socializing, which he did quite a bit. One of his favorite pastimes was to lurk in the trees overhanging the walking paths that crisscrossed the resort's grounds. When unsuspecting strollers—always males, never females—would pass beneath him, he would drop down onto their shoulders, get a firm grip on their necks, screech as loud as he could directly into one of their ears, then release his prey and fall over laughing (yes, monkeys laugh) at the antics his victims would demonstrate. That seemed Oscar's way of exacting a small measure of revenge for his years in human captivity.

Apart from harassing people for the sheer hell of it, the renegade Rhesus' most lasting notoriety came when he fell in with a local "gang" of toughs. Because Wakulla Springs is a nature pre serve, it is home to count less groups of wild animals. One such group was a pack of wild razorback hogs led by a huge, russet-colored boar the locals called “Brutus.” Brutus was famous in his own right for both his size and his ferocity. It was widely known that a prized bull living on a farm adjacent to the preserve had taken umbrage at the razorback pack crossing his pasture. He challenged the group and Brutus responded, tearing the bull limb from limb. That deadly squabble ended up costing Ed Ball a five-hundred-dollar payoff, but it made Brutus a feature attraction at the resort.

No one knows—and it is hard to even imagine—how Oscar might have made his first approaches and contacts with those razor backs, much less how he got past Brutus' wary defenses. But somehow he did. One day he simply appeared with the pack, riding like a jockey atop Brutus' front haunches, holding onto his spiky neck bristles like reins! And the reaction of all those who saw it was, first, astonishment…then absolute delight. Word spread. Everyone wanted to see it. Fortunately for the resort, the unlikely scene became a common event on the grounds. Oscar had found a home away from home.

Eventually Oscar made clear how he had cajoled the thick-muscled (and probably equally thick-headed) Brutus into becoming his primary source of transportation and protection. Grooming is a skill the dexterous hands of primates are particularly well-suited for, and Oscar was often seen grooming the swine pack, so it can be assumed he was delivering a level of service those hogs could not have imagined short of heaven. In exchange for Oscar’s gift to them, they supplied the salt (sweat) he needed and which his own kind would have provided for him had they been available.

Considering the amount of ticks, fleas, and body lice normally carried by wild pigs, it is no wonder Brutus and his gang took good care of their groomer extraordinaire, carrying him anywhere they went and closing ranks around him whenever humans drew near. But by then no one was trying to capture Oscar, they merely wanted to see him ride Brutus. And the resort’s management, realizing how good Oscar and his adopted "family" were for business, began to actively publicize their "famous" hog-riding monkey, which drew people from far and wide wanting to catch sight of the unnatural couple.

Unfortunately, for as smart as Oscar obviously was, he didn't know when to rest on his laurels. One day he sat watching a farmer who lived near the resort pulling several roasting ears from his cornfield for his family's supper. The next morning that farmer got up and found every remaining ear stripped from every cornstalk! By being able to mimic human behavior so well, Oscar had started to push the envelope of local tolerance. Then he went over the edge when he discovered the de lights of the hen house. By becoming an accomplished egg thief, he forced local farmers to demand his recapture or they would see to it that his famous adventures were ended—permanently.

(Understand that all of this occurred during the last half of the Great Depression, when gardens and hen-house supplementation usually meant the difference between a family being reasonably well fed and going hungry. It really could not be tolerated.)

After much debate a capture plan was agreed upon, one that took into account Oscar's familiarity with the usual techniques. This one would require time and patience, but it seemed certain to work. First, for a full week food was left for him in a certain spot at a certain time in late afternoon. By the end of the week he was surreptitiously awaiting its delivery, lurking in the shadows at a distance, clearly ready to eat.

The next week a large, heavy wooden box was placed near the food, lying flat on the ground. After a week of getting used to the food and the box in the same vicinity, the next week the food was placed near the box and one end of the box was propped up by a foot-long stick. The fourth week the food was placed nearer and nearer to the box, until finally it was under the box.

The next week a forty-foot cord was attached to the prop stick. That cord was in the hand of a well-disguised man who hid himself behind a nearby tree an hour before the food was scheduled to arrive. Sure enough, that man saw Oscar arrive and settle himself to wait for his evening meal. Man versus monkey, with the winner virtually certain. Then the food arrived. Slowly, cautiously, peering all around, Oscar crept over to it. He put his hands all over everything before reaching for the food, making certain it was all as it had been the day before. He might have been a monkey, but he was nobody’s fool.

