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Planes, Trains, Automobiles and…….Monkeys?

By Staci-lee Sherwood

Special Correspondent to

When Americans think of monkeys they envision a jungle similar to what they’ve seen in National Geographic. They don’t think of monkeys living freely right here in the U.S. If you live in Florida you might be lucky enough to glimpse one of three species of monkeys living freely. For those who can’t make it over to Africa this is a treat beyond most people’s wildest dreams. The three species that call Florida home are the Rhesus, Squirrel and Vervet Monkeys a.k.a. Green Monkey.

The Vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus pygerythrus) of Dania Beach, a city in Broward County, Florida, are the descendants of those that had been brought here nearly a century ago to be used in research when they escaped and as they say the rest is history.

When I first saw the monkeys I was struck by how they really are living in an urban jungle. The title of this article truly describes their surroundings. Going deep into their habitat, it’s easy to close your eyes and imagine they really are living in paradise. Their habitat is a mixture of tall Australian pine and lush denser mangroves. The trees provide much needed shade from the hot Florida summers and provide exercise for the monkeys to climb and swing on. The taller trees make for a good lookout spot for the more curious monkeys.

Open your eyes, look around and you see the international airport behind them while the interstate sits in front of their habitat. On either side you can find roads, a railroad track and even a marina. They really do have a tiny slice of jungle surrounded by the modern trappings of human commerce. What must life be like living so close to humans and being dependent on them for all the necessities of life.

Primates need room with lots of tall trees and vegetation

Nursing moms need a safe place to raise their young

Dr. Missy Williams is a biologist who has been studying the vervet monkeys of Dania Beach for a decade. She runs the Dania Beach Vervet Project which is dedicated to saving this small population. Finding them a sanctuary to insure their safety, well being and medical care is the driving force of the project and one that she has been working on for years. She had been on her way to study monkeys in Africa when she heard that Florida was home to a small group just a few miles away.

Vervet monkeys live in troops, which mainly consist of adult females and their offspring. In the wild, the males would leave to find their own territory and start their own troops, but the males of this small troop don’t leave because there aren’t any other monkeys to mate with. Undoubtedly, this effects what would be their normal behavior. Because this small group is confined no new genes are introduced and, as Dr. Williams explains, the normal diversity that exists with their cousins in Africa does not exist here. Without new monkeys from other troops being introduced and breed with their gene pool is limited. This lack of diversity can lead to birth defects and a lower mortality rate than their African cousins. For an already small isolated population that can lead to an uncertain future.

South Florida is over developed, therefore finding a quiet spot of land with enough trees and food is no longer possible, so these monkeys stay where they grew up. Wild animal’s dependency on humans for food and shelter has the unfortunate consequence of altering their behavior.

According to Dr. Williams their “preferred food” is what humans give them such as peanuts and bananas. She said if the monkeys had a mouthful of food they had foraged and along came a human with some nuts they would “spit out the food they were eating in favor of a handout.”

The issue isn’t the food being offered, which is pretty close to what they would be eating in their native habitat, but how this alters their eating/foraging behavior. Normally, this altered behavior would spell doom but for these particular animals that’s unlikely since they have always been fed by humans. This rare opportunity offers insight into not only how adult vervet behavior changes but what they in turn teach their young

Another concern is how much nutrition they get when their diet consists of just a few types of food instead of a wider variety they would be able to forage for if they had a larger habitat.

Because their technical status is non-native, they can’t legally get medical care should they become injured or sick. Even worse is when one goes ‘missing’, which usually is the result of poachers who have been known to take monkeys (mostly females) for the pet trade. On the rare occasion, a missing monkey is located in someone’s private collection. And because they are not native to Florida, getting them back is almost impossible. The state won’t step in so this requires delicate negotiations by Dr. Williams. Such negotiations can take years.

Over the years, several monkeys have gone missing and, to this day, their fate remains unknown. Just as tragic is when a monkey climbs up to the power lines and ends up electrocuted or hit by a car. Sadly, these injured creatures might have to languish in pain if a compassionate veterinarian isn’t available to help. This is why these monkeys need a sanctuary of their own, which would alleviate these incidents and bring a better quality of life.

“Being labeled non native robs them of appropriate welfare like onsite veterinarian care and designing a feeding management program”, Dr.Williams said.

While the Dania Beach troops mostly live on food provided by humans, their wilder cousins have a broader diet. They consume a wide diverse variety of vegetation from leaves and young shoots to flowers and roots and supplement with insects, baby birds and the occasional rodent but rarely drink water. By contrast the Dania Beach vervets have a diet mostly made up of bananas, oranges, apples and peanuts while also enjoying some of the native vegetation. Sometimes they’ll eat the Curly Tail lizards and Brazilian Pepper both of which are also non native. There’s something full circle about one non native consuming another.

Infants are cherished in vervet society

Vervets are considered pretty common right now in their native land. However because of the exploding bush meat trade any species could wind up next on the list. As is often the case when humans target a particular species they become over-hunted and the invariable crashing of that species ensues. Unfortunately it isn’t human nature to stop and look at the wreckage. Instead, we move on to the next species as our main target until their population collapses. While the vervets seem to have a stable population now, many can see the looming disaster on the horizon. This may seem like an isolated problem in Africa but as those species crash the search for other populations can take poachers on a global search and that can jeopardize this local population.

According to the Jane Goodall Institute the illicit pet trade is tied to the bush meat trade. While the adults are hunted for meat their offspring end up in private collections or roadside zoos. It’s thought that for every live infant captured and sold as many as 10 adults are killed in the process.

‘According to the Bushmeat Crisis Task force, commercial hunting for the meat of wild animals has become the most significant immediate threat to the future of wildlife in Africa.’

The vervets of Dania Beach have an uncertain future. Despite their living quietly for so many decades. There is pressure to remove and kill them since they are non native. Until land is secured for their sanctuary this remains a constant concern for Dr. Missy Williams and those who have come to love the monkeys over the years. A safe haven would lessen the impending threats of a horrific life if taken by poachers or continued lack of basic medical care. A Go Fund Me has been setup to help move things along and Dr. Williams states “all monies will go toward creating a sanctuary.”

If you would like to help save these monkeys please contact the project at or or on Facebook

Let’s get their sanctuary funded

Tips for helping the monkeys :

· If you’re driving in the area and see them in or near the road slow down

· Never approach them, touch them or feed them

· Never post photos with location details

· If you see a sick or injured monkey contact

· If you see or suspect a monkey has been taken for trafficking purposes please contact

· Remember they are wild animals who belong in a jungle away from humans and are just trying to survive this noisy crowded urban area as are we.

Their fate lies with us let’s not let them down


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