The following is an edited excerpt from a question sent in by a reader.
A couple of years ago while camping near Lewiston , MN, I awoke just after dawn to the sound of an animal scavenging a pack of graham crackers that was accidentally left on the picnic table outside my tent. When I saw the animal on the table, I thought it was a raccoon. It was about a foot tall to the shoulder and was moving on all fours. When I got closer, it raised it’s head and looked in my direction, then very quickly went to an upright position, jumped off the table and climbed the nearest tree. It was grayish on the underside of the torso and black everywhere else. The odd part is that it held the crackers in it’s hand and used it’s free hand back legs and tail to climb. Once in the canopy it swung from branch to branch looking very much monkey like. My question is this: Are there any other sightings in the upper midwest, that you are aware of, of small primates?
This is a great question! It must be since hundreds of people annually call into DNR, local zoos, news stations, etc with primate sightings all over the U.S. These calls may be investigated by zoo personnel or the local Department of Natural Resources (DNR), particularly if there is reason to believe a primate is on the loose in the area. In fact, when I was working down south, we responded to several calls one year because it was believed that some of our primates had escaped our facility without our knowledge. (That didn’t happen, by the way!) I would venture to say that 99.9% of the time, the animals being sighted are not actually primates, but are other unusual mammals endemic to the area.
One main factor that prevents primate populations from ranging in the vast majority of the U.S. is temperature. Most primates are adapted to tropical weather, and thus primates housed in zoos across North America must bring their primates into heated areas when temperatures begin to fall. Given the temperature fluctuations in much of the country, it would not be feasible for any small-bodied monkeys we know of to be able to survive. In the case of a single escaped primate, it would be very difficult for most primates to live completely on their own in the wild, as primates are typically social and need membership in a group for survival. A solitary primate would be extremely vulnerable to predation, disease, and an inability to find food. (Note: primates did live in a once warmer North America…click here for more info!)
There are isolated cases where macaques have been found on the loose years after their known escape from labs or zoos. The reason for their success? They are large-bodied, which means less vulnerable to predation, can survive on all sorts of food, are excellent scavengers, and are adapted for cold-weather living. But even so, these cases are restricted to the warmer regions of the US, namely Florida and southern Texas.
I cannot definitively tell you what animal it was that you saw. My best guess is that it was not a primate, unless the animal was a pet that had very recently escaped from someone’s home or an animal facility of some sort. However, recently escaped animals tend to be extremely shy, avoiding eating altogether because they are so stressed. Thus, it is unlikely that a primate of this sort would be so bold as to scavenge food off your table in this way. But, not to say it is completely impossible! Just highly unlikely.
In reading your description of the behavior, it is hard to tell which animal it might have been. Several non-primate mammals are capable of grasping food with their “hands” and climbing trees. My first instinct was that you had seen a mink, which could be confused for monkeys, given their size, agility, and cleverness. However, the swinging in the trees is something unusual! Mink can climb trees, but then would scamper away across the branches. Plus, mink would likely carry the food in their mouth while climbing, not in one hand. Your description of the animal utilizing the tail for climbing…only a few primates use their tails in this way, and the only primate with an opposable tail that also brachiates is a spider monkey (seen in image to the left), which are quite larger than you described and would not be moving on all fours. Spider monkeys are sometimes housed as pets, so I suppose one could have been loose at the campsite. However, they still cannot survive cold weather and would have to have been out accidentally, not surviving alone for any extended period of time. Plus, a monkey of this sort is very recognizable, and most likely you would have had no doubt you were looking at one.
The calls I personally responded to turned out to be a relatively rare color variant of fox squirrel, when the suspicious character was finally sighted again. It was big, and striped gray and white, so people had assumed it was a lemur. If you saw an unusual mammal, it would be helpful to check out a guide to the mammals in the area where you make the sighting. For instance, the Minnesota DNR has a list of mammal species endemic to the state. See if any of these animals resemble at all what you saw. But remember, the animals in pictures often do not resemble what we see when we view them in 3D, actually moving around in the wild. Also, the mammals can have different color variations than what you see in the pictures, so we can’t rely too much on color alone. At any rate, it is fun to speculate on all the possibilities in this case, and I am glad you shared with me!
I hope this somewhat answers your question. You are not alone in your primate sighting, but it is hard to determine what the animal was in this case. If you ever see something like this again, be sure you grab your camera and follow that animal to get a picture. You can contact your local DNR to find out if anyone has reported a missing primate or made similar sightings. (A DNR representative verified that they do not usually respond to primate sightings unless you have a photo, so that is key.) And who knows? You might not be “just seeing things” at all but instead have discovered a completely new species of mammal or helped a local facility recover their missing animal in the process.