Deep in the swampy trees of a swampy patch of land in Dania Beach lies one of South Florida’s beloved secrets.
A colony of wild monkeys calls the area home, although it is not native to Florida.
A group of African vervet monkeys reached a swampy patch of woodland adjacent to the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in the 1940s, after escaping from a breeding facility called Dania Chimpanzee Farm.
Since then, the monkeys have spread across Dania Beach, occupying parts of West Lake Park and the mangroves near Port Everglades.
Animals become well acquainted with life among the wetlands, and enjoy food handouts from humans who give them bits of fruit, nuts, and seeds to eat. There are four animal social groups, with approximately 40 to 41 monkeys in total. Animals have lived in southern Florida for more than 80 years.
But while the apes have adapted to life in the sunshine condition, being too close to urban spaces poses deadly threats to the animals.
said Missy Williams, who chairs the nonprofit Dania Beach Werft Project.
“However, because they go out into urban areas, they can get electrocuted. They were hit by cars and then unfortunately, people sometimes try to take them for the pet trade.”
Williams, who also wrote about vervet plants in her doctoral thesis at Florida Atlantic University, said monkeys tend to wander on roads or climb through electrical wires. She said many of them were hit by cars, electrocuted, or stunned.
Last year, the colony lost more than 10 monkeys due to unexpected events.
Because monkeys are a non-native species, they are not protected by state law. This distinction makes it difficult to treat animals if they are injured, Williams said.
“For example, if someone were hit by a car today and survived, the only option would be to either euthanize the animal or find someone with a Category 2 clearance willing to medically treat it and take that animal responsibly,” she said.
Neither of these options is ideal, Williams said, because many people with Class 2 permits are pet keepers and monkeys are likely to be used in the pet trade.
With no government protection as a non-native species, wildlife protection options are limited. Wildlife centers and zoos are unwilling to take in more African vervettes, Williams said, because they are a common species worldwide.
Now, with the help of her organization, Williams is working to build an animal sanctuary. The intent is to give them a safe place to thrive without being harmed by the outside world.
“If we get the safe haven, they’ll be able to get veterinary care, proper nutrition, and they’ll be able to live safely for the rest of their normal lives,” Williams said.
Williams negotiated with Hertz to lease 3.75 acres of land adjacent to a car rental facility in Dania Beach for a safe haven. The land is privately owned, and Broward County has given the Dania Beach Werft Project the go-ahead to begin construction on the designated space.
The sanctuary will be fenced, Williams said, and will feature a main monkey house and connected “sky paths,” or tubes that allow the monkeys to move from one place to another.
The sanctuary will serve as a home for one of the social groups, which consists of about 11 to 16 monkeys. The animals will be spayed as part of the plan.
“I think there’s a small minority of people who don’t want the animals to go to the sanctuary because they’re going to have to be spayed, and I think that’s the controversial aspect of that,” Williams said. “But when you go to a sanctuary, the idea is not to allow wild animals to breed in captivity. And so, for example, if they had offspring, where would they go?”
Williams said the focus now is to find volunteers to help build the sanctuary so the animals can continue to live healthy and safe lives.
Donations are required To secure land rent, monthly live cam fee, batteries for trail cams and construction of the monkey barn with a Sky trail system.
“Broward County says we can go ahead and start building here so we can start the monkey barn, the main monkey house right away,” Williams said. “So we expect to start with some big fundraisers, and hopefully get people to donate their time, their materials and their work, and that’s going to be very cool.”
Article written and video edited by Salima Hussain. Videography by Achim Bronson.