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At Monkey Jungle, animals were taken into locked clinic and ‘never came out,’ trainers say

In the back of Monkey Jungle is a clinic that is often locked — until the day it wasn’t.

That was when Michelle Diaz, a former trainer at the South Miami-Dade attraction, and her godmother Shirley Lavina, who cleaned the park, snuck into the clinic.

The room looked like a standard medical room, with an examining table and several cages.

In the corner was a freezer. Inside: dead monkeys in body bags, they claim.

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A male java macaque with a severe hand injury. Former trainer Michelle Diaz said the monkey had the bone on his right thumb exposed and in her time working at the park, from February to October 2015, was never treated by a veterinarian. Michelle Diaz

How those animals perished and who treated them was kept secret from the park’s employees, allege Diaz, Lavina and a half-dozen other former employees at the park. Many said they never saw a veterinarian at the attraction and didn’t believe any members of the park’s in-house management were licensed to treat animals that are wounded or sick.

Park ownership said the accusations are untrue. Park owner Sharon Dumond told the Miami Herald that Monkey Jungle has “consulting veterinarians” who are available to treat its primates. Inspection reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show no violations at the park.

But, claims Diaz, “animals went into the clinic and they never came out.”

It is the latest in a series of allegations by former trainers against the more than 80-year-old animal attraction that bills itself as a place where “humans are caged and monkeys run wild.”

Since the Miami Herald first wrote about the issue on Nov. 7, three additional former employees have come forward. A total of eight have contacted the Herald, giving similar stories.

Unexplained animal deaths are common, trainers said.

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A male java macaque with an injury, according to former trainer Michelle Diaz. Diaz said the park often ignored animals that were wounded, allegations the park has denied. Michelle Diaz

Diaz and Lavina claim that a sloth named Daisy was taken into the clinic for a hysterectomy and died following the procedure, performed by a park manager who was not a trained veterinarian. Diaz said that in the perimeter of the park, where some of the free-roaming monkeys live, she found dead monkeys on the ground on three separate occasions when she worked there, between February and October 2015.

Other former workers have made similar claims of medical mistreatment.

Melanie Lustig, a former ape trainer at the park who left Monkey Jungle in September, said a sick howler monkey named Jordan was given a cocktail of eight drugs and fed very little before he died.

Alejandra Curtis, a former dietitian and keeper at Monkey Jungle, said a gibbon named Caiman started getting very sick and that management allegedly ignored the situation until the primate started convulsing from a seizure. He was taken to the clinic, where he died, she claims.

“They never came up to me and talked to me about what exactly happened,” said Curtis, who worked at the attraction from January 2016 to July 2017. “Everything was so hush-hush. Everything was kept a secret.”

In a statement delivered by email Thursday, Monkey Jungle said “all accusations are false.”

“As in any animal park, we may lose animals from time to time due to old age or illness,” said Dumond, whose family has owned Monkey Jungle for more than eight decades. She added that the park “strives to provide quality care for all of its animals.”

The park is inspected annually by the USDA, she said, and biannually by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.

According to the last three years of inspections by the USDA posted online, “no non-compliant items” were identified during the inspections. The most recent USDA inspection was June 26.

And Robert Barnum, a tropical fruit farmer who lives next door to Monkey Jungle, praised Dumond’s dedication to caring for her animals.

“I have witnessed her not getting home until 7, 8 p.m. from the park almost every day for the last I don’t know how long,” Barnum said Friday. “She gives everything she can. She loves her animals.”

Barnum also pointed out that the park has an on-call veterinarian whom he has seen several times.

He added that economic challenges also play a role. While he said he isn’t familiar with the park’s finances, he said that in his case, he gets “30-year-ago prices” for some of his fruits.

“The [animals] don’t get top-of-the-line, and they do get adequate,” Barnum said. “Some people think they should get top-of-the-line where there is not enough funds to do it.” (As a private entity, the park does not report its visitation numbers, and those figures are not available elsewhere.)

But trainers say the park falls short.

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A group of monkeys inside what is known at Monkey Jungle as “monkey jail.” Michelle Diaz, a former trainer at the park, said the monkeys often hurt each other because they were crammed into tight quarters. Michelle Diaz

“We were having a nervous breakdown from the things that we saw,” said Lavina, who worked there at the same time as Diaz in 2015. She says she saw monkeys kill each other from being cramped into cages. Many had wounds from the tight quarters, she alleged.

Dumond denied there were any enclosures where monkeys attack or kill each other.

In a “monkey jail” at the back of the park for problematic or aggressive animals, Diaz said some monkeys had large gashes on their hands. Photos she took of the monkeys show one with a bloody hand and what she says is bone poking out from the injury.

“This monkey jail they told us is for monkeys in transition. But the monkeys never left there,” she said.

Dumond said that all of the park’s enclosures meet the standards required and the animals are monitored. “Aggressive animals are removed if needed,” she said.

Allegations of food deprivation

The park’s great apes, which are the star attractions, have also been mistreated, trainers claim — and were the sources of the initial allegations that surfaced early this week.

But Friday, Diaz said park management regularly kept food from King, a 48-year-old gorilla, to entice him to perform in shows. Food was withheld from other animals, too, she said.

After one show in 2015 when King didn’t do his usual tricks, park management told her she had to stop feeding him until he performed, Diaz alleges.

“I started crying. I said I couldn’t do it,” Diaz said. [Management] said, ‘You don’t understand, these are animals, they have to be disciplined and obey everything. You are being too soft and too nice.’

“We tried to talk ... and it just came to the same thing: That I was not understanding that at the end of the day, we are doing their shows, and you have to do the training, you’re a trainer. You are looking at the animals like human beings and they are not human beings.”

Diaz and Lavina said they started buying extra food for the animals and feeding them in secret, for which they were often reprimanded. Curtis, who worked at the park after Diaz and Lavina left, said the park tried to train other monkeys during her time there by depriving them of food, too.

Dumond said that food is the “primary method” used to motivate animals to shift from one area to another, but that all animals “receive full diets daily.”

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Monkey Jungle’s gorilla, King, has red sores on his abdomen and back that he picks at out of anxiety, alleges Melanie Lustig, a former trainer. Melanie Lustig

She also said that when food is not a successful incentive for moving animals, “a water hose may be used to motivate animals to shift from one area to another but are never directed at the animals.” (Trainers claim the hose is directed at the animals.)

But Ron Magill, spokesman for Zoo Miami, said that withholding food and hosing animals are not standard practices in the business.

“It’s certainly an outdated practice if it’s a practice at all,” Magill said. The only situations in which animals are withheld food are to keep them at certain weights, he said, and those animals are weighed every day to ensure they are not obese.

“It’s not something where you say, ‘I am going to make you hungry now to make you perform,’ ” Magill said.

Zoo Miami, which also keeps apes and competes for visitors, is encouraging a thorough investigation into the allegations at Monkey Jungle.

Ultimately, it was conditions at the park that led Diaz, Lavina, Lustig and, in part, Curtis, to leave.

“I was having nightmares; I was feeling bad. I couldn’t live with myself,” Diaz said. “... I felt like it was hell.”

Some of the allegations have been submitted to the USDA for further investigation by the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida. The group will hold a protest at the park on Nov. 19.

Chabeli Herrera: 305-376-3730, @ChabeliH

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