MIAMI — MIAMI -- The woman on the phone was frantic. She'd jus seen five monkeys emerging from the smashed window of a neighbor's home. They'd been looting the house.
"Please don't think I'm crazy," she pleaded, "but I'm not making this up."
Todd Hardwick didn't doubt it for a moment. He makes his living rounding up loose animals, and by this time he'd seen it all in the wake of Hurricane Andrew.
Even now, four weeks after the storm, wildlife experts say there is plenty to see on this landscape where the wind made mincemeat of cages and holding pens.
There's the baboon that shook off a blast from a 9mm pistol and lumbered away. There are monkeys, still uncaptured by the hundreds. Llamas are on the loose. Hundreds of exotic birds dart in flashes of brilliant color through the recovering foliage. Scorpions crawl for cover. Three cougars lounge near a highway. Peacocks wander through a gutted beer warehouse.
A strange species of deer, unlike any found in North America, leads three National Guardsmen on a merry chase.
Escaped pythons curl up in dark nooks and crannies, though it would be better to meet up with them than the few mambas and gaboon vipers that have slithered off to points unknown.
Then there's the lion. It's a big one, Mr. Hardwick says. He's seen the tracks. At last report it was still out there. Somewhere.
So goes life in the new Wild Kingdom of south Dade County. It is a zoological chaos created in a matter of hours when Andrew's winds tore through monkey breeding centers, farms for tropical birds and fish, exotic animal dealerships, small-time exhibitors, and neighborhoods that housed one of the nation's largest populations of exotic pets, not all of them legal.
"It's like a Disney World of exotic animals out there," said Mr. Hardwick, whose animal-capture business is called Pesky Critters. "It's beyond my wildest dreams and my wildest nightmares. This is something you'll never see again, and it's never been like this before."
Though hundreds of animals have been rounded up, and hundreds more may well be captured in the weeks to come, wildlife specialists say many will never be caught.
But the biggest question is not which ones will stay free, but which ones will breed and become a permanent part of southern Florida's wildlife.
"It may be years before we are able to say how many of them made it," said Dave Maehr, a wildlife biologist with the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission. "But if there was ever a time we were going to see [establishment] of new species, this is it."
Lt. Tom Quinn, a state wildlife inspector who helps keep tabs on keepers of exotic animals, sees nothing but trouble ahead.
"It's an ecological disaster," he said. "Even before the hurricane you had things in the Miami area running around and propagating, setting up miniature ecosystems. Now they're all over the place."
Others aren't so pessimistic.
"The things that have had the greatest negative impact on south Florida have not been the exotic animals, it has been exotic plants," Mr. Maehr said. "The further away most of these animals get from human habitation, the harder the time they're going to have making it."
Whatever the case, just about everybody agrees that south Dade County was ripe for a plague of escaped animals when Andrew struck.
In all, there are more than 200 places in south Dade County licensed by the state to keep some sort of exotic species.
They range from the big ones, such as Miami's Metrozoo with its 1,600 species (though few of them escaped because they were placed in sturdier "night cages" as the storm approached), to individuals who might keep a snake or two in their homes.
The prevalence of so many exotic breeds in Dade County can be explained by one simple reason: the tropical climate. That makes the place ideal for raising exotic birds, reptiles, fish and mammals.
The state is now trying to track down all the people who kept exotic animals to compile a rough list of how many creatures, and which ones, might be on the loose.
But even when that's done there will still be the great unknown of all the unlicensed animals.
And, as Lieutenant Quinn put it, "In my experience with Dade County, you had about as many illegal animals possessed as legal ones."
The rogue lion, for example, hasn't shown up on anybody's list of missing animals. Yet it has been sighted by several people, including a few National Guardsmen, and Mr. Hardwick has twice found its tracks.
But of all the animal escapes pulled on the night of the storm, the greatest occurred in a far southwestern corner of the county smack up against the Everglades, at the Mannheimer Primatological Foundation, a non-profit breeder of monkeys and baboons for various medical research projects.
