The True Story of Monkey Island
Originally published in 2010. Feature image by Robin Draper.
Monkey Island is one of the most unique sights along Florida’s Nature Coast. A small island in the Homosassa River, easily seen from the Homosassa Riverside Resort, Monkey Island began as a solution to a sticky problem in neighboring Weeki Wachee, Florida.
Thousands of people come to see the island and marvel at the antics of the monkeys who live there each year. What many people don’t know is that the island itself came to be in the Homosassa River as the result of a misunderstanding, and the monkeys were originally put on the island to keep them out of mischief.
Here is the true story of Monkey Island…..
G.A. “Furgy” Furgason was a major influence in the development of the Homosassa area in the 1950’s and 1960’s. In fact, he was often referred to as “Mr. Homosassa,” having put together several local land deals. G.A. Furgason created the exotic plant and animal attraction that is now Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park.
In the 1960’s, the Norris Cattle Company sent Mr. Furgason to Africa on business. The Norris Cattle Company was a huge owner of area lands and used some of those parcels to mine for phosphate and limestone. They employed Mr. Furgason.
Before “Furgy” left, he kept hearing of a pile of rocks in the middle of the Homosassa River that was causing trouble. The rocks were submerged just enough to be unseen and near enough to the waterline to cause havoc for the river’s boaters.
Furgy directed one of his dragline operators to “pile some dirt around those rocks so the boaters would see them better.” The dragline operator got a bit carried away – creating a small, barren island in the river just outside where the Yardarm Lounge sits today!
He built a small lighthouse on the island to spruce it up a bit, and went back to building his attraction.
Included in the Homosassa Springs attraction was a group of monkeys who were brought to America by Dr. John N. Hamlet. Dr. Hamlet was a naturalist who had worked at Weeki Wachee Springs attraction before working for Furgy at his wildlife attraction. He had originally captured those monkeys for use in perfecting the polio vaccine in America.
Some of those monkeys were prone to causing trouble, including escaping, stealing candy, getting into visitor cars, and biting tourists. Furgy said that he had often thought of “sending them to Alcatraz.” Now, gazing upon the new island with its lighthouse, Furgy realized he had his own little Alcatraz, and the mischievous monkeys found a new home!
The original inhabitants included three spider monkeys and two squirrel monkeys. Huts were constructed for them and palm trees were planted. The monkeys continued to cause problems by eating the palm hearts and killing the trees. Fortunately, cedar trees volunteered and continue to prosper.
The island became quite an attraction in Florida’s Nature Coast and became known as Monkey Island.
Today, five spider monkeys live on the island: Ralph, Sassy, Ebony, Eve, and Emily.
Ralph is the alpha male, Sassy is the matriarch. Ebony is the daughter of Ralph and Sassy. These three monkeys are part of the original group placed on Monkey Island by Furgy. The two original squirrel monkeys, Tiny and Tim, lived for many happy years on Monkey Island before passing away from old age in 2003 and 2005. Eve and Emily were adopted and put on the island in 2006.
While it may seem that life on a small island would get dull, the monkey’s habitat is changed regularly in both large ways (such as the redesign and movement of their buildings and play areas) and small ways (such as changing the placement of their feeders on a daily basis and the grass heights and patterns on a weekly basis). In addition, visitors to the river are a constant source of entertainment for our monkey family.
The monkeys are under the care of the Homosassa Riverside Resort. They are fed twice a day from a menu designed specifically for them, including green leafy vegetables, bananas, oranges, sweet potatoes, raw peanuts, and monkey chow. They are also regularly examined by a qualified primate veterinarian.
Because monkeys prefer not to swim, the river acts as a natural barrier. The island is therefore a perfect home for them – allowing them to play freely and watch the river activity without being overly confined or caged.
Thanks to an eager dragline operator, Dr. Hamlet, our own “Furgy,” and the Homosassa Riverside Resort, Monkey Island has been a delight to visitors and local residents alike for over forty years!
Sources: Homosassa Riverside Resort