Some of the monkeys seem jovial and inviting; others, inquisitive. And perhaps a few are a bit upset that someone has intruded into their comfortable world. Their home is a nonprofit charity zoo, Hernando Primate, in a secluded corner of northwest Hernando County.
The close-set eyes on baby-sized, dark-skinned faces framed by halos of fur entice visitors to want to cuddle the intriguing animals and invite them to wrap their hands, feet and tails around your shoulders and neck.
The five species of macaque monkeys, as well as six exotic big cats, in the care of zoo founder and president Ann Kelly appear as content as Bossy the cow.
All are rescued animals, Kelly points out. None ever lived in the wild. They are former pets that owners couldn't deal with as they grew up, animals once owned by keepers of exotics who lost their licenses or rescuees brought to Kelly by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
"The idea is to provide a home for the misplaced," Kelly, a licensed exotic animal keeper, said during a recent tour.
A few animals came to Kelly's 10-acre enclave by outright purchase.
Kelly, 61, bought her first monkey, a pig-tailed capuchin, 10 years ago, and shortly thereafter added another pair. She had completed a 1,000-hour course in exotic animal management with a qualified teacher in Clearwater so she could earn a license to operate a zoo. Since her property is zoned agricultural, she didn't have to hop through additional governmental hoops.
But her monkeys do hoops, and more. They are, by nature, a playful bunch and amenable to human interaction and suggestion.
Bailey, a 7-pound Java macaque, loves to perform tricks: sit, stay, peek-a-boo. Kelly notes: "His favorite toy is a plastic sword. He waves it over his head like he is king of the jungle."
Adds Kelly's daughter, Michelle Carlin of Hernando Beach, who promises to take over the operation one day: "They will play with any toys. They all have their own personalities."
"They're so smart," Kelly said. "We change out toys so they don't get bored. They all need interaction every day."
Carlin adds a caution to those who might want to take the seemingly adorable primates home. "If they have teeth," she said, "they'll bite."
Peering at visitors are longtail lemurs of Madagascar origin, Indo-Chinese macaques, two-toed sloths from South America, rhesus monkeys that appear harmless but become aggressive with age.
The 15 habitats on the property are appointed with amenities such as tree trunks, logs and climbing ropes. There are daily feedings that include fruits, nuts, pudding, flavored gelatin, energy bars and vitamins. The monkeys get daily "room service."
Then, there are the exotic cats.
Reggie is an African serval. "When he jumped to the top of the refrigerator, it was time to move him out," said Kelly, who had kept him as a youngster in her house for a time.
"Servals can jump up and catch a bird in flight," she said.
Into his own private habitat Reggie moved.
Kelly gave him residence away from the monkeys, in an enclosure near a pair of African lions: Maisi, a 17-year-old male, and an 8-year-old female named Mchumba (Swahili meaning "sweetheart").
The female may be pregnant, Kelly said, anxious and eager about the prospect. Other animals in her zoo have been neutered.
Also living in that area of the property are a 7-year-old female Bengal tiger, Kali, and a look-alike Indo-Chinese male tiger, 9 months old, named Rahja. They are friendly toward visitors.
Kelly welcomes tours and parties at her zoo. In addition to the animal encounters, she offers swimming in an in-ground pool, barbecues and an inflated bouncing enclosure for kids.
As a nonprofit organization, Kelly has no set fees for admission, but requests donations. Otherwise, operating funds are dug from her own pocket, Kelly said.
Expenses add up. In addition to outlays for the diets for the monkeys, the big cats may each consume up to 15 pounds of meat a day.
Kelly continues to work full time in a physician's office as she has for 31 years and relies on her daughters and animal-loving volunteers to help out at the sanctuary.
Her current thrust: raising about $100,000 to construct an all-inclusive primate building that could accommodate orangutans from Borneo, where development is infringing on their natural habitat and threatens their existence.
The good-natured apes, much larger than monkeys, require more stringent containments than Hernando Primate's current enclosures because of the apes' size — up to 200 pounds.
Beth Gray can be reached at [email protected]