Monkeys near Florida airport delight visitors

DANIA BEACH, Florida. – As departing jets thundered overhead, an elderly vervet monkey rode an ego-battered one last afternoon on a mangrove branch in the woods he inhabits near a South Florida airport.

Mikey, as he’s known to his human observers, has long been the laid-back alpha male of a troupe of apes who rule this piece of land tucked away on a busy runway at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. But that day he lost when he was challenged by a feisty boy named Spike. Mikey fled screaming and was now staring sullenly at people who were watching him from 4 meters away.

“Had a bad day?” asks Deborah “Missy” Williams, a Lynn University science professor who has been studying the force and others nearby since 2014. She is also the founder of the Dania Beach Vervet Project which is trying to preserve this unique colony. “We’ll leave you alone to think.”


There are no native monkeys in the United States, but the smaller vervet monkeys have roamed Dania Beach since the late 1940s, after a dozen animals brought from West Africa fled a long-closed breeding facility and roadside zoo. Today, 40 descendants are divided into four troops living within 1,500 acres (600 hectares) of the airport. Florida also has some escaped macaque and squirrel monkey colonies.

Florida wildlife officials often kill invasive species to protect native animals. But they tolerate the vervet monkeys if they stay put. The monkeys are local celebrities, their endeavors detailed on TV and in newspapers, and popular visitors with nearby workers who feed them despite signs advising it is illegal.

“My friends say, ‘Do you have monkeys at your job?'” laughed airport parking lot attendant Harlen Caldera as she handed them raisins and nuts. Some ate from her hand while others snatched up the food she scattered.


Travelers are often surprised to see the monkeys. They squeal with delight and grab their phones in hopes of photos. Vervet monkeys are gray and black with a greenish tinge that helps them blend in with the trees. Males typically grow to 0.6 meters (2 feet) and 6.8 kilograms (15 pounds); Females reach 18 inches (0.5 meters) and 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms). They live about 20 years.

Caldera and her staff protect the monkeys, who are not afraid of humans, and make sure no one tries to capture or harm them. “You never know what people will do,” she said.

The entrance to the 15 acres ruled by Mikey the Matriarch, Snow White and her squad is at the back of the parking lot and sealed by a locked fence. The mangrove trees are dense and the trail muddy – except where it is covered with shallow water.

Williams began studying monkeys while pursuing his PhD at Florida Atlantic University and stayed there. As she and her guests waded deeper into the monkey compound one final afternoon, the 16-strong troop approached. The colony thrives on spiders, ants, lizards, seeds and flowers – when not looking for food for the humans.


“They learn to adapt to a human diet quickly — they love things sugary and salty,” Williams said, noting that they tolerate human food remarkably well.

In Africa, vervet monkeys are eaten by leopards, eagles and snakes. But in Florida, the dangers lie outside the mangroves — mostly cars and trappers who sell them as pets.

Because of their small population, Williams is concerned that inbreeding could harm the monkeys’ health. In Africa, male vervet monkeys leave their natal group when they reach sexual maturity at 5 years of age and join another. They move again every few years. With only four local troops, there is not enough rotation among males, making the genetic pool small.

Because apes are an invasive species, Florida places strict restrictions on how Williams’ group can help them. Captured monkeys cannot be released – they must be euthanized or taken into captivity.

Because Williams doesn’t believe monkeys should be pets, she doesn’t seek veterinary care for seriously injured and sick monkeys in the hope that nature will heal them. But her group is building an enclosure for vervet monkeys that have been trapped for treatment or because they’ve migrated too far.


Ultimately, Williams wants Florida to allow the release of captive vervet monkeys. Unlike Burmese pythons, iguanas and other invasive species, she argues, the colony doesn’t harm the environment.

“Monkeys’ lives matter, whether they’re non-native or native,” she said. “All options should be exhausted to avoid euthanasia.” Their models show that without change, the colony will die off within 50 years.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission responded that while the colony can remain, no exception can be made allowing the monkeys to be released after capture because their impact on the ecosystem is “not well understood.”

“Also, there is an inherent risk of injury when dealing with wildlife. Monkeys can behave defensively and bite or scratch. Mammals, including vervet monkeys, can harbor human-transmissible diseases such as rabies,” the statement said.

As darkness fell, the squad moved from the mangroves to the airport parking lot. It’s meal time and there are seeds to pick and treats to get for workers. Some played while others groomed each other. Spike and Mikey tussled again before William’s admonishment separated them. The aging king and his would-be heir then sat a foot apart and eyed each other suspiciously.


Soon fed up, the monkeys climbed back into their trees to spend another night in their unexpected kingdom, ignoring the noisy metallic birds that flew overhead.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission. Monkeys near Florida airport delight visitors

Jaclyn Diaz

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