Apes find safe home at Hendry County facility

CLEWISTON — There exists a wild place near here where the residents, some of humans’ closest relatives in the animal kingdom, are enjoying not merely a sweet life in Hendry County; these primate cousins of ours have found a refuge from hurt. It’s a place resembling their actual home in the world — on another continent they’ve never seen. And to hear their happy howls and cheerful chatter, life truly is sweet for them.

The Talkin’ Monkeys Project is where the captive-bred-and-raised apes live. It’s a 5-acre, federal-, state- and locally licensed haven in what feels like a jungle, nestled on a cool, quiet, shaded corner in Pioneer Plantation off one of the county’s lone windy rural roads, Hendry Isles Boulevard.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
Dr. Deborah Misotti (left) describes how they’re introducing a young female gibbon to the refuge’s 14-year-old male, Merlin, in hopes of producing a viable breeding pair, as student Ashley Peters (right) observes their behavior.

To dispel a common but comical public misconception that arises from the name of the place: No, they haven’t discovered monkeys who talk, or that monkeys can talk (although they definitely talk to each other). Nor are they trying to teach monkeys to talk (in the way that humans communicate) here. As the researchers for whom the refuge has become like a second home will tell you, they just “talk monkeys” here, like some neighbor families might “talk Tigers football.” Thus the name.

Dr. Deborah D. Misotti and her husband, Tom, founded this not-for-profit educational conservation organization over 20 years ago and have operated the sanctuary here since buying the 5-acre property in 2002. Their main intent is to provide a lifelong home for primates that have been rescued from private homes where they’ve suffered abuse, released from research laboratories or confiscated from poachers who traffic in the endangered animals.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
The female watches Merlin’s antics in his tower cage just feet away from the buffer zone she was let into, inside the introduction passageway between their separate enclosures.

Secondary purposes are to create worldwide awareness of the challenges to their survival that primates face in the wild and to assist in educating a new generation of scientists who will work to help ensure that the apes’ numbers don’t dwindle any more in their natural habitats in Africa, Asia and South and Central America, where they are increasingly being crowded out by growing human populations’ encroachment.

The TMP sanctuary is home to 15 primates, some of them longtime residents but others recent rescues. Dr. Misotti pointed out two female gibbons who had been removed in an enforcement action from a South Florida facility by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “They were both badly injured when they came. FWC had me come in and do an assessment on apes at a facility in south Miami,” she explained. “We ended up taking their orangutan away from them and sending it to the Center for Great Apes (in Hardee County), and … I took the two that were the most badly injured so that I could work on rehab with them.”

Now that they’re doing much better, she said, their behaviors are being studied by students invited to observe their activities in the natural setting, where their large cages and towers are interspersed throughout a bamboo forest. They are not just confined to their cages, though; many have added-on, enclosed passageways called travel chutes.And some have larger screened-in passages that are used to acclimate specimens of the two sexes for possible couplings, such as was in progress that morning last week.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
Dr. Deborah Misotti greets one of the rescued gibbons housed at the Talkin’ Monkeys Project refuge in Hendry County.

Ashley Peters, a college senior from Detroit majoring in biology at Florida Gulf Coast University, was present to observe and record pre-mating behaviors as one of the female gibbons, 8 years old, was being gradually brought closer to an energetic 14-year-old male named Merlin inside a chain-link passage connecting their two individual tower cages where only a few bamboo poles separated the two.

“Ashley’s project is that she’s observing the introduction of captive-bred gibbons,” said Dr. Misotti, explaining that they’d tried to introduce her to a much older gibbon named Monkey Boy, to no avail. “The older male had no interest in her whatsoever. She’s young; she’s interested in everything. I used to like to say: ‘Well, he wasn’t into child porn. She’s 8, and he’s 38.’

Several poles were removed that day so she could slip into what they call a buffer zone, separated from Merlin only by a set of poles, in case of unwanted aggressive behavior. “Each time we’ve moved them closer, we’ve seen what we call male display. He … gets very excited and so he throws a few more twirls and whirls — masculine display, it’s called. He’s showing off.”

That’s one example of the type of research conducted on the premises; Ms. Peters is one of hundreds of students whom the Misottis have hosted. Other programs, including internships, are ongoing or being established. “Students come from all over the world to visit, volunteer and learn,” Dr. Misotti said. The refuge is not open to the public; however, they have conducted public tours; another is planned sometime this fall.

To learn more about the Talkin’ Monkeys Project, visit their Facebook page or go to talkinmonkeysproject.org.

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