By Staci-lee Sherwood
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 (CERCOPITHECUS AETHIOPS) of Dania Beach 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 and 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 everything.
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 that call Dania Beach home for ten years. 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 form small groups of individuals called troops which mainly consist of adult females and their offspring. Dr. Missy discovered that because they are essentially landlocked the males, which would normally leave to find their own territory and start their own troops, don’t leave because there aren’t any other monkeys to mate with. No doubt this effects what would be their normal behavior. Because this small group is confined no new genes are introduced and as Missy 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 so finding a quiet spot of land with enough trees and food is no longer possible so they stay where they grew up. The problem with wild animals dependent on humans for sustenance is that it can alter their behavior. According to Dr. Missy their “preferred food” is what humans bring to them like 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. Usually 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 to how a simple act of putting down food for a wild animal changes their behavior and what they teach their young. Another concern is how much nutrition they get when they feast on 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 assumed to be used in the pet trade. On the rare occasion a missing monkey is located in say a private collection because they are not native to Florida getting them back is almost impossible. The state won’t step in so this requires delicate negotiations on Missy’s part which can take years.
Over the years several monkeys have gone missing and their fate is unknown. Just as tragic is when a monkey climbs up to the power lines and ends up electrocuted or hit by a car they might have to languish in pain if a compassionate veterinarian isn’t available to help. This is why these monkeys need a sanctuary all their own which would alleviate these problems and bring a better quality of life. “Being labeled non native robs them of appropriate welfare like onsight veterinarian care and designing a feeding management program” Missy 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 Brazillian 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 caused by this. 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 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 Missy states “all monies will go toward creating a sanctuary.”
If you would like to help save these monkeys please contact the project at https://vervetproject.org/ or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/daniabeachvervets/?ref=page_internal
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 or if you see or suspect a monkey has been taken for trafficking purposes please contact email@example.com · 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
Click here to read about their new sanctuary
Also published on DiscoverScience2020 March 28, 2022