HOMOSASSA, Fla. - If you've visited the Florida Cracker Riverside Resort recently, you may have noticed three primate residents weren't on their tiny island a few yards away. That's because some much-needed upgrades have begun, and Ralph, Emily, and Ebony had to head out to a temporary home.
The three spider monkeys moved to Boyett's Grove in Hernando County in mid-October. They are now residing in a newly-constructed wooden enclosure for at least the next six months. The goal is to complete the renovations before next summer's scalloping season, explained Marie Straight, secretary of the Historic Monkey Island board.
"We all recognize the historical significance. It may not seem like a big deal to people – but from a local perspective and even non-local, people just know about this island. G.A. Ferguson, by helping some fishermen not hit rocks in the middle of the river, he unknowingly created an iconic part of the Nature Coast identity. It’s stuck around for decades."
The renovation of Monkey Island has been a couple of years in the making. Wednesday, their wooden house was knocked down, starting months of construction projects before the three primates can return. The renovations are long overdue.
A monkey sits on Monkey Island in the Homosassa River.
Now that their little tiny wooden fixture was knocked down, 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.
Before and after images showing the wooden home on Monkey Island (left) and after it was knocked down (right - image provided by Marie Straight)
As far as how the monkeys are adjusting to their new home, Straight said they are doing well.
"The owners there are such animal lovers. They are just all over these monkeys and making sure they have whatever they need. Plus, the three of them are all together," she explained. "They didn’t separate them. They have other spider monkeys down there too, but they didn’t put them together. They didn’t want to take that chance because they don’t know the other monkeys."
This wooden enclosure was specifically built for Ralph, Emily and Ebony at Boyett's Grove.
At first, they did a lot of "squawking" though.
"I didn’t know monkeys squawk. But then subsequent videos and pictures show they’re swinging, they’re using their enrichment tools," Straight described. "They’re eating. They’re drinking. They’re fine."
Monkey Island started as a pile of hidden rocks beneath the water's surface, but to avoid boat collisions, a large pile of dirt was added in the 1960s for fishermen to easily spot the hazard and avoid it. The man behind the idea was Citrus County developer, G.A. Furgason – nicknamed "Furgy."
A view of Monkey Island from SkyFOX Drone
The second problem he tried to address was the mischievous monkeys in today's Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park.
"They would get in [visitors'] cars. They would steal candy. They would even bite some of the tourists," explained Straight. "So, now we have a problem. The way the legend goes, it says that he had often thought of sending them to Alcatraz."
He realized the manmade island on Homosassa River could become their own little Alcatraz along Nature's Coast. So, those primates – which were three spider monkeys and two squirrel monkeys back then – moved in. Monkey Island was formed.
The initial rendering for the updated Monkey Island, which is subject to change. (Provided by Historic Monkey Island, Inc.)
But that was decades ago and few updates have been done since then. The lighthouse still sitting on the tiny island was placed there even before the primate residents moved in. Some of the barriers surrounding the island are damaged or have partially sunk.
The barrier around Monkey Island -- meant to discourage boaters and kayakers from getting too close to the spider monkey residents -- is virtually non-existent. (FOX 13/File)
It's a $200,000 effort to help the monkeys – current and future generations. It's a mission that the community did not hesitate to rally around.
Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative is doing all the electric work pro bono. The Historic Monkey Island Board just had to purchase the electric poles, which will include an osprey nest at the top and a protective guard.
"We don't want the monkeys climbing up there," Straight said.
The board was created just two years ago with the purpose that the "spider monkeys that inhabit the island will be well taken care of now and in the years to come."
Every year, including next month, the board holds a banquet to raise money for the monkeys. The funding goes toward their food, island maintenance, and the renovations. The public is invited to attend and can find more information at: www.eventbrite.com/e/historic-monkey-island-banquet-tickets-439681969607.