It is hard to have a bad day at Monkey Jungle. In the gift shop, kids squeal "Monkeys!!!" in anticipation, unable to contain their delight. And when you get inside, the monkeys are there, capering and engaged in all manner of natural monkey-business, it seems, to entertain you.
Monkey Jungle began in 1933 when Joseph DuMond released six crab-eating Macaques -- Java monkeys from Southeast Asia -- into a ten-acre Florida hardwood hammock. "It was Joe's dream as a young man to establish North America's first colony of free-ranging monkeys," claims Monkey Jungle literature, and he succeeded beyond his fondest expectations.
When the Jungle expanded to 30 acres, Joe opened it as a tourist attraction. But the Java monkeys -- territorial by nature -- attacked the tourists. Joe didn't have the heart to cage the monkeys, so he built pathways through the hammock and protected them in tunnels of wire. This novel approach led to Monkey Jungle's tagline, "Where the humans are caged and the monkeys run wild." It has remained essentially unchanged ever since.
Monkey Jungle rode some rough roads in the 1980s and 1990s, thanks to animal activists. The chimps that had been dressed as cowboys and astronauts, playing pianos and riding tricycles, were gradually retired. Then a controversy erupted over Monkey Jungle's caged gorilla, "King," which ended in late 2000 when he was released into a 10-acre enclosure of his own. King seems content now, and the gift shop sells his finger paintings for $29 apiece.
There are dozens of species of primates in Monkey Jungle: orangutans, gibbons, howlers, spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys. You can watch guided, educational shows in the "Amazonian Rain Forest" or the "Cameroon Forest," (that's where King lives), but these lack some appeal, at least to us, without chimps in space suits. The Wild Monkey Swimming Pool is a good place to just hang out, sit in the shade, and watch the monkeys splash and attack each other.
The Java monkey troop now numbers 130, and they are everywhere. You can have a good time just wandering around watching monkeys scamper overhead, waiting for food. For 25 cents you get a handful of seeds out of a gumball machine, drop some into a little nickel-plated bowl on a tiny chain, and a monkey will instantly haul it up for a snack. We recommend wearing a hat to protect yourself from monkey evacuations and discarded bowls.
Unlike Parrot Jungle, which has gone upscale and downtown, Monkey Jungle remains pretty much as it always has been -- out on the edge of nowhere, more or less true to its original intent. Children and co-workers may often seem monkeylike, but spend an afternoon here and you'll realize that scampering, screaming, genuine monkeys are far more satisfying.