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Like the lawless apes who kidnap Mowgli in The Jungle Book, the troop of green monkeys that took over a parking lot in Dania Beach, South of Florida, moves between trees, poses boisterously on cars and unabashedly accepts the tribute of food brought to them by locals and curious onlookers.
They are, without a doubt, local celebrities and the most spoiled primates in the state of Florida, so rigorous in the elimination or capture of non-native or invasive species. This second qualification is an aggravation to this colony of sociable and intelligent monkeys that have never been aggressive with humans.
Since the late 1940s, after a dozen vervet monkeys brought from Africa escaped from a now-closed chimpanzee farm, these little monkeys with black faces and gray-fur have wandered free through a mangrove area in the vicinity of the Fort Lauderdale airport in North Miami.
Today, some 40 apes, descendants of those that escaped from Dania Chimp Farm hatchery, have adapted to the region as if it were the original African habitat.
The monkeys have made their kingdom out of this closed swampy territory of mangroves and dense vegetation, something that does not prevent them from coming down from the trees to socialize with humans who come to the parking lots to take pictures of them, watch them run around or give them food, despite the fact the latter is prohibited.
“What they like most is fresh fruit, especially bananas and mangoes that people give them, though they also eat lizards, insects, leaves and certain flower buds from the mangroves”, explained Deborah “Missy” Williams, a Lynn University science professor who has been studying this unique colony of vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus pygerythrus) since 2013, in her talk with EFE News.
At the airport, in one of the Hertz car rental parking lots, a score of twenty monkeys mill around in an instant to enjoy the dried fruit spread out on the ground by a worker near the car park.
The alpha male of the group tips the rest to impose its authority and the privilege of choosing first, but there is food for everyone.
They smell the food
A new visitor treats them to a feast of pistachios and assorted nuts. The troop of monkeys does not hesitate and pounce on them, but, as appetizing as they may seem, they follow a refined ritual: they catch them in their hands and smell them before eating them.
One of the four groups of apes, the one most thoroughly studied by Williams, inhabits a 6.5-hectare mangrove swamp adjacent to one of the airport parking lots. It is fenced and can only be accessed through a padlocked gate.
They are a group of 16 monkeys and they all have their names, sometimes appropriate to their personality, says the professor and founder of The Dania Beach Vervet Project organization that seeks to preserve this “unique colony” of monkeys considered by the authorities “invasive.”
“Our oldest female, ‘Cupcake,’ in her youth was sweet and strong and is still very sweet, but has lost weight over the years,” Williams explains between the undergrowth and mangrove pools as it calls out to her.
She recounts that “Cupcake” lost her last two babies within a week of their birth and carried one of them for days as if it were alive. “It was heartbreaking,” she remembers.
Then there is “Spike,” the new alpha male. With its screaming, body language and harassment of “Mikey,” whom he has dethroned, Spike has become the new “leader” of the clan.
“It is like watching a group of children interact in a school playground,” says Williams, among the mangroves, with her tall fishing boots covered with mud after wading through swampy puddles and roots.
Williams tells Efe that “this colony is amazingly unique. It’s the only place in The Americas where you can study African monkeys in the wild,” she says.
“It’s a living laboratory to see their evolution in action. What a pleasure for science,” she adds excitedly.