Written and Photographed by Tess B. Schumacher for Candid Voyage
It’s a little after seven am and the air is already thick with humidity.
I’m standing at the end of a gravel driveway, cloth clinging to my skin and sweat rolling down my spine, watching a golf cart race toward me at an alarming pace. Dust rises from the tires, slightly obscuring a petite figure in the driver’s seat. As the cart screeches to a halt mere inches from me, a woman with short cut silver hair, maroon scrubs, and a faded safari hat hops out and extends her hand in greeting.
"Welcome!" she says with a broad smile. "I hope you're ready to meet some monkeys!"
Kari Bagnall is the founder and operator of Jungle Friends Primate Sanctuary in Gainesville, Florida, a refuge for over 250 small primates. In a country that utilizes monkeys for laboratory testing and often values the ownership of wild animals as a status symbol, Jungle Friends is always in high demand. The monkeys come from all over - laboratories with no more use for their testing subjects, abuse situations involving animal control, and all too often, desperate owners discovering too late that wild animals don’t belong in the home.
I came across Kari’s sanctuary on the Harvest Hosts app during a summer #vanlife adventure through Florida, and it seemed like the perfect place to stay for the night. In exchange for a safe place to park and sleep, this morning I will be helping Kari with medical treatments and taking an educational tour of the facility.
We begin the day by administering medications.
There are monkeys with hypothyroidism, diabetes, and seizure disorders. A few are taking Prozac for behavioral issues, an unfortunate but common result of living in captivity. Kari reminds me that these are wild animals, and would be better off in their nature habitat, but her sanctuary provides “the next best thing.” She does everything in her power to provide an interactive environment and proper companionship for the monkeys. She plants trees and foliage so that they have a place to hide and play. She provides toys and obstacle courses for interaction. She alternates enclosures so that the monkeys have novel places to explore and don’t get bored. She explains to me that the social dynamics are always changing, and she has to pay close attention to who is getting along, who needs to be moved, who needs a new romantic partner.
“It’s never-ending!” she says.
As Kari talks, I’m given the task of measuring out grams of medication on a little scale and hiding the powder in teeny tiny peanut butter sandwiches. It’s an adorable yet tedious job, one that Kari gladly passes off to me with an appreciative laugh.
Measurements complete, I step out into the sunshine again with my tray of little medicated sandwiches, excited for this adventure to begin. Kari hands me a mask, explaining that the monkeys are very susceptible to infectious disease. She also hands me a hard hat, “to protect my hair from groping hands.”
I quickly encounter another use for the hat as I race to keep up with Kari. She’s a tiny woman and has tailored this place specifically to her own dimensions, with low-hanging monkey walkways extending every which way, mere inches from her head. As I follow her around a bend my protected skull collides suddenly and forcibly with a metal enclosure. Ears ringing from the impact, I pause to get my bearings and hear Kari shout, "WATCH OUT!!”
I look up just in time to see a little hand reaching for my food tray and duck sideways, narrowly avoiding the theft.
We continue along, Kari skipping along with ease and me crouching, swerving, darting. Kari gestures to her right and left as we go, ringing off names and telling me the story of every monkey we pass. One was encountered during a drug bust, running around “high as a kite” after getting into a marijuana stash. Another was found riding on top of an ambulance in Chicago in the dead of winter, suffering from hypothermia. One little capuchin belonged to a retired organ grinder and arrived decked out in a little vest and hat.
Kari laughs at the memory. “I told the lady, he’ll need to get used to being naked, or the other monkeys will have a field day with him!”
We pass by an elderly monkey with eyes clouded over from cataracts, reaching her withered hand out for a treat. I hand her a bamboo chute and she sniffs it contemplatively, takes a tentative bite, then wrinkles her little face in displeasure and sticks out her tongue. When she reaches her hand out again, I offer her a grape from my tray and she seems much more satisfied with this option.
Kari continues with her stories, and I find myself in awe of her ability to remember the details of each monkey's life.
Daisy was kept in isolation for years at a laboratory, her only company the reflection looking back at her from a hand held mirror. Leo was confiscated from a college dorm room where he and his roommates spent more time smoking pot than studying. Harriet Houdini was, and continues to be, a conspiring escape artist. Bongo suffered from a back injury and was once paraplegic, but with extensive physical rehab and TLC he is now able to walk again.
We pause for a moment by a baby capuchin, Charlie Brown, who needs to be bottle fed. As he gulps down his liquid breakfast, Kari scolds him.
"You’re drinking too fast, slow down!”
