By Erika Webb
On a steamy July day, intermittent with rain, 22 monkeys were having an enviably good time.
Some were barely visible in the treetop canopy high above their 20-acre sanctuary deep in the natural wetlands on Osteen's Lake Bethel. Others were front and center at the tall fences, happy to accept the marshmallow offering designed to ply amenability toward visitors.
Five minutes with the curious primates and it's easy to understand the origin of the phrase "more fun than a barrel of monkeys."
Primate Paradise Inc. is a non-profit organization licensed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and dedicated to the care of primates in need of permanent placement.
Biologist and "monkey mom" Linda Wasko and her husband, Andrew, a retired engineer, established Primate Paradise in 1993. It was designated as a non-profit foundation in 2003.
"I've loved monkeys all my life," Ms. Wasko said. "I decided I'd like to have a non-profit and take in monkeys people had gotten for pets and couldn't keep anymore. We keep them here for life."
Last year Roland, a black-capped capuchin and the sanctuary's alpha male, died at the age of 45. His son Jonah took over the role of alpha.
"He'll remain the alpha male for a very long time," Ms. Wasko said. "It's a very stable arrangement."
There are 11 black caps in one open habitat and nine white faced capuchins in another. Each habitat contains lock-down enclosures equipped to provide heat and shelter. There are no friendly block parties because the two species do not intermingle well, though one white faced capuchin named Audrey does venture, ambassador-like, through the treetops to visit her neighbors from time to time.
When a screechy ruckus broke out among the black caps, Ms. Wasko laughed and said it sounds a lot worse than it actually is.
"They do have their squabbles over food," she said.
But, she explained, the monkeys will not take food or other objects from each other and it's highly advisable that humans follow the same "monkey etiquette" when attempting to retrieve things from the animals.
"That's how people get bit," Ms. Wasko explained. "You (should) trade them something or try to get them to drop (the object)."
One enclosure houses Noah, a squirrel monkey, and Pogo, an African bush baby -- a member of the prosimian family, which includes lemurs. Within the enclosure, there is a Coleman cooler where nocturnal Pogo sleeps the day away in insulated comfort. He looked like he'd had a little too much Fourth of July when he ambled out to accept a marshmallow. Pogo is exceptionally sweet, very soft and thoroughly enjoys a good scratch behind the ears.
Inside the Waskos' Spanish Mission-style home lives Buffy, a two-year-old cinnamon capuchin raised by Ms. Wasko from the age of three weeks.
She wears a diaper, sleeps in a buggy in Ms. Wasko's room and has "time-outs" in a cage when she gets unruly, which is a lot. Buffy becomes jealous if Ms. Wasko's daughter, Natasha, 15, gets too close to "their" mother.
This day, in an eye blink, Buffy snatched Natasha's glasses from her face when Natasha sat down next to Ms. Wasko.
"One thing you learn about them is they are so mischievous," Natasha said grinning.
For example, Ms. Wasko said they once had two monkeys named Mouki and Morningstar. When Morningstar went missing one day, she asked Mouki where he was. Mouki lowered his head.
Instinctively, Ms. Wasko knew to look in the freezer where she found Morningstar -- incarcerated by Mouki -- happily eating ice cream.
She said Mouki also liked to play with the lights, turning them on and off to suit himself, usually at bedtime.
"He thought it was time to party," Ms. Wasko said, laughing.
Though she adores the comical, loving creatures and expects to care for them for the rest of her life, Ms. Wasko said in the beginning, when she wanted a pet and her husband got her a baby monkey, she wasn't "fully educated to the fact that they don't really make good pets."
"They're wild animals and you can set them off if they misinterpret your actions or your tone of voice," she said.
Even though monkeys are funny and they make people smile and laugh, the animals view teeth baring as a threat. Those at Primate Paradise are accustomed to smiles and laughter, Ms. Wasko said, but those not used to delighted facial expressions will respond defensively.
And don't tell them no.
"They hate the word 'no,' hate it," Ms. Wasko said. "The older ones out there, they'll come after you if you say no. You have to quietly and softly defuse a situation, using other words."
This labor of love precludes vacations and days off. Donations come from farmers at the Wednesday morning market in DeLand, who provide the monkeys' favorite fruits and vegetables. Ms. Wasko said their first meal of the day consists of monkey biscuits, which contain all necessary primate nutrients, and peanuts. Then they get their preferred fruits and vegetables.
They forage for lizards, insects and other naturally provided treats.
"I never really thought their behavior was as human as it is," Ms. Wasko said. "They're very, very intelligent."
The monkeys love baby blankets. They tote them around and cover themselves at bedtime.
They form close-knit family units and establish a social order. Mothers in need of a break gladly accept the "aunting" behavior of other females who babysit by carrying the little ones with them.
"They're such amazing animals. Every day you can learn something different," Ms. Wasko said.
The primates use vocalizations to communicate what is happening in their world -- from the presence of a snake to an argument.
As though cued, Buffy began to sing from her cage, indicating she was feeling happy.
"When they're real content they purr," Ms. Wasko said. "Buffy loves to hug and purr. She'll come over to me on the bed when she's really tired and look at me in the face to say she wants to go to bed."
Natasha said they love baby talk.
"It soothes them," Ms. Wasko agreed.
Because they shouldn't be caged, Buffy is being introduced to the black capped capuchins outside a few hours at a time.
"You shouldn't keep them in a cage, because they have so much energy and they need to be able to move around," Ms. Wasko said. "It's going to be really hard for me to put her with the group, but I know it's what's best for her."
Left to their own devices, they will wreak sheer havoc inside the house.
Buffy managed to get out of her cage one day when the Waskos were out. She amused herself by removing the wallpaper border in the bedroom.
"They get into everything ... I have so many funny stories I could write a book," Ms. Wasko said. "You just have to get over the shock of the damage."
When the time comes, the black caps will accept Buffy because they love babies, but it takes them longer to welcome older ones.
"We had to keep one in lock down (in a large cage on the black caps' compound) for a year so they could get used to each other," Ms. Wasko said. "They finally accepted her into the group and now she's a full member."
Over population isn't an issue at Primate Paradise, because the monkeys aren't inclined to inbreed, she said. The mothers continue to protect their sons well beyond maturity. Take comfort, human moms. Those instincts are primal.
The range of capuchin monkeys includes Central America and South America as far south as northern Argentina.
The fascinating creatures end up being more than many exotic pet owners bargained for after infancy.
Ms. Wasko said the need for rescue is greater than people realize and, with nearly two dozen, she's at full capacity.
"We don't depend on volunteer help because of liability coverage. I don't want to spend all the money on liability insurance. I want to spend it on monkey care," she said.
Primate Paradise welcomes visitors. For a private appointment to enjoy a unique primate experience or to find out how to help, call (407) 321-7217.
A word of caution to visitors: you'll leave with more than one "monkey on your back." Jonah, Jeffrey, Whistler, Julie, Monique, Heidi, Kanzi, Susie, Chi-Chi, Janie, Audrey, Thara, Tessa, Chimichang, Mando, Clare, Mindy, Mowgli, Minghis, Noah, Buffy and the little bush baby Pogo will tag along with your fondest memories. You probably won't be able to resist baring your teeth.