Banquet for Monkey Island benefits current and future primate residents

Taking care of monkeys isn't cheap, let alone three that live on a manmade island that's been renovated in decades.

Monkey Island is home to three primates – Ralph, Ebony, and Emily – and is nestled in the middle of Homosassa River. For them, they live their lives eating, swinging by their tails, and exploring the small beaches of their home. For the Nature Coast, they are an important part of the area's local tourism and history. It's just a couple of reasons why fundraising is important to maintain their well-being and their little habitat.

The next banquet will be held Thursday, Nov. 10 from 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. – and the public is invited to join. The event will take place right at Florida Cracker Kitchen & Monkey Bar – yards away from the island.

Those who are interested can purchase tickets through the Eventbrite website:

"This year’s goal is loose, but $82,000 is what we would like to net," explained Marie Straight, one of the Historic Monkey Island Board overseeing the project. "We’ve got another three weeks, we feel confident, plus we have some really nice auction and raffle items that brought us a lot of additional funds last year."

Before and after images showing the wooden home on Monkey Island (left) and after it was knocked down (right - image provided by Marie Straight)

Before and after images showing the wooden home on Monkey Island (left) and after it was knocked down (right - image provided by Marie Straight)

Wednesday, she said the board was short $20,000. 

Two years ago, the board was formed, and their annual banquet is aimed at raising money to help care for the hairy trio. The funds will also be used for the ongoing renovations that are giving their sandy home some much-needed upgrades. At first, they believed the project would cost $150,000 – but due to supply chain issues, inflation, and demand, Straight so that price point increased by $50,000.

The spider monkeys' wooden home was knocked down this week, officially marking the start of the major project. The next steps are to drill holes for a new barrier, landscaping, build a new home that can sustain hurricane-force winds, fix the lighthouse, install a fiber-optic system, and run electric wiring underneath the river to bring air conditioning and heating to monkeys. The renovations which are expected to be completed by next summer.

The money they raise also goes into the medical checks and feeding Ralph, Ebony, and Emily. According to Straight, approximately $40,000 is spent per year to maintain the monkeys.

A monkey sits on Monkey Island in the Homosassa River.

A monkey sits on Monkey Island in the Homosassa River. 

The island's major overhaul is costing the board $200,000. The goal is to obtain enough money for Discover Crystal River, the tourism department that promotes all of Citrus County, to match their funds. Historic Monkey Island Inc. was created by the Lowman family, who owns the Florida Cracker Riverside Resort. When they purchased the property, they also purchased Monkey Island. Whoever owned the resort also become the immediate owners of the primates. It's always been that way.

In order to get the matching funds, the Lowmans had to hand over the island to the board.

"There’s an actual Florida statute that states that funds that are assessed from tourists – a bed tax – can’t be used for private entities or private businesses such as a corporation like Riverside Resort. It has to be used for a non-profit purpose. If they gave us money to help restore the island and the island was in a private company’s name, they can’t do that," Straight said. "The Lowmans were very gracious and that had been the intent all along. We just got it done quicker. We have only been in existence for two whole years. We’ve done a lot in that time."

PREVIOUS: Renovations on Monkey Island underway to upgrade primates' sandy home on Homosassa River

The board also has to think about the future.

"Our monkeys are older. They are getting up in age," Straight said. "At some point, natural causes are going to kick in. The purpose of our organization is to preserve this island and its inhabitants. We have had to put a budget together, or a reserve for the purchase of monkeys in the future. Our preliminary findings are that monkeys are expensive, up to $30,000 or more to purchase one primate. So, we’ve got to continue with our fundraising efforts even after our renovation."

Monkey Island origins

Back in the 1960s, the man responsible for creating Monkey Island probably didn't realize it would become as integrated into the community as it is today.

G.A. Furgason, also known as Mr. Homosassa, was a well-known developer during those years. He heard about a pile of hidden rocks in the river causing damage to boats and directed one of the dragline operators to pile dirt around the rocks to make them more visible, creating the small island.

MORE: Monkey Island of Homosassa, a Florida tale

A few monkeys were residing in what's known today as Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park, but they were causing some problems, such as pickpocketing visitors. That's when Furgason decided to move them to the manmade island.

This photo shows what the area looked like before Monkey Island was created. Boaters drove into a pile of rocks near the resort. A drag line operator was directed to cover the rocks with dirt to make it more visible. 

There were initially seven residents: three spider monkeys and two squirrel monkeys. Two of the squirrel monkeys were Tim and Tiny, who passed away in 2006 and were replaced by Eve and Emily.

Emily came from a family in Kentucky. They initially moved to Fort Lauderdale but were unable to obtain a wildlife license. Jungle Friends Primate Sanctuary, based out of Gainesville, stepped in, playing the middle man between the resort and the family, and brought Emily to the island. 

One of the original spider monkeys, Sassy, died in 2017. She was described as the matriarch of the group. Eve passed away in 2020.  

Ebony is the daughter of Ralph and Sassy.

The Monkey Bar at Florida Cracker Riverside Resort

The Lowman family took over the property at the end of 2019.  

"Every owner that has had them and when one passes away they usually replace them," Blake said.

If it comes to it, Blake said they will do the same.

Taking care of monkeys

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and Florida Fish and Wildlife set the rules on owning wildlife. The same regulations apply to the owners of Monkey Island.

One of those requirements is providing enrichment activities to keep the monkeys challenged. 

"They’re big on the enrichment plans, so you have to write an enrichment plan every year," Blake explained. "An enrichment plan is basically things to stimulate the monkeys’ activity. That would be changing different ropes from different poles so they have new lines of swinging to get across, new routes for them to travel on the island."

Also, the owners must include "Monkey Chow" to provide necessary nutrients for the primates. It must be USDA-approved. Before each feeding, employees chop up the fruits and vegetables, add the chow, and mix it up. Blake said the cutting boards and buckets must be sanitized before using them.

The USDA-approved monkey chow is pictured to the left. On the right, it is mixed in with chopped fruits and vegetables just for Emily, Ebony and Ralph. (FOX 13/File)

Then, the employees, usually the resort marina staff, head out to Monkey Island using the Monkey Barge to feed them.

The river serves as a natural barrier, so the monkeys cannot escape, Lowman said.

"Monkeys don't like water," he added.

Another requirement is providing an evacuation plan in case of a hurricane. If that happens, they will be taken to a temporary shelter, specifically a zoo in Spring Hill, during that time.

"They’ve never had to be evacuated ever since they’ve been there, since the early 60s," Blake said. "With FWC and USDA we have an emergency evacuation plan in place if a Category 5 came in."

Blake Lowman, one of the owners of Florida Cracker Riverside Resort, is seen chopping up a mango for the spider monkeys. (FOX 13/File)

Beyond that, being the owner of Monkey Island means filling out quite a bit of paperwork by the state and federal agencies. It's one of the job duties that most surprised the Lowmans. 

Blake's favorite part is that every day is different, and it's satisfying to know that people travel from all over the world to see Monkey Island in person. It makes all the paperwork worth it.

"They can’t believe it," he explained. "It’s such a unique thing and it’s been here since the early 60s, so, basically, it’s part of Homosassa."

To learn more about conserving Monkey Island, head over to the Historic Monkey Island website or the Florida Cracker Riverside Resort website.