Finally, when Oscar convinced himself all was as it should be, he made his move on the food. The hidden man’s heart raced and his hand gripped the cord tighter. This was it! Then he saw Oscar was only reaching under the box with his arm and hand, he wasn’t moving under it to enjoy a leisurely meal. He was keeping his body as far outside the box as he could and still reach the food. If the man pulled the cord, he realized, the heavy box would come down on Oscar’s pelvis and crush him. What would be the point of that? They might as well just shoot him and be done with it.

A think-tank of local “intellectuals” was assembled to try to devise a way to outfox Oscar. Ultimately a watermelon farmer suggested putting a heavy slice of melon under the box. Oscar, they knew, had a passion for ripe watermelon, and would eat it to the rind if left to his own devices. It seemed like a stroke of genius, and it was. When faced with that succulent slice, Oscar had to make a choice: eat it handful by handful from outside the box, or go up under it, grip it with both hands, and bury his face in it.

He finally made a bad decision. The man yanked the cord, the box dropped, and Oscar was safely captured and returned to the cage he had been absent from for nearly three years. For the next two years Oscar once again entertained Wakulla Springs visitors with his antics inside his cage. But then, incredibly, another careless moment by another handler once again allowed him to execute another blitzkrieg escape into the forest!

Having learned his lesson about hanging around the resort, he moved into a nearby rural community and again began stripping gardens and robbing hen houses. By then America had gone into World War II, so his activities were tantamount to a felony, and without his active presence on the resort grounds, there was not much pressure on the locals to cut him any slack. It seemed only a matter of time until he met a grim fate.

Fortunately, his luck held…in a manner of speaking. Before any farmer could catch him plying his two nefarious trades, he somehow crossed paths with a deerhound that took an instant dislike to him. Deerhounds tend to be big dogs with a broad mean streak, and this one was no exception. He must have scared Oscar silly, because once the chase was under way he made another of his very few tactical blunders. He scampered up the first tree he could locate, which just happened to be totally isolated at the edge of the community he had chosen to be his home.

With no adjoining trees in which to make his usual getaway, he finally, at last, was trapped. A group of locals responded to the deerhound’s insistent barking and soon realized what their dog had treed. Oscar, the famous hog-riding monkey, was stranded in their midst. Before shooting him outright, someone suggested they call the Wakulla resort to see if a reward would be offered. After hurried negotiations and an undisclosed payoff, officials from the resort were permitted to come catch Oscar and return him to his "home" in the cage beside the springs. And this time there would be no escaping—ever again.

Oscar, of course, had no way to know any of this. In fact, it is hard to imagine what he could and could not surmise by all the activity going on below his perch on a limb in the tree. But he could have had no doubts when he saw the Wakulla truck arrive and nets being un furled from its back. He knew what nets meant. But what could he do? In fact, take a moment, all of you reading this, to put yourselves in Oscar's place. Ask yourselves what you might do to work your way out of such an apparently hopeless trap.

What Oscar did was dig deep, deep into his old bag of tricks. As he so often did to unsuspecting strollers on the Wakulla grounds, he dropped down onto the back of...the still-baying deerhound! That startled the crowd, to be sure, but “startled” is a grossly inadequate description of how that poor dog must have felt with a monkey straddling his haunches, strong arms coiled around his neck in a do-or-die grip, and a piercingly loud voice screeching in his ear! The shocked deerhound spun left, spun right, shook his head frantically, trying to dislodge his unwanted passenger. Then he must have just said “The hell with it!” because he went tearing away in full howling flight, riding brilliant Oscar off into the sunset—not to mention complete safety—like a jockey on a thoroughbred.

A few hours later the hapless deerhound came skulking back home, but Oscar was never seen again. Some locals will tell you he ended up buried behind a hen house in a town several miles away. Others say that after his run-in with the deerhound, he stuck to the forests and lived out his days in forlorn isolation. It’s hard to know who to believe, though, since most of those same folks still insist monkeys and humans aren't related.

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© Copyright 2010. All rights reserved. Original materials on this site remain the property of Lloyd Pye, and may not be reproduced without his expressed permission.