Osteen sanctuary is for the monkeys
Surprise — Kanzi, a young female black-capped capuchin, recently surprised the Waskos with her first baby. Kanzi has learned from her mom, Monique, how to care for an infant. The baby’s sex is yet to be determined, as Kanzi is being very protective.
BEACON PHOTO/ERIKA WEBB
Vantage point — Jeffrey surveys his kingdom from atop one of the many play structures for monkeys who live at Primate Paradise in Osteen. The compound is surrounded by a new 10-foot fence required by state wildlife officials.
BEACON PHOTO/ERIKA WEBB
Scenes from Paradise — Biologist Linda Wasko feeds marshmallows to Monique. Wasko and her husband, Andrew, started the nonprofit sanctuary for primates after learning how many of them end up homeless when people who acquired monkeys as pets find they cannot keep them.
PHOTO COURTESY OF LINDA WASKO
Monkeys do not make good pets, according to Linda Wasko, who has 22 of them.
On any given day, frivolity reigns at her 20-acre jungle-like sanctuary.
Primate Paradise is situated deep in natural wetlands on Lake Bethel in Osteen.
The nonprofit organization is dedicated to the care of abused, neglected or unwanted primates that are in need of permanent homes.
Linda Wasko, a biologist, has had a lifelong fascination with and appreciation of the fun-loving, havoc-wreaking creatures.
Many years ago, her husband, Andrew Wasko, a retired engineer, got her a baby monkey.
“I wasn’t fully educated to the fact that they don’t really make good pets,” she said, explaining that the naturally energetic animals cannot help “getting into everything.”
“They’re wild animals and you can set them off if they misinterpret your actions or your tone of voice,” Linda Wasko added. “They hate the word ‘no,’ hate it.”
By nature, monkeys tend to perceive observers’ teeth-baring smiles as a threat.
Softer tones and soothing vocabulary, even “baby talk,” tend to coax amenability.
“I never really thought their behavior was as human as it is,” Linda Wasko said.
Her experience with a pet monkey led Wasko to learn more about them.
She decided to start a rescue center for primates who wind up being more than the average exotic pet owner is able to manage.
She said the need for such sanctuaries is far greater than people realize.
A recent visit revealed some serious monkey business underway.
Andrew Wasko and their daughter Natasha worked tirelessly for about eight months to install new 10-foot fencing around the two main primate habitats, after state officials objected to the sanctuary’s existing fence.
Licensed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in 1993, the sanctuary had not been visited by state officials for more than 20 years, Linda Wasko said. But a check-in in 2016 prompted panic among FWC inspectors who could not believe the nearly two-dozen curious and intelligent primates did not venture outside the sanctuary fence.
But the 5-foot-high, mesh-covered, electric-wire perimeter fences had never been breached by the acrobatic animals, who are clearly content with the massive tangle of branches overhead, and elegant sufficiency of brush within their man-made borders.
Not to mention the playhouses and heated — when the temperature drops below 60 degrees — and insulated lockdown shelters. Oh, and blankets.
“They love to tote the blankets around and cover themselves at bedtime,” Linda Wasko said.
She confirmed the original 5-foot fence had never been breached.
“A monkey cannot vertically jump that high,” Linda Wasko said. “The mesh kept them from climbing, and they’re hot-wired. In 20 years, we never had a monkey jump it.”
At first, the state officials demanded the monkeys be completely caged.
“I said, ‘No way! They’re used to free roaming,’” Linda Wasko said.
She was prepared to battle for her beloved animals’ right to exercise their agility in the tops of the tall live oaks, without ceilings.
Ultimately, the agency and the Waskos reached an agreement. After $20,000 and numerous trips to Tractor Supply, most of a new 10-foot-tall perimeter of black fencing is in place.
A mesh-lined overhang around the top will prevent the monkeys from climbing over and out of the enclosures.
“They’ll have a bigger area when it’s finished,” Linda Wasko said.
Once the taller fence is in place, the Waskos hope to take down the shorter fence inside.
“It’s a big job,” Linda Wasko said.
Black-capped and white-faced capuchins comprise the majority of the Primate Paradise population, which also includes Buffy, a cinnamon capuchin; Noah, a squirrel monkey; and the newest rescued resident, Benji, a weeper capuchin.
On a recent Saturday, Linda Wasko walked around the habitats with a marshmallow-filled tin. The monkeys, naturally wary of visitors, cannot resist the fluffy treats, and most came eagerly to the fence to grab and gobble handfuls.
Wasko called out for monkey Monique’s 6-month-old baby.
“Someone else has the baby,” Linda Wasko said, “probably Julie.”
The monkeys form close-knit family units and establish a social order, including “aunting” behavior. When moms are on their last nerve, the other females will carry the youngsters around with them.
Thirty-year-old mom Lisa died when her baby Millie was only a year old. Millie has since been cared for by Julie, who loves babies but is unable to reproduce.
“Benji,” 3, “came out of the pet trade traumatized,” Wasko explained. “He trusted me and took to me right away.”
It took about a year for Benji to warm up to Andrew Wasko.
“My husband didn’t try to touch him,” Linda Wasko said, explaining that Benji would rock to soothe himself.
Slowly, Andrew Wasko began wooing Benji with treats, winning his affection.
Benji is still considered a baby and won’t reach maturity until the age of 7, Linda Wasko said.
He shares a portion of the habitat with Buffy.
“These two are buddies, so they’ll stay together,” Wasko said.
As a baby, Buffy wore diapers and lived in the Waskos’ Spanish Mission-style home, sleeping in a baby buggy inside the couple’s bedroom.
Her mischief extended to escaping from her cage one day and shredding the bedroom wallpaper when the family was out.
Linda Wasko said it’s absolutely true that monkeys are perpetually unruly.
“When they’re real content, they purr,” she said.
Her anecdotes would fill a book.
At one time, she had two other monkeys in the house and one went missing.
Upon interrogation, the other lowered his head.
Something told her to check the freezer.
There she found the missing Morningstar, contentedly eating ice cream.
Apparently, shame-faced Mookie had closed the freezer door on his friend.
The capuchin monkey belongs to the New World grouping — one of five families of primates found in Central and South America and portions of Mexico.
“They only live in the trees and they only are active during the day,” according to www.monkeyworlds.com. “Nighttime is for hiding well from predators while they are able to get plenty of rest.”
Capuchins are considered to be the most intelligent of New World monkeys, the website states, explaining that that trait often lands them in experimental hands.
Linda Wasko agreed: Many who wind up in rescues have been used in laboratories.
“A lot of medical research facilities are placing the ones they’re retiring from research in sanctuaries,” she said.
Throughout the day, the primates forage in the natural foliage and bamboo for lizards, insects and other appetizing snacks.
Breakfast is monkey biscuits, which contain all necessary primate nutrients, and raw peanuts.
A Publix supermarket in Edgewater donates the ingredients for the monkeys’ preferred meal — fruits and vegetables — which they get later in the day.
Primate Paradise exists as an educational resource for primate owners and for the general public.
The Waskos welcome visitors, by appointment, to enjoy the never-ending show.
Go to http://primateparadise.org/ to make a secure donation via PayPal, or mail a check or money order to Primate Paradise Inc., 2465 Reed Ellis Road, Osteen, FL 32764.
Call 407-321-7217 to schedule an appointment to visit.
- Erika Webb, email@example.com