Here’s a look back at the time I shared a room with leaping lemurs! It’s a once in a lifetime experience, and it happened in Miami! This article originally appeared on TorontoStar.com. Not only will you read about animal antics, but you’ll find tips for planning your own Florida vacation.
MIAMI—When you’re sitting inside a room filled with leaping lemurs a few things run through your mind. Among them:
- Can the half-dozen creatures flying through the air around me smell the mango-scented cream I slathered on without thinking this morning?
- Do lemurs eat mangoes?
This is not the time to find out. Once you’re inside the lemur enclosure at Jungle Island your time is best spent keeping track of which monkey you’ve already fed, trying to keep tails out of your mouth and laughing harder than you have in a long time.
It’s the first two I’m having the most trouble with. These animals are fast, smart and strong — leaping up to 30 feet at a time and landing in the places you least expect — like the top of your head. (In fact, the lemur currently nesting in my hair is between 8-9 months old, bottle-fed and very comfortable.)
The experience is a “VIP” one but I’m not getting special treatment because I’m a writer; you too can get this close to the animals that are on the verge of extinction in their native Madagascar.
But Jungle Island is the only place in the U.S. where you can do it.
Here, you can also hop around with the kangaroos, feed grapes to a camel, become the climbing pole for a frisky yellow python and my personal favourite, ride a giant tortoise.
The VIP experience at Jungle Island is the type of dream most kids have and most parents quickly dismiss but here, animal lovers get their chance.
The park itself is more than 70 years old, originating as “Parrot Jungle” in Pinecrest before changing owners, names and moving to its current Watson Island location in 2003.
“There were three trees on the property,” explains animal trainer Henry Faison.
“Everything else you see here,” he says gesturing at the lushly forested grounds, “was brought in by helicopters.”
Faison is a former paramedic has been with the company for more than 10 years. After a car hit him while he was out riding his bike, a friend — who also happened to be the owner of the park — suggested he come over and help out for a while. Faison never left.
After spending a few hours with him touring the grounds it’s easy to understand why. His love of the place is infectious.
From the moment you pass through the turnstile gates, the plethora of colourful free-flying birds make you feel like you’re in a jungle. It’s a thrill that doesn’t exist at your typical zoo. The animals are so close to you that you quickly get a sense of their personalities and the stories that go with them.
Like the time Mahesh got out.
To be fair it wasn’t the then 500-pound Bengal tiger’s fault. Watson, a white-tailed gibbon, had escaped his cage first and then went over and taunted Mahesh from atop the 14-foot enclosure. When Mahesh tried to catch him, he jumped and ended up on the other side of the glass.
“He was as surprised to be on the wrong side of the glass as anyone else was,” says Faison.
The tiger was quickly prodded back into his enclosure and no one was hurt. (The fence around that enclosure is now 20 feet tall and Watson is under close surveillance as well.)
Then there’s Otis, the llama in the petting zoo who hightails it to the feed machine every time he hears someone drop in a quarter. If you’re not quick he’ll get to the feed flap before you do.
By the time you are halfway through the experience you feel like you’ve known these animals all your life.
And the stories only get more heartwarming.
Faison recalls Millie, an orangutan born with cerebral palsy who lived for three years and was cared for in the park. Her ashes are buried on site under a memorial plaque and Faison is sombre as he talks of how she was loved, cared for and provided an opportunity to talk about the difference with families who visited.
On a lighter note he tells me about Hannah — the 13-year old orangutan giving me a stare down — who used to like to pull her brother Jake around in a wagon. Hannah, herself, often rode — wearing her seatbelt, of course — in the backseat of Faison’s car as he ran errands.
They still have a special relationship.
While the orangutans are now too big for guests to play with — Florida law stipulates that guests can’t interact with anything over 40 pounds on the property — don’t feel too sorry for them.
“They play with an iPad,” says Faison, “and they have their own DVR system so they can watch movies in their night house.”
Hope the lemurs don’t have the same. There’s a sure-fire way to know: If they taped my visit — their tails in my face, claws in my hair and what I’m pretty sure is poop on my shoulder — they’ll be having a laughfest all night.
Just the facts
DOING: The Jungle Island VIP Safari is $240 for adults (ages 11 and up) and $120 for kids (ages 3-10). There is a 10-guest maximum and a two-guest minimum. In addition to park admission the package includes lunch at the Lakeside café (including one non-alcoholic beverage), a souvenir T-shirt, and a 10 per cent discount in the gift shop. The personal guided tour is 90 minutes and includes the Lemur Experience.
If you are only interested in the monkeys, the Lemur Encounter is $45 per person plus tax. The 45-minute program includes an educational session with an animal trainer and a chance to play with and hold the lemurs.
If the VIP options are too pricey for your brood, Jungle Island is still worth a visit. There are plenty of shows and activities (including a petting zoo near the back of the park with only-a-short-fence-apart encounters with goats, tortoises, llamas and more) included in park admission.
ARRIVING: American Airlines, WestJet and Air Canada all offer direct flights from Toronto.
SLEEPING: Consider checking out the new JW Marriott Marquis (complete with virtual bowling alley and basketball court). It’s one of several hotels that are serviced by a free shuttle from Jungle Island. www.marriott.com.
DINING: Miami is renowned for its dining options. For a treat, try the Nuevo Latin cuisine at D. Rodriguez Cuba about an eight-minute drive away—www.drodriguezcuba.com.
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