Andrew treated Mannheimer's chain-link fences, cages and pens like tin foil, and most of the foundation's 2,000 monkeys and 500 baboons ran off into the night. A few miles to the northeast, several hundred of the 550 baboons and monkeys at the University of Miami's Perrine Primate Center broke loose during the storm. A few primate dealers and importers also lost animals, and these mass escapes created some of the most vivid scenes of the hurricane's aftermath.
At the home of Air Force Col. M. B. Perino just west of the Mannheimer Foundation's sprawling grounds, as many as 50 monkeys were skittering on the roof the day after the storm. Another 20 were wandering inside after they climbed in through broken windows. These days a hundred or so rhesus monkeys still wander in the shattered piney woods behind his house, spotted easily as they use bent trees as sidewalks, clambering along. But Colonel Perino's German shepherd keeps them away from the house.
Mr. Hardwick has fired so many tranquilizer darts at monkeys and baboons that he's lost count. In one small patch of woods on Labor Day, he said, "I saw literally hundreds of monkeys. The whole woods came alive. It was like rats were in there."
Mr. Hardwick says he's found that when encountering such large numbers it's best to use "guerrilla warfare tactics. . . . You hit them hard and fast and maybe you can get three or four of them before the rest have scattered."
Between his own efforts and those of the Mannheimer Foundation's workers, who have set out baited cages and fired a few tranquilizer darts of their own, more than 1,500 monkeys and baboons have been captured. Another 200 or so have been shot to death, mostly by people edgy over unfounded rumors that the monkeys were infected with the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome from their use in research.
But hundreds are still at large, and as phone service has begun returning to scattered neighborhoods, Mr. Hardwick has continued to get bizarre phone calls about them.
"Yesterday," he said last week, "a homeowner called and said he'd seen a baboon climbing over his back fence to go after his dog. He shot him in the chest with a 9mm pistol. He said the baboon grabbed at his chest, turned around and went back over the fence, while this guy kept shooting at him."
But the primates are among the animals least likely to make a go of it in the wild, wildlife specialists say.
For one thing, they're used to the easy living of captivity, where meals are provided regularly. For another, said John Kaufmann, a mammalogist at the University of Florida's zoology department, "they are not loose in environments where they could persist very long. They'll all be looking for handouts from people."
That's because what little tree cover and foliage was around before the storm has been badly damaged.
And the nearest wild area, the Everglades, offers little in the way of shelter or the kinds of food they'd prefer.
Dr. Thomas Goldsmith, a Miami veterinarian who specializes in exotic animals and who doctors the animals at the Monkey Jungle tourist attraction, said, "Right now because of the storm there are a lot of avocados on the ground, and they can live off those. They can also eat a lot of the fresh weeds that will be coming back now. But there really is not a whole hell of a lot out there for them to eat."
But there is precedent for monkeys flourishing on their own in Florida, even if in a more wooded part of the state.
Rhesus monkeys are thriving -- so much so that some say they've become a nuisance -- along the Silver River, near Ocala, after their forebears escaped decades ago from the jungle cruise attraction at the nearby Silver Springs tourist attraction.
But there is no doubt that some birds and reptiles will survive into future generations.
"The landscape around Miami is OK for a lot of them because of exotic palm species and shrubs and trees which people have planted, that have flowers and nectars the birds like and sometimes even need," Mr. Maehr said. "Although the ones that get further into natural areas will find a tougher time making it."
But among these smaller animals are some pretty nasty critters.
"You're talking mambas and gaboon vipers, and western coral snakes," Dr. Goldsmith said. "I've been finding the coral snakes dead on the highway. There are Gila monsters, too, and God only knows what else."
Dr. Goldsmith may have summed up the total picture best when he said, "There is so much illicit and illegal [animal] stuff going on around here that we may never know what's out there. There's going to be some very interesting stuff breeding out there right now."
In the meantime, Mr. Hardwick stays busier than ever, still rounding up monkeys, penning strange deer, and, yes, looking for that elusive lion.
Now he's beginning to worry that by the time he finds the lion it will be dead, shot by Dade County's most dangerous animal of all.