Everyone loves monkeys, it seems. Their little humanlike hands, their curious faces, their funny mannerisms.
So when Jim Hammonds, 48, got his first pet marmoset a few years ago, he had an enterprising idea. Why not breed and sell the little guys?
He filed for the various state and federal licenses to breed, exhibit and sell them out of his St. Petersburg home, setting the price at $2,500 a monkey. He made a $200 sign for his front yard, which caught the attention of code enforcement and had to be removed. Then a friend gave him the idea to just make a simple sign to stick on his pickup truck: Baby Monkeys For Sale. Ask for Jim. 727-743-7178.
The phone calls started pouring in.
"You meet a lot of people with a monkey," Hammonds said. "Let me tell you."
He is the Monkey Whisperer.
At least, that's what it says on his business card.
Housing more than a dozen monkeys at a time, Hammonds can probably claim that title. But with it comes funny looks, occasional prank phone calls and mobs of people coming up to him every time he brings a monkey or two out in public.
"I get a lot of people that want to come look," said Hammonds, who also owns a pet capuchin. "And some who just want to ask if I really have monkeys."
People have questions.
Can they talk? (Not really.) Do they fly? (No.)
Is it even legal to own one?
It is with a state permit, and the ones Hammonds sells are among the most common of monkey pets, if one was to have a pet monkey.
Marmosets, which grow up to be the size of a soda can, are generally considered to be too small to pose a danger to people. They can live and sleep in a bird cage and eat a diet very similar to what people eat: fruits, vegetables, Vienna sausages, pasta.
Brent Brown, who owns a local auto repair shop with his wife, bought a marmoset for their teenage daughter a few months ago. He said he was surprised at how easy it has been. Mercedes Brown, 18, named her Myra, and she perches Myra on her head or shoulder and takes her to football games and friends' homes.
"I love her to death; she's my baby," Mercedes said. "You do have to feed them a lot, and you have to be prepared for that. But she's very quiet and just likes looking around, always smiling, always being funny."
Hammonds said he mainly sticks to selling marmosets, though he recently sold a pair of much larger ring-tailed lemurs named Elvis and Priscilla for $2,000. He keeps the adults in large cages behind his home and the babies inside. He makes it easy for potential owners — he directs them to a downloadable form for the state permit required to have a marmoset.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which oversees such permits, likes to keep track of any nonnative species living inside the state. Marmosets are from South America. It's fine if they stay inside people's homes. But if you get lazy or careless and let them outside on their own, said FWC spokesman Gary Morse, you're messing with nature.
"The danger of animals like these being released is not to people," Morse said. "The largest issue is how it affects our environment, which has been preserved for tens of thousands of years. When you get a nonnative species entering that environment, it changes the relationship between all other species."
The state has no problem with people selling or owning monkeys, he said. Just be responsible and don't let them escape. The FWC has trapped several marmosets and other monkeys on the loose — the so-called Mystery Monkey of Tampa Bay, a rhesus macaque that has famously been on the lam for at least three years, notwithstanding.
So far, Hammonds has not heard of any problems with the nearly three dozen monkeys he has sold over the years. Some customers come back and buy a second monkey to keep the first monkey company. He makes sure any potential buyers understand what they're getting into. They're like children that never grow up, he says.
Yes, he's doing it for the money, he said. It's another way for the divorced father to make ends meet, in addition to his various jobs in pest control, notary public and personal training. But he truly cares for the little creatures, he says, and he thinks and worries about them long after they've left his home.
"I'm not just a monkey mill," he said. "I love the monkeys."
Emily Nipps can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8452.