For half a century, they have haunted the swampy forests east of Federal Highway.
The Dania Beach monkeys, African vervet monkeys thought to have been released by an old tourist attraction in the 1950s, beg bananas, mangoes and other handouts from people who live and work at the edges of their habitat.
The monkey colony has been a shadowy, little-known aspect of South Florida life, with the monkeys hiding in the almost impenetrable mangrove forests west of Port Everglades. But a Ph.D. student at Florida Atlantic University has begun shedding light on them, launching the first systematic study of them in 20 years. Her initial conclusions: Despite talk that the colony was dying out, it appears to be stable and enjoys broad popularity in the surrounding community.
"We're seeing offspring every year," said Missy Williams, who is pursuing her doctorate in integrative biology. "They seem to be doing okay. I'm finding overwhelmingly that people really enjoy the monkeys being there. They see a hint of humanity in them. It brings a sense of joy to them — they play and frolic, and people enjoy feeding them."
The surroundings at the Park 'N Go on Eller Drive, which stands next to a fenced and protected mangrove forest, look unpromising for the survival of a group of medium-sized African mammals. The huge petroleum tanks of Port Everglades loom over the forest. There is a constant racket from cars on Interstate 595 and airliners taking off from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
But bags of bananas hang from a building on the Park 'N Go site, and the staff looks forward to the daily visits of these friendly and curious fellow primates who are trusting enough to take food from their hands. There have been no reports of any aggression toward people, Williams said.
"They're awesome," said Glenn Lucas, who said he was "shocked" when he started working there and encountered daily visits from African monkeys. "They're like our pets."
The monkeys will show up two or three at a time, he said, and when it becomes apparent that food is available that day, the group will swell to more than a dozen.
"Customers are like, 'Oh, my God, you have monkeys,' " he said.
Non-native species that are loose in Florida often face lethal treatment. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has organized mass hunts of Burmese pythons in the Everglades, authorized contests for spearing lionfish and gone after Nile monitor lizards with shotguns. But it has left the monkeys alone.
"These monkeys have been around for decades," said Carli Segelson, spokeswoman for the wildlife commission. "It appears that the impact that they have on native wildlife is fairly limited and they seem to be remaining in the same general area. Also in this case, there does not seem to be much interaction with humans. For these reasons, removal is not a top priority for the agency."
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The monkeys are the descendants of animals that escaped from The Anthropoid Ape Research Foundation, known locally as the Chimp Farm, which combined a breeding operation to provide primates for scientific research with tourist activities such as alligator wrestling. Williams tracked down a former employee who said a dozen of them escaped into the mangroves in the 1950s. Other monkey colonies exist in Florida, including rhesus macaques in Ocala and squirrel monkeys in the Miami and Titusville areas.
Williams' research, which began early last year and uses student volunteers from Broward College, FAU and the University of Florida, has established that the colony consists of about 35 monkeys, living in four groups. When males reach sexual maturity, they leave their group and join another one.
They live in the mangrove forests wedged between Federal Highway and Port Everglades, leaving to patrol the parking lots of nearby businesses for handouts. They eat almost anything people give them — fruit, raisins, peanuts, trail mix, candy bars, Gummy Bears. Williams said they prefer fruit. It's illegal to feed them, but she found the law is pretty much ignored.
The monkeys retreat to the mangroves to sleep and keep out of the heat. They also find meals there, catching anoles and ants, picking berries and mangrove seed pods.
They tend to get along well, without competition for territory. They can be seen grooming each other, with one monkey lying on its back so another monkey can pick dirt and bugs off its belly, or sitting so its back can be groomed.
The only conflicts appear to take place in competition for food handouts. If someone throws out only one piece of fruit, they will fight over it.
Jeff Allen, who works at the Park 'N Go, said one large male is "overly aggressive toward the others, taking the food from the others."
A gravely injured female monkey, with the flesh stripped from her lower arm and the bones exposed, turned up recently at the Park 'N Go. Allen tried without success to get someone to help the monkey.
Williams said the wounds were probably the result of a fight over food. The injuries, serious as they are, may not necessarily be fatal, she said. Other monkeys of the same species have survived similar injuries, she said. A male monkey who lost an arm in a fight recovered. A female monkey in Africa received similarly severe arm injuries and survived to reproduce.
The monkey is still showing up at the Park 'N Go, Allen said, and appears to be in good health. They give her extra food.