Spider monkey from Ohio finds sanctuary at Jungle Friends
Published: Wednesday, May 1, 2013 at 6:30 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, May 1, 2013 at 6:30 p.m.
Don and Carol Velcio seem like the devoted parents of any college-bound kid. Last weekend they drove all the way to Gainesville from Cleveland, Ohio, with their "daughter" Amy in tow, and they will stay about a week — until Amy settles in.
But Amy isn't a college student. She's a 24-year-old spider monkey, and her new home is the Jungle Friends Primate Sanctuary just north of Gainesville.
The sanctuary, established 16 years ago, houses more than 100 monkeys from around the country — including capuchins, spiders, squirrels, marmosets and tamarins. Monkeys are grouped by species and age in "cages" filled with trees and ropes designed to mimic the wild from which they come.
Like Amy, most of the monkeys were pets until their owners realized that as monkeys grow up, they don't make for great pets. That's what happened to Kari Bagnall, the founding owner of the sanctuary, who got into monkeys when an ex-boyfriend gave her a squirrel monkey named "Samantha" 20 years ago. Bagnall then went in search of Samantha's sibling Charlotte and was horrified to learn that baby monkeys are literally pulled off their mother's backs as infants and given away to people who want them as pets.
Outraged, Bagnall bought Charlotte, the girls' mother and the vendor's six other monkeys and decided to depart Las Vegas to establish a habitat for them in a climate conducive to monkeys. North Central Florida, with its hot, humid climate, fit the bill — and Bagnall and her monkeys have ever since occupied a property as inconspicuous as any other off State Road 121, save for the yellow monkey crossing street sign on the mailbox.
On Monday afternoon, the Velcios were making themselves at home at the sanctuary, washing dishes from the monkeys' breakfast and then taking refuge in the shade on their bright red Ohio State chairs as they watched Amy make monkey chatter with her new friends — fellow spider monkeys Mike and Molly, Travis and Picasso.
"Amy will say something, and then the others will answer," Don Velcio said. "They're kind of like people: Not everyone will get along."
Spider monkeys' natural habitat is the tops of the trees in the rainforests of South and Central America. Their distinguishing characteristic is a long and lean leather-bound tail that allows them to swing through the trees with the grace of gazelles.
"Evolution went wrong. We should all have a prehensile tail," Don Velcio quipped. "Shouldn't we all have an extra hand?"
But the monkey's "extra hand" can actually be harmful to humans — it's what they use to grip an arm so they can bite you if agitated, Velcio explained.
Amy would go through bouts of screaming and biting when her parents wanted to clean her basement room — a cage the size of two prison cells, Velcio said.
And soon, the tyrannical teen eclipsed the adorable toddler who had worn diapers, slept with the couple and garnered attention on walks.
"She wanted to get into cupboards. She didn't want to get in her cage. We couldn't handle her anymore," Velcio said.
And then Ohio passed a law making it obligatory for wild animal owners to have permits for their animals, provided the owners pass certain regulations for keeping and caring for the animals. The law was passed in response to a 2011 incident in which a man released dozens of wild animals, including Bengal tigers, lions and bears — which authorities had to shoot so they wouldn't harm the public.
The Velcios decided to turn over Amy. After researching and visiting primate sanctuaries, they decided Jungle Friends would be her new home.
"This is the best thing for her. She's got sunshine and fresh air," Dan Velcio said. "They're social animals, and she didn't have a social life living alone."
Part of Bagnall's mission is to advocate for people not having monkeys as pets — she appeared on the Anderson Cooper show on Tuesday to voice her concerns over the issue, dubbed "Monkids" by the show.
Apart from social isolation, monkeys living with people often eat the wrong diet, filling up on sweet treats that make monkeys diabetic. In fact, many of the sanctuary's monkeys arrive as diabetics and must now eat a primarily "juiced" diet.
The Velcios have a 29-year-old son, a dog and a cat, but they will miss their "daughter" and intend to visit a few times a year — and perhaps even retire here.
Dan Velcio said the attachment is mutual. Before traveling to Florida, the couple picked up Amy at a primate center in Kentucky, where she had been preparing for the big move.
"As soon as the door opened and she saw us, she was the happiest little girl you could imagine," he said.
Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.