Monkey Island attraction in Florida getting a major makeover

HOMOSASSA, Fla. (AP) — Good news for Ralph, Ebony and Emily.

The primate residents of Monkey Island at the Florida Cracker Riverside Resort in Homosassa are getting an extreme makeover of their home that’s in need of repair.

Thanks to the partnership between the nonprofit group Historic Monkey Island (HMI), Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative (WREC) and the community, the monkeys’ new home will include air conditioning and heat, a new playground to keep them entertained and in tip-top shape and barriers around the island to protect them from overzealous kayakers and boaters.

“They need a new home, a better home, so we formed this board a year ago,” said HMI board member Matt Lowman.

He explained that the heating and air aren’t frivolous add-ons, but required by the USDA, the agency that grants licenses to places that house wildlife.

So far, fundraising efforts for the project with an estimated cost between $100,000 and $150,000, is around $75,000, halfway to goal.

“It’s amazing to me, when I went to different people and told them what we’re doing, the response has been overwhelming,” Lowman said. “They say, ‘This is part of the history of this place; how much do you want?’”

The top three donors so far are Crumps Landing, Eagle Buick and Lowman Law Firm.

The Lowman family purchased the Florida Cracker Riverside Resort property a year and a half ago.

WREC’s part in the project is providing manpower and equipment to drill through rock and install poles for the monkeys’ house and playground.

“We’re always looking for ways to get involved in the community,” said Gary Steele, WREC district manager. “We’re a local company, a “Main Street” company, and we also see this as being part of Old Florida and see a lot of value in that.

“Plus, this is a huge tourist attraction. Folks from all over know about Monkey Island and it’s still here and we really need to preserve it and keep it around for the next generations,” he said.

HMI board member Marie Straight said Discover Crystal River, formerly the Tourist Development Council (TDC), has also partnered with them, agreeing to match up to $75,000.

“That’s after we raise and spend the money (on the restoration),” Straight said.

How did the monkeys get there in the first place?

First came the island, which was just a couple of boulders that boaters kept crashing into.

Back in the 1960s, the Florida-based Norris Cattle Company, a huge owner of area lands, was doing some work in the area.

At the time, G.A. “Furgy” Furgason, a manager with Norris and himself an influential developer in Homosassa, had a crew doing some work and asked the dragline operator on the Homosassa River to pile up some dirt around the rocks so they could be seen and hopefully would keep his boats from being wrecked.

As the story goes, the dragline operator got carried away and the little bit of dirt became a small island in the river.

Then Furgason installed a lighthouse so boaters could see the island at night, and later grass and vegetation began to grow.

Meanwhile, Furgason got a call from what is now Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park about five spider monkeys that were causing trouble, getting into people’s cars, crashing into windows, and stealing food.

Furgason knew just what to do with those naughty monkeys.

He and some men went over to the wildlife park, rounded up the monkeys and brought them to the island.

In the beginning, there were three spider monkeys and two squirrel monkeys, Tiny and Tim.

After Tiny and Tim died of old age, they were replaced by Eve and Emily in 2006.

Eve died at the end of 2019.

Sassy, one of the original spider monkeys, died in 2017; she was the matriarch of the group.

Ralph, another spider monkey, is the alpha male, “the mean one.”

Ebony is Ralph and Sassy’s daughter.

“When the family purchased the property, I said to everyone, ‘These monkeys belong to the community,’ so we created the Historic Monkey Island 501(c)3,” Matt Lowman said, adding that adding more monkeys is a future possibility that the board will decide on.

Also, Lowman said, the monkeys will be placed at a safe facility during their home remodeling.

Right now the goal for HMI is to continue raising funds with the hope of having the project completed by the end of 2022, or sooner.

Another phase of the project is installing high-end cameras so people can go online and watch the monkeys from their computer or phone anywhere around the world.

“This past Saturday, I was out fishing early, and came back in around 10 a.m.,” Lowman said. “I counted about 27 boats in the river, circling around Monkey Island, just to see the monkeys. Like I said, these monkeys belong to the community.”