A Population Of Wild Monkeys Call Dania Beach Home
Missy Williams steps around the end of a chain-link fence at a Fort Lauderdale airport park-and-ride lot and into what can only be described as a truly frightening jungle. The way ahead looks impassable. Mangrove limbs and rope vines crochet from ground to sky. Underfoot, roots pop up everywhere, a natural bed of nails. Williams—an anthropologist, a mother and a seemingly fearless outdoorswoman—pulls apart the vines like opening curtains. And then she steps inside.
Before we go further, here’s a brief accounting of the ways we could be taking our last steps. There are snakes, perhaps venomous, in nearly every pond. The tangles of branches make perfect homes for a face full of spiders, maybe among the five poisonous kinds in Florida. Luckily, it’s brackish water below us, so probably no alligators. Just, perhaps, crocodiles.
“Anything that dies in this swamp just sinks to the bottom,” Williams explains. “It’s so humid that a body decomposes quickly.”
Williams stops a second, her head cocked up to the trees above us. It’s dark here, almost requiring a flashlight, even though the morning sky through the trees is a shimmering blue. Mangrove roots snap like chopsticks.
“Did you hear something?” asks her research assistant, Cheryl Ruiz, an equally impressive swamp explorer.
“I’m not sure,” Williams says, “but they may be watching us.”
We stop a minute to listen. Above us, in silence, may be an entire troop of monkeys. The wild monkeys of Dania are like that: if they don’t want to be found, they fade into shadows draped everywhere by the snaking canopy.
We pass through another thicket of mangrove limbs and rope vines and come upon a pond. It’s hard to tell from the ooze floating on top whether it’s a couple inches or chest deep. Williams steps in, sinking to her knees. The mud pulls at her boots. Once, she had a research assistant lose both shoes down in the muck. It took the better part of an hour to dig them out, everyone ending up head-to-toe in swamp mud. We watch a tar-black snake slither across the top of the water, right where we’re eventually stepping.
“Anything that dies in this swamp just sinks to the bottom. It’s so humid that a body decomposes quickly.” - Missy Williams
Williams goes back to her story about the missing bodies. “They will be here one day, and then the next day a baby is missing,” she explains. It could be the hawks. Or more likely the coyotes—one more deadly thing to add to the accounting. “We just don’t have any idea why they disappear.”
It’s a mystery hidden among these mangroves and swamp ponds. It’s a mystery that goes back a half century, an unsolved riddle that Williams and Ruiz hope to solve.
Why do the wild monkeys of Dania Beach go missing?
The 40 or so monkeys that call Dania Beach home are Florida natives. Their kind is at least the third generation in South Florida.
Pete Karsner was there, nearly at the start of it all. When he was a student at South Broward High School in the early 1950s, Karsner got a job at a roadside tourist attraction called the Dania Chimpanzee Farm. As tourists watched, he wrestled alligators after school every day.
He had learned it from a friend, a Seminole Indian. Starting when they were 12 or 13, the two of them would dive into the swamps and wrestle gators for fun, just to impress each other. “At the Chimp Farm, they would tell the tourists I was the only white boy raised by the Seminoles and that I didn’t speak English,” Karsner, now 82, recalls. “The tips were always bigger after that.”
The Chimp Farm, as most people called it, opened north of Dania Beach Boulevard on Federal Highway back in the 1940s, in a spot that’s now a power company substation. It raised monkeys
for use by polio researchers. It’s quite likely that monkeys from Dania were the ones Jonas Salk injected with his polio vaccine in 1952.
The researchers needed so many monkeys that the Chimp Farm shipped them by the truckload. The rumor has always been that the wild monkeys of Dania made their escape when an employee left a cage open. “It’s not a case of a big escape,” Karsner says from his home in Winter Park. “It was just a slow trickle.”
Occasionally, while loading monkeys into cages, one or two would dart off. Australian pines as tall as skyscrapers surrounded the property, and then beyond it were the mangrove swamps. Most of them were vervet monkeys from Africa. Also called green monkeys for the tint their silver fur sometimes takes on, they can grow to about the size of a collie.
The escapees totaled perhaps 40 or 50, no more than there are today. They were the lucky ones. At the Chimp Farm, they would have been kept in cement boxes with metal bars. “Oh, it was truly terrible,” Karsner says. “They just didn’t know back then that animals had feelings.” Out into the swamps, the monkeys had the run of hundreds of acres, and immediately, they thrived. They could raid Dania’s fruit and vegetable farms, gorging on tomatoes and peppers and
“Back in those days, Dania Beach was like the end of the world. It’s where every road dead-ended. It was a no-man’s-land, and the monkeys loved it.” - Pete Karsner
“They had a ball back there,” Karsner says. “Back in those days, Dania Beach was like the end of the world. It’s where every road dead-ended. It was a no-man’s-land, and the monkeys loved it.”
