Monkey Alcatraz: Florida Co-op Helps Refurbish Island Primate Preserve

Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative helped upgrade the habitat for spider monkeys on an island nature preserve. (Photo By: WREC)

A Florida electric cooperative renowned for its work helping the people in its region has added another species to its list of beneficiaries.

Dade City-based Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative recently donated a crew and equipment to help refurbish Monkey Island, a tiny historic nature preserve on the Homosassa River that’s home to three charismatic spider monkeys.

Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative recently donated a crew and equipment to help refurbish Monkey Island, home to three charismatic spider monkeys. (Photo Courtesy: Florida Cracker Riverside Resort)

“Monkey Island is beloved by our members and is a popular tourist attraction,” said David Lambert, WREC’s manager of member relations. “When the board of the facility reached out for our help with refurbishments, we had crews lining up to do the work.”

The island was created in the mid-1960s when a local developer had dirt and mud piled on a patch of shallow rock to help boaters avoid running aground. Soon after, the island was turned into a mini-Alcatraz for misbehaving monkeys from a nearby wildlife park owned by the same developer. A shelter, lighthouse and climbing toys were built to occupy the inmates.

By 2021, the facilities had fallen into disrepair, and the Monkey Island board devised a $200,000 plan to refurbish the island, including a fiber-optic connection to run web cameras and a new monkey home equipped with heating and air conditioning and built strong enough to sustain hurricane-force winds.

Withlacoochee River EC staffers work on the spider monkey habitat upgrade project. (Photo By: WREC)

WREC was among the first groups the board reached out to for help, even though the co-op doesn’t serve the island or the resort that owns it.

“We often do projects for communities in areas we don’t serve,” Lambert said. “It’s simply part of the seventh cooperative principle, so it’s the right thing to do. The preserve’s board contacted us in late 2021, and we told them we’d be there whenever they were ready for us.”

In October 2022, the co-op used a seven-person team and a barge with heavy equipment to set several poles for the updated habitat and for new ropes, nets and platforms to keep the monkeys active and entertained.

The spider monkey preserve is located on a tiny island in the Homosassa River, so Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative staffers used the co-op’s barge to move materials and equipment to the site. (Photo By: WREC)

The nonprofit Monkey Island board paid for the materials, and the co-op donated the use of its crews and equipment, Lambert said.

“We were happy to be able to assist the board and the monkeys,” he said. “We’re quite experienced at helping the humans in our region, so it’s nice to be able to expand our work.”

WREC has a long history of involvement in community development, including a decade of work to lift the struggling town of Lacoochee out of poverty and recent efforts to build mental health clinics in the region, among many other projects.

Monkey Island has no other mammals, but palm trees and other vegetation attract native and migrating birds. The Withlacoochee crew also installed a raptor platform atop one of the poles to encourage ospreys to nest at the site, with barriers to keep the monkeys from climbing onto it.

The resident monkeys—Ralph, Ebony and Emily—were moved to a nearby facility during the renovations. They’re expected to be returned to their island by this summer.

Derrill Holly is a staff writer for NRECA.