Deep within the brambles of a marshy plot of land in Dania Beach lies one of South Florida’s most beloved secrets.
A wild monkey colony calls the area home, despite being non-native to the state of Florida.
The group of African vervet monkeys arrived in the swampy patch of forest adjacent to the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in the 1940s, after escaping from a breeding facility called the Dania Chimpanzee Farm.
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Since then, the monkeys have dispersed across Dania Beach, occupying parts of West Lake Park and the mangroves near Port Everglades.
The animals have become well-acquainted to life among the wetlands, enjoying handouts of food from humans who offer them bits of fruit, nuts and seeds to munch on. There are four social groups of the animals, with about 40 to 41 monkeys in total. The animals have lived in South Florida for more than 80 years.
But while the monkeys have adjusted to life in the Sunshine State, being so close to urban spaces poses deadly threats to the animals.
“Historically, they've been fed by people, so they're really comfortable being around people, and they've learned to associate urban areas with people because they know people equal food,” said Missy Williams, who heads the nonprofit organization the Dania Beach Vervet Project.
“However, because they do come out into the urban spots, they can get electrocuted. They've been hit by cars and then sadly, sometimes people even try to take them for the pet trade.”
Williams, who also wrote about the vervets in her PhD dissertation at Florida Atlantic University, said the monkeys tend to wander off onto roadways, or climb across electrical wires. Several have been hit by cars, electrocuted, or struck by lightning, she said.
In the past year, the colony has lost more than 10 monkeys due to unforeseen events.
Because the monkeys are a non-native species, they aren’t protected under state law. This distinction makes it difficult to treat the animals if they do get hurt, Williams said.
“For example, if one were to be hit by a car today and it survived, the only options would be either to euthanize the animal or find someone who has a Class 2 permit willing to treat it medically and take that animal on responsibly,” she said.
Neither of those options are ideal, Williams said, because many people with Class 2 permits are pet breeders and the monkeys would likely be used in the pet trade.
With no state protection as a non-native species, options to protect the wildlife population are limited. Wildlife centers and zoos are unwilling to take more African vervet monkeys, Williams said, because they are a common species around the world.
A Sanctuary to Call Their Own
Now, with the help of her organization, Williams is working on building a sanctuary for the animals. The intent is to give them a safe place to thrive without being harmed by the outside world.
Williams has negotiated with Hertz, Corp. to lease 3.75 acres of land next to a rental car facility in Dania Beach for a sanctuary. The land is privately owned, and Broward County has given the Dania Beach Vervet Project the green light to begin building on the allotted space.
The sanctuary would be fenced in, Williams said, and would feature a main monkey house and connected “sky trails,” or tubes that would allow the monkeys to travel from place to place.
The sanctuary would serve as a home for one of the social groups, which consists of about 11 to 16 monkeys. The animals would be sterilized as part of the plan.
“I think there's a small minority of people who don't want the animals to go into sanctuary because they will have to be sterilized, and that's I think that is the controversial aspect of it,” Williams said. “But when you go into sanctuary, the idea is not to let wild animals breed in captivity. And so, for example, if they were having offspring, where would they go?”
The focus now, Williams said, is finding volunteers to help build the sanctuary so the animals can continue to lead healthy and safe lives.
Donations are needed for land lease insurance, monthly live camera fees, batteries for trail cameras and building the monkey enclosure with a sky trail system.
“Broward County says we can go ahead and start building right here so we could start on the monkey enclosure, the main monkey house right away,” Williams said. “So we expect to kick off with some big fundraisers, and we're hoping to get people to donate their time, materials and labor, and that would be absolutely amazing.”
Written article and video editing by Selima Hussain. Videography by Akeem Brunson.