Karsner left in the mid ’50s, off to college, so he wasn’t there when the Chimp Farm shut down, he thinks sometime in the early 1960s. He heard that the monkeys that remained in the cages were sent off to zoos. Karsner took a desk job and climbed his way up to a top management position at 3M before retiring 27 years ago. His alligator wrestling stories became just dinner-party conversations, and he always wondered what happened to the wild monkeys he left behind.
For decades, the wild monkeys of Dania thrived, the rare sightings sounding more like the stuff of urban legends. Mostly, the end of the world remained just that, until development crept in to
Gil MacAdam recalls inching back into the swamps in the late 1980s, looking for the elusive monkeys. He worked for Broward County Parks, in charge of turning a large swath of undeveloped land in Dania and Hollywood into a new park. It was, at the time, the largest land mitigation project in the nation, preserving 1,500 acres of largely untouched native Florida. The area now includes West Lake Park and the Anne Kolb Nature Center and miles of mangrove wilderness.
But before all that could happen, MacAdam had to decide on what to do with the wild monkeys. Technically, under state law, they’re an invasive, non-native species and could be removed and either euthanized or sent to zoos or some other facility. MacAdam knew that wouldn’t exactly be the best public relations move. So he did what he could to inform neighbors of their presence. He tried to convince people to stop leaving out bags of bananas. Older ladies at Weiner’s Mobile Home Park were the worst culprits—they’d leave out bags of bananas and even hand feed the braver wild monkeys.
After opening the preserve, MacAdam retired from the parks and moved up to Fort Ogden in north-central Florida. But he considers his work with the wild monkeys among his legacies.
“We tried to minimize monkey-human relations,” MacAdam says.
As MacAdam was working on his park, something entirely new happened to the wild monkeys of Dania. For the first time ever, a researcher came in.
If there’s one moment William Hyler remembers best from his days with the wild monkeys, it’s the time he got his foot stuck in the mangroves. He was wading in chest-deep water, and somehow his foot got tangled in the roots. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get it out. The tide was coming in, and he had maybe minutes before it went above his head.
Hyler was going on 40 years old, a former Marine, and he admits he should have known better than to be so careless. He dove down, and he dove some more. And finally, he got his foot free.
After that, instead of wading in the muck, Hyler would ride a lightweight canoe through the swamp. From it, he’d watch the monkey troop scurry through the mangrove branches above him. He’d take notes on what they ate, how they traveled and their interactions with people.
It was all part of a research project Hyler did as a late-in-life anthropology student at Florida Atlantic University. He spent, on average, 35 hours a week back in the swamps. It took four months before he had regular sightings of the monkeys. Part of it was that he finally figured out the troop’s daily schedule. “I would go in without causing a lot of ruckus, but also not sneaking up on them,” Hyler says. He figured out they liked to know of his approach, so he’d make a low-key clicking noise, like calling a cat. The wild monkeys also had to get used to him. Eventually, they’d mostly pretend like he wasn’t there. One younger male even took to crawling on Hyler, often sitting on his foot.
After spending 13 months in the swamp, Hyler wrote a six-page research paper titled “Vervet Monkeys in the Mangrove Ecosystems of Southeastern Florida Preliminary Census and Ecological Data.” Florida Scientist published it, creating the first official scientific record of the wild monkeys of Dania.
At about that same time, though, the monkeys became widely known for a much more notorious reason. In May 1993, a 59-year-old Hungarian immigrant named Laszlo Nemeth hit one of the wild monkeys with his Geo Tracker. He was on Dania Beach Boulevard, and he got out to check on the monkey. It was dead. But then the rest of the troop came running. “They were so mad at me,” Nemeth told the Sun-Sentinel at the time. “They were kind of grinning and sticking their teeth out and jumping up high.” Nemeth fled back to his car, afraid they were about to attack. The incident got widespread attention, and Hyler thinks the whole thing was overblown. The monkeys have never shown any sign of aggression and were likely just mourning.
But the monkeys soon became unwanted pests. A trapper arrived, nobody knows from where, and started catching them. MacAdam recalled that the trapper used tranquilizer darts to take down the monkeys, standing in the water to do it, so that he wasn’t trespassing.
It’s unclear how many of the wild monkeys the trapper took. But Hyler thinks it changed the way the monkeys acted. At the time, there were reports of the monkeys crawling into Intracoastal condos and stealing food from kitchens. Suddenly, they withdrew. People had stopped feeding them, and sightings became rare. “I don’t know how long a monkey’s memory is or how deep it would burrow into their subconscious, but I think that trapping incident changed them,” Hyler says.
For maybe a decade, the wild monkeys of Dania retreated deep into the swamps.
Nearly four hours pass on our journey into the swamps on a cool, breezy Friday morning in January. After checking all the regular spots, Williams and Ruiz are resigned that we just might not see any. This happens half the time, although Ruiz had seen the entire troop just a day earlier. We begin to head back to our cars, taking a quicker route now around the streams and patches of mangrove roots and clouds of mosquitoes that hang in the air over the muck.
Like Hyler, Williams went back to school later in life, and so now she’s juggling her research with being a wife and mom. She’s working on an anthropology doctorate at Florida Atlantic University, and three years ago, she was debating traveling to Africa to study primates when she heard about the wild monkeys of Dania.
