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  • Writer's pictureStaci-lee Sherwood

The wild Monkeys of Florida finally get their sanctuary

Updated: Mar 14, 2023

By Staci-lee Sherwood

Wild animals in Florida are classified in two categories, native and non-native. Many people assume non-native means invasive, using the terms interchangeably. Not all non-native species do harm, while some species will cause environmental harm this is not true for all non- natives. There are ecological differences between non-native and invasive species. An invasive species is one that outcompetes other species for food and habitat, they can also be native. It’s important to know and understand the difference because animals that are considered invasive are doomed without question through government sponsored eradication programs. Non-native species that do no harm can also fall victim to this outdated policy.

Where did these animals come from ?

Some species migrate on their own as they seek out better feeding and breeding grounds. For other species, they were brought by humans. Some of these species come from the exotic pet trade, think reptiles and fish released into the wild. Others are escapees from research labs and zoos.

In Florida there are two species of primates that were brought here by humans nearly a century ago. Those animals living today are descendants of the original animals brought here who escaped. The two species are the Vervet Monkeys in the south and the Rhesus Macaques in the north. The vervet monkey population is small both size (less than 40 monkeys) and geographical area they live in. They don’t outcompete with the native wildlife and contrary to rumors don’t carry diseases that spread to humans. There are several small families that live together in a community. Despite being free to roam they rarely venture out past their wild home in a very urban setting.

Dr. Missy Williams, a biologist who’s been studying these monkeys for the past ten years , runs the Dania Beach Vervet Project I first went down last year to meet her and the monkeys and check out their habitat. The first thing you notice is how they’re surrounded by industry and noise. Loud planes fly overhead every few minutes and the noise can be deafening at times. These monkeys were born here and don’t know their natural habitat is suppose to be void of human noise except for the wildlife they would be sharing it with.

The second thing you notice is the trash dumped by people with no regard for the monkeys, the planet or anything. In fact the pollution is so bad a monkey died from Tetanus last year. Despite the noise and pollution they can’t be relocated because of their non-native status and must try to survive best they can in this environment. Now that the sanctuary is established much needed medical treatment can be provided to these animals to prevent the tragedy like the one from last year. This is not a place for breeding or selling of the animals nor is it a zoo. The monkeys are treated with respect as all wild animals should be and not exploited like a commodity.

“We advocate for humane welfare options for existing monkeys. Betty and Spock are perfect examples of this.” - Dr. Missy Williams


At about ten years old Spock is well into his adulthood. He’s calm, preferring a more stately lifestyle having outgrown the frenetic energy that young Betty has. His life began like the rest of his family, born in the wild environmental easement in south Florida and living free. About two years ago he was trapped as a “nuisance” by Port Consolidated because he was being fed by employees. The decision to trap was made by Don Carlton, senior management. Sadly, this condemned Spock to a life of captivity. Spock would have stopped coming to the business if employees would have stopped feeding him” as Dr. Missy explains.

After he went missing he was discovered in Miami, held captive by a man who buys and sells exotic animals with FWC and USDA permits. This begs the question why does the agriculture agency have jurisdiction over zoos, circuses and private collectors of wild animals? Lucky for Spock that Dr. Missy was able to track him down and negotiate his release once her FWC permits came through for the sanctuary. This allowed her to legally keep a non-native animal as long as he wasn’t released into the wild. Without this permit Spock would have been sold into the horror of wildlife trafficking.

Legal or not those who traffic in wildlife are no different than those trafficking humans. These exploiters are cut from the same cloth. They choose animals because of fewer protection laws, fewer regulations and oversight agencies and a global attitude of callous disregard in general for abused animals. Punishment can take years and is more a slap on the wrist than deserving punishment for the crimes committed.

Considering Spock’s mistreatment and confinement in a small cage from his Miami days, he’s quite willing to share food when squirrels and birds come into his enclosure to snatch some nuts. His calmness around human caregiver belies the suffering he must have endured.

Spock’s enclosure filled with toys, boxes and plants, Betty’s enclosure is about the same in size.

Spock has ropes and tires to crawl and swing on, an fruit bearing plants to make it more like his natural habitat.

Making the trek home after being rescued.

Betty’s story

At about one year of age, Betty, is still very much like a human toddler. She has boundless energy and facial expressions to melt even the coldest heart. She is very lucky to have had a tragedy at a time when she was able to receive life saving medical care and a safe place for her to live out her natural life. Over the decades monkeys would get sick, become injured even electrocuted. Because of their ‘non-native’ legal status they were denied medical care, even basic pain relief. Now that the sanctuary is up and running the monkeys will no longer be denied.

The permit allows for all the monkey’s living there to receive medical care, not just Betty and Spock. It also means that other monkeys who end up sick or injured can come to the sanctuary and be helped. No longer do sick or injured animals have to suffer or die a slow death.

Click video below and listen to Dr. Missy talk about the sanctuary.

Betty shows off her surgical scars after having her leg removed.

You can see where Betty had her leg removed.

Betty’s enclosure is supplied with many things for her to use and play with like this hammock.

Click video below to watch Betty playing .

These plastic boxes are perfect for wild animals to use because they’re indestructible and can handle exposure to the elements. Being so small these make great cubbyholes for her to nap in. Toys for animals, especially wild animals, work best when mimicking what they would use in their habitat. Animal ‘play’ centers around learning and perfecting skills needed to survive, like hunting, hiding and attacking. For young Betty playtime helps burn off some of her adolescent energy.

Click video below for another quick peek at Betty

Betty is still very much a wild animal but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t love having her photo taken.

The need for sanctuaries like this

Spock and Betty are prime examples of why sanctuaries are badly needed. Non-native wildlife have few, if any options. This allows for humane treatment of animals who did not freely choose to live here. Betty’s enclosure was made possible through Animal Rights Foundation of Florida and Spock’s enclosure came from community support and the SPCA International.

Life for vervets include strong family bonds which consists of many generations.

For those unable to return to the wild, the safety of a sanctuary is the next best thing. The openness of the enclosures allows for communication and grooming between Spock and Betty and the rest of the group.

How to help!

Here’s a wish list of needed items:

· Peanuts

· Pistachios

· Bananas

· Bell peppers

· Cherry tomatoes

· Watermelon

· Mangos

· Ginger/Sea Grape or any fruit bearing plant

Click here for more ways to help

Also published on Emagazine March 1, 2023

Also published on The Good Men Project on March 11, 2023

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