Melanie Lustig walked out of her job at Monkey Jungle in mid-September. The last straw, she says, was scooping up piles of rotten fruit and feces inside an enclosure where the park's orangutan, Mei, had been kept for days. The New Jersey native had been dismayed for months by the conditions animals endured at the family-owned park in the Redland, but seeing "all that awfulness and griminess" was more than she could handle.
"I just could not take it anymore," the former ape keeper tells New Times. "I couldn't take having a job where I was back there crying all the time."
Soon after, Lustig posted behind-the-scenes photos of the animals and their habitats on the image-sharing site Imgur. They were picked up by the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida, which sent several of the pictures to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and requested an investigation of the attraction that's been a South Miami-Dade staple for more than eight decades.
New Times wrote about the photos yesterday; Lustig identified herself as the source today. She says her goal is to expose the park's treatment of animals, which she calls abusive.
Monkey Jungle has not responded to the photos, which included several images of sores on the body of King, the park's gorilla, even as the pictures spread across social media and led to a flood of negative reviews on the attraction's Facebook page. An employee said Monday that park administrators were aware of the photos and planned to release a statement, but did not respond to a phone message. An email sent to park owner Sharon DuMond has so far gone unanswered.
One former keeper tells New Times the park treated the animals well during her time there, from 1990 to about 2007. Tina Casquarelli, who says she cared for King, says the cleanliness of the enclosures was a top priority for staffers, who cleaned them often.
"The animals were very well taken-care-of at the prior Monkey Jungle," Casquarelli says.
However, in a Miami Herald story published Tuesday evening, Lustig was joined by three other former employees in alleging the park is abusing the animals by keeping them in small, dirty enclosures and allowing medical issues to go untreated. They also claimed several of the animals died "at the hands of park staff that have darted the animals or caused them to overdose."
Lustig began working at Monkey Jungle in February, first as a monkey keeper and later as an ape keeper. Working with apes was her dream job, and at first the 30-acre park seemed like any other small zoo, she says.
"From the outside, they do a decent job, you know, keeping their secret," Lustig says.
The park has long branded itself as a place where "the monkeys run free and the humans are caged." But only two kinds of its monkeys are free-roaming; according to Lustig and the other former employees, many of the rest are packed into enclosures that are too small and lack swings or other features for play. The spider monkeys, for example, are crammed 18 to a cage that should hold about four, Lustig says. She claims park management chose to leave them in their cage as Hurricane Irma approached.
Photos Lustig took of King, the park's 48-year-old gorilla, show open sores on his stomach she says he picks because of anxiety. Staff tries to treat the sores with spray but has resisted using other methods. Casquarelli says King began picking at his skin during her time at the park, but the sores weren't as bad as the newly released photos show.
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Lustig is most concerned about Mei, who she says is kept for long stretches inside her nighttime enclosure, a small concrete room that quickly fills with waste. The 32-year-old orangutan, who was born at the park, has been left in the room for as long as several months, Lustig claims, and appears to be depressed.
After Hurricane Irma, Lustig says, Mei was left in the enclosure for days, "rotting away" atop a pile of decomposing fruit, leaves, and feces. Flies were buzzing around. Mei refused any attempt at interaction.
Lustig says she cleaned the cage and quit her job that day. She decided she had to speak out.
"There's some little nerves here and there about it but more this kind of fire under your belly of 'this is just not OK, and they have to be in better conditions,'" she says. "That's the end of it — whatever you have to do, whatever the ramifications are."