So one day, three years ago, she walked into the swamps for the first time. She says it never really frightened her. Really, it was a gift, because otherwise she would have had to leave her family for months or years to do field research in Africa.
During the summer last year, Williams taught an anthropology class at Broward College, and she asked her students to accompany her into the swamps. Eight of them came out. Most of them refused to go in. Ruiz, also raising her son and late to the college life, bounded right in. Now, either Williams or Ruiz are out here almost every day.
Their goal is to study everything about the wild monkeys of Dania, including using DNA samples to figure out where their ancestors came from originally. Williams plans to publish the results in a doctoral thesis she hopes to finish in about a year, a three-chapter tome that will cover everything about the monkeys.
Just maybe, the paper will include some hypotheses on why the monkeys are disappearing. Perhaps it’s that development has creeped in on their territory, or that the farms that provided them food are now housing developments, or that far fewer people are feeding them. But if they’re starving, why haven’t Williams or Ruiz found even one set of vervet bones? Why do the babies go missing without a trace?
“We have studied so many sets of bones,” Ruiz says. “Not one of them were monkey.”
In addition to finishing her paper, Williams is also now working on changing Florida law to allow the monkeys to receive medical care. They’re technically an invasive species, and it’s illegal for anyone to release them into the wild. So when Williams finds one of them injured, she can’t trap them and get them treatment, because putting them back would violate the law. That happened a couple years ago, when she found one of the females with an infection on her arm. Eventually it rotted the tissue of the entire arm, leaving nothing but bone, jutting out like a macabre skeleton. Williams knows it must have been excruciating, but she could do nothing but watch from afar.
We come to an old dirt road that cuts through property owned by Port Everglades. Weeds grow waist-high in the center of it, showing how infrequently it’s used. Power lines buzz nearby, and we’re close enough to hear plane engines taxiing at the airport. Williams asked that we keep the exact location a bit vague. She fears there might be someone trapping the wild monkeys.
It’s perhaps the best excuse to explain why they keep disappearing. The troop has remained at about 40, all these years, despite the vast mangrove swamps they could inhabit back here. Perhaps there’s someone sneaking in, maybe even at night, with plans to sell the wild monkeys of Dania on the black market to research facilities or zoos.
“Look,” Ruiz says suddenly. She points her walking stick at a track in the mud. Unlike raccoon paws, which leave claw marks, a monkey print looks like it was left by a small, slender human hand.
We walk a bit more, and Williams talks about the monkeys that have been spotted lately. Recently, one member of the troop that they’ve named Tarzan made it up to Rio Vista in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Neighbors snapped photos, and a news crew showed up to try to film it. Somehow, Tarzan roamed all the way out to west Hollywood, past Interstate 95, before making it back. Williams believes he lured a female from the troop to join him in a nearby swamp, perhaps starting a rival group.
“There!” Ruiz yells out. She points to the road up ahead, and a small vervet darts across the path. The next one stops and stands on hind legs, looking from a distance like a small hairy human child. We walk up slowly, and as we do, the monkeys dart across, one by one, on a well-worn path. Williams explains that they’re traveling from their foraging grounds, where they eat everything from berries to lizards, back to the swamp, where they take a siesta during the hottest part of the day.
We approach the path and the monkeys start jumping wildly through the mangroves. Charlie, a young male, comes right for us, maybe 5 feet away, eyeing us from behind branches. His long tail hangs down like a sturdy vine. The monkeys have faces that look like small black masks, surrounded by silver hair that juts backward as if blown by a dryer. Long, slender arms and legs end with identical-looking hands and feet that allow them to move dexterously among the mangrove branches. Looking at wild monkeys in the trees feet away, it’s hard not to feel both the urge to pet and cuddle them and also a tinge of fear of their intentions.
“He’s trying to intimidate you,” Williams says. “You’re new, so they may see you as a threat.” In Africa, she explains, vervets can be aggressive, and restaurants have armed guards outside to keep them from stealing food off tables. Their canines are razors, and if they wanted to attack, she explains, it wouldn’t go well for us.
But they never do. The wild monkeys of Dania have never been aggressive, instead living quietly here in the woods, surrounded by one of the world’s largest ports and an international airport and massive housing developments and multi-lane highways. They live like our own ancestors, foraging on inhospitable swampland, but yet surrounded by every sign of modernity.
Charlie and the others head off to their siesta. All of them seem to be accounted for today, one more day without being trapped or poisoned or eaten by coyotes or hawks or whatever is killing them out here. For one more afternoon, at least, the wild monkeys of Dania claim the jungle.
Researcher Missy Williams at Creative Mornings
Want to learn more about the research into the wild monkeys of Dania? Missy Williams will be the featured speaker July 14 at Creative Mornings, a monthly speaker series. Hear her speak at 8:30 a.m. at General Provision in Fort Lauderdale. To reserve a seat, visit creativemornings.com/cities/ftl.