Four former animal keepers at the South Miami-Dade attraction Monkey Jungle are alleging that the park is abusing its primates by confining them to small, filthy enclosures and leaving medical problems untreated.
Melanie Lustig, a former great ape keeper who left the job in September, revealed the alleged abuse in a series of photos and videos she took before resigning from the post. According to Lustig and three other former employees who declined to publicly share their names, animals are hosed to enforce compliance and crammed more than a dozen to a cage that should only hold a handful of monkeys. Some, they claim, have died at the hands of park staff that have darted the animals or caused them to overdose.
Multiple calls and emails to Monkey Jungle requesting comment were not returned Monday or Tuesday afternoon. As of 6 p.m. Tuesday, the park had not yet issued a statement on the allegations. The 84-year-old, family-run attraction remains closed after the passage of Hurricane Irma in September, which wreaked havoc to the heavy foliage, but is taking phone calls. Workers allege some of the animals were left to fend for themselves during the storm.
The bulk of the alleged abuse, Lustig said, was toward Mei, a 32-year-old orangutan who is one of the park’s star attractions. Mei’s nighttime enclosure, called a “night house,” is a five-by-five-foot concrete room where the orangutan is sometimes left for long periods of time — even months — Lustig claims, piling up with filth and feces.
Monkey Jungle, which bills itself as a place where “humans are caged and monkeys run wild,” has free-roaming monkeys, but the great apes and some other species are kept in cages.
“I knew it was bad in there and I didn’t realize how bad,” Lustig said. “It was shoveling pile after pile of feces, rotten food, maggots. The stench in there was kind of awful. All [Mei] did was sit there and stare out the window. She was just covered in everything.”
The alleged conditions in Mei’s enclosure were what finally led to Lustig’s departure from the park after working there since February, Lustig said. Photos show Mei sitting among rotten leaves, food and excrement. In one image, her back is completely wet.
“I was already getting ready to leave because that place wasn’t sitting well with me,” Lustig said. “I had already put in my two weeks but I just couldn’t make it to my two weeks. I was around [Mei] every day, I was taking care of her — she is obviously unhappy in there.”
Lustig’s experience was corroborated to the Herald by three other former keepers, who wished to remain anonymous, but who Lustig confirmed worked at the park. Two of the anonymous workers provided photos of their time at the park and an image of an employee handbook.
One former ape keeper said that, during her time there in recent years, Mei was kept inside the night house for as long as a year and a half, and called the conditions inside it “disgusting.” During that time, guests were told the Mei show was canceled, she said.
The orangutan also suffers from kidney and throat issues that allegedly went untreated for long periods of time, she said. Though some medications were administered, she said, it involves a lot of guesswork because the park has been unwilling to sedate Mei to perform a full physical exam.
“The level of education and knowledge of [animal care] was abominable,” the former ape trainer said.
A former dietitian and keeper said complaints were common among park staff.
“The reason why we all stayed for such a long time was because of the animals because we felt that we had a really good team of workers that really cared about the animals,” said the former worker, on the condition of anonymity.
According to a former monkey keeper, she said she had to “bite her tongue” a lot about the choices management made that she did not agree with, because the park warned her that it was futile. She said Monkey Jungle knew about the complaints from workers.
“I remember having a talk with my boss when he interviewed me saying that things around here aren’t going to change,” she said.
History of allegations
The park previously was accused of mistreating its other great ape, the gorilla King.
In 1997, King was the face of a campaign that started with an ad in the Miami Herald and escalated to billboards along the Florida Turnpike calling for his transfer to Zoo Atlanta, where gorillas who live in isolation are re-socialized. The campaign reached even famed primatologist Jane Goodall, who joined the fight for King’s transfer.
The park built a larger enclosure for King in 2001.
In Lustig’s photos, the now 48-year-old gorilla is shown with open, bleeding sores on his abdomen and back, which she said he picks at due to anxiety. The park administers an antibacterial spray called vetericyn to the wounds, which King wipes off, she said. Her pleas that Monkey Jungle try other ointments on him went ignored, Lustig alleged.
King is otherwise in good spirits, conceded Lustig and the other great ape trainer, and has better living quarters than Mei.
As for the rest of the park’s monkeys, conditions there are “very lax at best,” said the former great ape keeper.
The monkey keeper said she left over disagreements on how the park was treating its more than 100 monkeys, including spider monkeys, java macaque monkeys and gibbons. She, Lustig and the two other former keepers said the spider monkeys are kept in cages with sometimes 16 or 17 to a cage that should hold only a handful of monkeys.
“A lot of the times, especially with primates, they can get very agitated very easily,” said the former monkey trainer. “Being kept in tight quarters and sometimes with animals that they don’t typically get along with can cause a lot of tension and conflict between them. The stress and the welfare of the animals I don’t think was the first priority [at Monkey Jungle].”
Monkey Jungle also keeps a monkey jail in the back of the park, the trainers alleged, where problematic monkeys are kept in small cages. To keep them from misbehaving or to move them from their enclosure, the animals — and others as well, including the apes — would be hosed down, said the former ape trainer.
“That is just so old school, there are different techniques that are far less intrusive,” she said. “Those monkeys are riddled with diseases. They have a cage of nine monkeys that have been trapped. They are breeding in those cages, they are interbreeding. Monkeys are unhealthy. They are being attacked by outside monkeys.”
Treatment of these animals is so subpar, said the former ape trainer, that some have died from overdoses of ketamine. She said she witnessed a gibbon die from a tranquilizer dart that issued too heavy a dose.
The former monkey trainer said the spider monkeys were left outside in a cage during Hurricane Irma, and were only given water dispenser bottles after the storm, similar to the kinds used for gerbils and hamsters.
The Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, which previously worked to release King, has sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture asking it to investigate whether the park is violating the Animal Welfare Act, said Don Anthony, a spokesman for the foundation. The foundation also sent a letter to Monkey Jungle calling on it to release its animals to a sanctuary.
“The fact that these pictures have just emerged from a former employee who wanted to do something about it, this opens up the problem all over again. And we really can see that the problem wasn’t solved in the first place,” Anthony said. “This is the kind of [park] that should have closed down decades ago.”