by Mike Smith
Most people familiar with the narrow and meandering curves of South Highway 14 – in particular with the miles of it between the villages of Tijeras and Cedro – will likely also be familiar with the passing sight of a small, round cave just southeast of the Tijeras Ranger Station. Opening from an orange-gray cliff over a high desert valley in the Manzano Mountains, the cave extends about 25 feet into the rocky wall, and never stretches more than about three feet across. That “cave” is actually a horizontal test pit, dug decades ago by UNM geology students. Though its origins may be artificial, its nickname hints at a very real, and very unusual, history.
People call it: the Monkey Cave.
In early 1973, scientists with Albuquerque’s Lovelace Foundation at Kirtland Air Force Base conducted a series of experiments on a group of monkeys – rhesus macaques. In laboratory tests since immortalized by such papers as “Delayed Match-to-Sample Early Performance Decrement in Monkeys After 60Co Irradiation” and by at least one animal rights Web site, these pink-faced, two-foot-tall monkeys were strapped to plastic chairs for five days at a time, while tests were run testing their abilities to escape from painful shocks while subjected to increasingly higher levels of radiation.
Needless to say, the monkeys didn’t like all that. Increasing scientific knowledge evidently felt unimportant to them, because in August of 1973, five of the monkeys, all of them juveniles, made a break for it. According to the May 8, 1974 Albuquerque Tribune, “[A] female monkey opened the cage door and let them go.” After which, “They didn’t stop until they got to the mountains.”
Once free in the Manzanos, the monkeys soon found the cave whose nickname would be their legacy. For food, they dined on juniper berries and the leaves of prickly pears. They swung happily from nearby trees, scampered playfully up and down the surrounding cliffs, and spent nights huddled together in the cave and on rocky ledges for warmth.
“During a September  field trip down South 14 with the historical society, member Chuck Van Gelder remembered reacting with disbelief when friends who lived in the area at the time told him they’d seen monkeys with ‘shaved heads’ running across South 14,” wrote Denise Tessier, in the East Mountain Historical Society’s January 2001 newsletter.
Locals have also recalled leaving bananas and other food for the monkeys, and one man, Dennis Lucero, remembers luring one into his truck.
“Oh, that sucker tore out all the [truck’s] upholstery,” Lucero said. “And I gave him a beating and threw him out.”
In January of 1974, two UNM anthropology students began observing the monkeys as a “mountain primate colony.” In February, the Lovelace Foundation gave the monkeys to the university, stating that the animals were no longer suitable for their research. Numerous attempts to capture the animals soon followed, since their recurring road crossings threatened the safety of motorists, and since the growing monkeys had been wearing tight, chain-link collars when they escaped. It was not until April and May of 1974, however, that the monkeys were finally rounded up, thanks mainly to tranquilizers hidden inside some food.
The monkeys were treated for minor frostbite and then allegedly released in some other, more isolated part of the state. Today, perhaps another New Mexico landscape is soundtracked by simian chatter, but at Monkey Cave, there is only birdsong, and the hush of traffic.
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