Charlie responds by unabashedly burping up onto Kari's head, then reaching again for the bottle.
Kari tells me that about a study conducted by a nearby university to determine if monkeys know the value of individual objects.
“Well, of course they know value,” she says. “They know that a grape is going to cost more than a peanut. They know the importance of a fair trade.” To demonstrate, she introduces me to Puchi, a capuchin that suffers from epilepsy. I hand him a little sandwich containing his anti-seizure medication, and he immediately scampers off to find something to give me in return. After contemplating his options, he returns with a bamboo leaf and hands it to me, still munching on his sandwich.
“I don’t know why everyone is so obsessed with these experiments” Kari says, “Except that it’s just so fun to trade with monkeys.”
I can't help but agree.
I accept my bamboo gift, and Puchi wraps his arms over his heart in a gesture that Kari describes as "a monkey’s sign for love.” My heart swells with affection for this sweet little being, and I cross my arms over my own chest in response.
We continue on to Harley, a new addition to the sanctuary who is having a hard time adjusting. He is diabetic and requires daily insulin injections, but is so terrified that he works himself into a panic attack when it’s time for his medication. Kari tells me to talk to him and distract him while she works on placing him in a temporary enclosure. His girlfriend, Mimi, stands nearby and screams at us, sensing the distress of her companion.
I speak gently to Harley, telling him that it will be ok and we are just here to help. He listens, his deep brown eyes fixed on mine, eyebrows raised in doubt. Gradually his features soften and he seems to relax. Once he’s contained, Kari quickly gives him his injection and releases him. He immediately turns and glares at me, all trust evaporated. I apologize and offer him a grape, and he takes a moment before begrudgingly reaching out with his tiny little hand to take his reward. As he eats he continues to stare at me and rub his injection site forlornly. Kari laughs as she points out that he’s not even rubbing the correct spot.
The tour grows somber as we visit the young spider monkeys, and I hear one horror story after another.
One monkey grew up in a cocaine laboratory, another had pharmaceutical drugs tested on him repeatedly. One very young monkey shows signs of excessive grooming and is shivering and hugging himself tightly. When he sees Kari, he runs up and reaches out, clearly desperate for physical contact. Kari explains that he is a new addition to the sanctuary, and she’s in the process of finding him a good companion. Like many monkeys, he was taken from his mother as an infant and is exhibiting classic signs of abandonment.
My heart breaks for this little innocent being, but I know that he’s in good hands now.
Our last stop on the tour is “Munchkin Land,” a term Kari has aptly applied to the tamarin enclosure. These are the smallest of all monkeys, with shockingly human facial features and a comedic surplus of energy.
As we approach, the tiny creatures scamper over to examine their visitors and say hello, cocking their heads to the side in clear expressions of curiosity. As I raise my camera to capture the moment, they promptly turn around, lift their rear ends in the air simultaneously, and expose their little bare asses. Kari laughs and explains that they are just showing off.
I end up with an entire photographic collection of tamarin butts.
As we had back to the sanctuary entrance, Kari admits to me that the work here has been overwhelming lately, and she teasingly suggests I stick around for more than a night.
"I could offer you a job!" she says with a wink and a playful elbow in my side.
But beneath the teasing tone is truth. In a world where animal life is so often discarded and devalued, the need for services like Kari's is endless.
Kari points to a building on our left. “That was supposed to be my oasis. I was going to put in a little sauna, a massage table, a hot tub. A place where I could relax. But the monkeys just kept coming” she says with a resigned shrug. “So now the monkeys live there, too!”
All too soon, my tour is over. In the past two hours I’ve met every single monkey in the sanctuary and Kari has told me the story behind each little face peering out at me. Some tragic, some horrifying, some funny, all with the same happy ending, because here at Jungle Friends Sanctuary they’ve found their way home. I thank Kari and make promises to return one day, and just as I’m headed to my car I look back and see that she’s giving me the monkey’s sign for love, a single hand over her heart. I return the gesture, and she hops back on her golf cart and heads back into her jungle.
I pause with my hands in my pockets, taking a moment to absorb everything, when suddenly I realize that I still have the little bamboo leaf that Puchi gave me. I pull it out of my pocket to examine in, and note that it's a bit wrinkled and beginning to wilt. I rub it between my fingers and smile.
A very fair trade, I think to myself, before turning to go.
Jungle Friends Primary Sanctuary is always in need of volunteers, donations, and support! To donate or plan your own visit go to https://www.junglefriends.org
Writing and Photography by Teresa Schumacher for Candid Voyage