Survivors of exotic animal black market find new homes in Florida

A small plane takes off from Melbourne headed for Dallas on a rescue mission.

A spider monkey was found in the center console of a pickup truck near the Texas-Mexico border. Customs agents found him during a search of the vehicle. They called U.S. Fish and Wildlife, who investigates animal smuggling. 

It is not clear if a buyer was lined up but the driver of the truck was arrested and the Dallas Zoo took the monkey in.     

News of the monkey’s struggle soon reached the Brevard Zoo, where they just completed a $4 million rain forest habitat. The two teams agreed that the Brevard Zoo would be a perfect forever home for the monkey.

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Darby Proctor, who researches primate psychology at Florida Tech, will study how the integration goes when the monkey is introduced to the Brevard Zoo’s existing spider monkey population. That will be tricky because, like humans, sometimes primate personalities do not mesh.

"If you’re annoyed with one of your friends, you might not see them for a couple of weeks, and spider monkeys do the same thing," Proctor explains. "So we’re hoping that he’s not afraid of other monkeys or something like that... because we don’t know how long he has been without other monkeys."

Like the Brevard Zoo, the CARE Foundation in Apopka also offers refuge to smuggled animals. Founder and Director Christin Burford showed us a spider monkey named Amos. He explained that "these are highly poached and trafficked. These monkeys go for about $10,000."

He then introduced us to Kamara, a LiLiger, bred from a tiger and lion. Law enforcement thinks Kamara was once a resident of Joe Exotic’s park in Oklahoma and was traded between other owners across state lines before being adopted by CARE. 

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"At that time, only two people supposedly had LiLigers. One guy was in Russia and the other was Joe Exotic," Burford explained.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Justice are targeting exotic animal traders in an effort they call 'Operation: Sound of Silence.' Internationally, the same thing is happening in 'Operation Blizzard,' which is headed up by Interpol. 

In a 2019 roundup, the largest reptile trade bust in history yielded more than 4,000 live reptiles, which were seized at airports, breeding places, and pet shops all over the world. 12 suspects were arrested.       

"In most industries, it’s supply and demand... for the exotics, it’s the opposite. Demand and then the supply," Burford told FOX 35. In Florida, rare reptiles are highly in demand. Some of those transplants are killing native wildlife. 

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The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) estimates there are 50 varieties of reptiles who don’t belong here. 80 percent of those animals were smuggled here illegally.

Florida’s Audubon Society said our birds suffer as many of those illegally imported reptiles eat birds. The Burrowing Owl, which was added to the endangered species list in 2017, is a prime example. The Nile Monitor preys on burrowing owls.  

Florida lawmakers are trying to make it harder for smugglers by toughening existing laws and writing new ones. For example, in June, Governor DeSantis signed a bill targeting exotic reptile ownership. Nine species are now banned. The penalties for owning them include fines in the hundreds of dollars, suspension, or loss of other animal licenses.

However, since exotic animal ownership laws vary from state to state, it remains a jungle out there.

Tune in to FOX 35 Orlando for the latest Central Florida news.