Construction began Monday on a sanctuary for the vervet monkeys of Dania Beach, a wild colony whose ancestors escaped from a breeding farm in the 1940s.
Workers began clearing space in a swampy forest wedged between Port Everglades and Fort Lauderdale airport, where the first enclosure will house monkeys who have become a weird and beloved part of the neighborhood.
About 45 monkeys live in the dense shadowy forest, darting from tree to tree, grooming each other and begging for handouts of fruit and peanuts. The initial enclosure will house only two, but there are plans for expansion.
For the monkeys, whose ancestors had been headed toward the miseries of research laboratories and roadside zoos, the loss of freedom may carry a touch of irony and sadness. But Deborah “Missy” Williams, a biologist who heads the non-profit Dania Beach Vervet Project, said life for the monkeys can be rough, with some getting electrocuted on power lines or suffering grievous wounds from cars.
“After seeing some of the monkeys dying of wounds that could be treated or people taking them for the pet trade, I just felt it was almost my responsibility to help out with them, just because I knew what was going on behind the scenes that people aren’t aware of,” said Williams, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the colony for Florida Atlantic University. “I just couldn’t walk away knowing that if a monkey gets hurt, that the animal’s going to suffer.”
The enclosures are required by state law. Williams had hoped to just provide the monkeys with veterinary care and return them to their forest. But Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission refused permission since they’re a non-native species, saying they couldn’t be released back into the wild.
The colony’s original monkeys, native to Africa, had been housed at the Dania Chimpanzee Farm, which sold monkeys to zoos and medical research facilities. A few escaped into the forest in 1948 and thrived, the colony’s numbers growing as their sleepy corner of the world became home to an international airport, a busy seaport and the roaring traffic of Interstate 595.
One of the first arrivals to the enclosure will be a monkey named Spock. He had been trapped in the neighborhood on orders of a warehouse manager who didn’t want him begging for treats from employees. He was traced to a small cage in the yard of a house in Miami-Dade County and rescued. With his rescue, he will return to the Dania Beach colony, although he’ll be living inside the fenced enclosure.
The initial sanctuary plan is modest, a 200-square-foot enclosure that will house two monkeys. They will be given extensive enrichment activities, such as food hidden in pine needles so they have to forage for it. College students will receive academic credit for interacting with them.
The long-term plan is more elaborate. Plans call for adding on to the enclosure and constructing overhead walkways through the forest, so an entire social group of 16 monkeys can be safely housed. The Dania Beach Vervet Project has already leased 3½ acres for the new enclosure, which is enough land to expand it. But Williams estimates it could cost $100,000.
“That’s my dream, to have various sizes of enclosures on the three-and-a-half acres, they’re all connected with walkways to they can have their own space to spread out as they need to,” Williams said. “So they have plenty of room to get away from another monkey. So they can take a break from all the social activity.”