1200 Weimer Hall | P.O. Box 118405
Gainesville, FL 32611
(352) 392-5551

A service of the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida.

© 2024 WUFT / Division of Media Properties
News and Public Media for North Central Florida
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Monkey business: Gainesville primate sanctuary builds hurricane-proof facilities

A male and female pair of brown capuchins who were rescued from a laboratory in 2014. They were used in cognitive and behavioral research their entire lives before arriving at Jungle Friends when they were 30 years old. (Emily Sturge/WUFT News)
A male and female pair of brown capuchins who were rescued from a laboratory in 2014. They were used in cognitive and behavioral research their entire lives before arriving at Jungle Friends when they were 30 years old. (Emily Sturge/WUFT News)

Golden Child, a male capuchin monkey, spent years of his life trapped in solitary confinement in a small metal cage in a laboratory where he was tested in iron-toxicity studies.

Today, he receives permanent care at Jungle Friends Primate Sanctuary in North Gainesville, where more than 200 rescued monkeys are given the closest possible experience of living in the wild. Golden Child can eat, play and socialize with other monkeys in his spacious outdoor habitat without fear of being poked or injected for laboratory research.

However, when Hurricane Idalia struck, monkeys like Golden Child were forced to come face-to-face once again with the lab cages they once escaped. The weather forced Jungle Friends to relocate some monkeys from their outdoor, spacious habitats to cramped cages indoors to ensure their safety.

“It was just heartbreaking,” said Kari Bagnall, 69, founder of Jungle Friends Primate Sanctuary. “The monkeys were really upset to be back in cages. I never want to see it again.”

To guarantee the monkeys never have to face the cramped cages again, Bagnall and her husband, Andrew Grant, started a project in 2020 to build additional indoor enclosures where the monkeys can take shelter during extreme weather.

Grant had been working on the enclosures for the past three years — until he had a heart attack and passed away in June.

“I just miss him so much,” Bagnall said. “This project will be completed in his memory. This is his legacy.”

Grant volunteered at Jungle Friends for 20 years before the couple married in 2020.

“He was my best friend, and then I got to marry him,” she said. “We were madly in love. We planned our next 30 years together, and that was cut short a little bit.”

Bagnall recalled one hurricane when volunteers had to capture more than 100 monkeys and put them in small lab cages.

“The white-faced capuchins were so upset. They were screaming, yelling and banging,” she said.

“When put back in tiny cages, the rescued lab monkeys experience learned helplessness,” said Sara Smith, 73, a volunteer at Jungle Friends for more than 20 years. “Monkeys can experience emotions such as loneliness, anxiety and fear, similar to how humans do.”

Today, the team at Jungle Friends is working to complete the project Grant had dedicated the final years of his life to. The indoor shelter project is in its final phase, and the team hopes to relocate the monkeys to their new enclosures this winter.

The new shelter project includes both indoor and outdoor enclosures connected by runway systems, allowing monkeys to roam indoors and outdoors as they please.

The outdoor enclosures will be three stories high and equipped with trees for climbing, swings and ladders for jumping and playing, and shrubs and natural foliage for exploring.

“Capuchins like their space,” Smith said with excitement. “They will love all this new outdoor space.”

The indoor facility will have enough room for nearly 30 monkeys to be sheltered in more spacious indoor cages, where they will be housed with a friend. This facility will provide the monkeys a safe place to call home during hurricanes, ensuring they are never put inside small lab cages again, according to Smith.

The indoor facility will also make it possible for the team at Jungle Friends to regulate the temperatures the monkeys are exposed to, protecting them from weather conditions that could potentially cause frostbite in their fingers and toes.

“We provide immediate medical attention to any monkey who needs it, but the indoor facility will hopefully reduce incidents like frostbite that require this attention,” Smith said.

The variety of living situations at Jungle Friends allows monkeys to experience freedom in choosing where they spend their time, as they would in the wild. Most of the monkeys came from poor living conditions and may have trouble adjusting, so the new enclosures will give them the opportunity to experience both indoor and outdoor housing.

“We have secured about two-thirds of our funding for the project,” Smith said.  “The total cost is almost $50,000.  We could also use any volunteer help we can get.”

Jungle Friends is home to over 200 rescued monkeys who were used in laboratory research, abused, confiscated by authorities, used in the entertainment industry or kept as pets.

They provide care for the individual medical, psychological and behavioral needs of each monkey by providing them with a safe, healthy and stimulating environment for the remainder of their lives.

Jungle Friends specializes in caring for monkeys with special needs, including those suffering from chronic diseases like diabetes and age-related illnesses, as well as those with physical limitations such as blindness, amputations and paralysis.

After being rescued from traumatic circumstances, many of the monkeys experience deeply rooted trauma, according to Bagnall.  In addition to hospice care or any medical attention they may need, Jungle Friends takes a holistic approach to helping the monkeys. They provide a healing technique called reiki, which Bagnall said has helped the monkeys tremendously.

Reiki, also practiced by humans, is a healing technique in which a Reiki master uses gentle hand movements with the intention of guiding energy through a patient’s body to promote healing.

Reiki practitioners at Jungle Friends work with the monkeys through hands-off energy work and meditation to help them release stress and tension they may hold from traumatic pasts. When it’s time for their sessions, many monkeys excitedly come toward the practitioners and lay down, ready for meditation, according to reiki masters at Jungle Friends.

“Moving the monkeys to their new habitats is a transition for them, and we don’t want them to be stressed, so we provide reiki to them during the move,” said Colleen Murphy, holistic healing coordinator at Jungle Friends.

“We look at them as our spiritual teachers,” said Drea DiSanto, a reiki master at Jungle Friends. “We think that we are going to heal them, but really they heal us.”

“It’s pretty amazing to have bonds and connections with the monkeys, and each time you are with them, you create a deeper and deeper connection,” she said.

Jungle Friends Primate Sanctuary was incorporated in 1997 when founder Kari Bagnall rescued 13 neglected monkeys. With her 70th birthday coming in February, Bagnall has admittedly begun to slow down, recently having eye surgery and knee replacement surgery.

Referring to herself and Smith, 73, Bagnall said, “We call ourselves the aging founders, and we’re looking for our successors. Many of these monkeys are going to outlive me.”

Smith, who began volunteering at Jungle Friends in 2001 when they had 23 monkeys, now works there seven days a week and knows the names of all 200 monkeys.

“I’ve never worked so hard in my life,” Smith said with a smile. “It’s very rewarding work. I fell in love with the monkeys many years ago and want to see our sanctuary passed on to someone who loves them like we do.”

Bagnall and Smith prove that age is just a number as they remain active in caring for each monkey and helping maintain the almost 50-acre property. However, they say this feat would not be possible without the dedication of their team of staff and volunteers.

“Somebody once told me, ‘If I die and come back as a monkey, I want to come back as a monkey at Jungle Friends,” Bagnall said.

Emily is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.