The nonprofit animal sanctuary Monkey Island is sinking
Todd the spider monkey is about to embark on a five-month island vacation in landlocked Greenwood, Missouri. It’s June 9, more than a month later than Dana Savorelli, the owner of the nonprofit Monkey Island Rescue and Zoological Sanctuary, wanted to relocate Todd. The move to Monkey Island, the moat-surrounded land in what amounts to Savorelli’s front yard, was pushed back by bad weather and because the island’s other inhabitants, a flock of geese, were still sitting on their eggs.
Savorelli’s private, 10-acre farm contains animals that you won’t find anywhere else in Missouri except in a zoo: miniature donkeys, ostriches, llamas, lemurs and more than 20 venomous snakes. A day before Todd’s move, TV cameras captured Savorelli and friends dropping a cage containing alligators in the moat surrounding the island.
Because the island sits just 80 feet from South Harris Road, Todd’s antics will be visible from the road. Drivers will glimpse Todd climbing trees or scaling a 6-foot statue of a tyrannosaurus rex or swinging on the 64 feet of monkey bars that stretch the length of the island. Savorelli has to transport Todd to the island, which is accessible only by boat. But first, he has to get Todd on the boat.
“Todd’s usually pretty laid-back,” Savorelli says. His bald head and beard glisten with sweat in the warm sun. He wears a sleeveless gray T-shirt emblazoned with the name of his business, Midwest Tongs (the “world’s leader in snake handling equipment,” the shirt announces) and sweatpants. “He should remember what’s going on and come right out and just go with me.”
Savorelli is prepared for Todd to be less than laid-back. He slips on a thick rubber glove that covers his arm in case Todd bites him.
“Hopefully, we don’t have to chokehold him or nothing,” he says. “If he gets stupid, self-preservation kicks in.”
Savorelli enters Todd’s cage, an 8-foot-tall structure with a tire swing, a toy ball, a plank and a tunnel. There are 13 cages for the nearly 50 primates on the farm. (The cages not facing Savorelli’s home are 16 feet high so that monkeys on either side of the building can share and see the other wildlife on the farm). Todd has lived on the farm for eight years and has spent the morning leisurely swinging from the cage’s bars.
“Come here, you crazy monkey,” Savorelli says. He cradles Todd in his arms and tries to keep the monkey calm as he holds him and walks down the gravel drive toward the boat. Assisting is a quiet blond woman named Suzanne Windsor, who wears a red Mizzou T-shirt and denim shorts. Perhaps spooked by the presence of a reporter, Todd tries to squirm out of Savorelli’s arms.
“He’s gotta understand who the fucking boss is,” Savorelli says, pinning the monkey to the ground as he explains that primates understand social hierarchies. He addresses Todd again: “You’re going to have to mellow out.”
“Want the net?” Windsor asks. “Careful. Easy. Calm down, Todd.”
“About ready to stop fucking around?” Savorelli asks Todd, whose struggle has knotted his arms into a pretzel. Todd tries to choke Savorelli with his feet. “I got his fucking jaw. That’s where he’s going to hurt you. Once I got his head, I can keep him locked in place here. I’ll let him go, and he’ll be fine and walk off.”
Savorelli finally scoops up Todd and boards the boat with Windsor, who rows them to the island. Once there, Todd hops off and moves calmly to the playground, just as Savorelli predicted. Todd climbs a tree as Savorelli and Windsor throw eggs that the geese have left behind into the water. (Savorelli doesn’t want his monkeys eating bad eggs.) Geese honk as their eggs splash and crack against downed tree branches in the water.
Back on the mainland, Savorelli checks himself for bites. “I don’t think he ever got me. There’s one scratch there,” he says, showing off his arm.
Todd won’t be alone on the island. Two white-fronted capuchins named Katrina and E.T. will be joining him.
“The ones we’ve been putting out there have been going out there for years and years,”
Savorelli says. “It’s just routine for them. They’ll live on that island until probably November. Once we put ’em out there, they’re there until we bring them back in. We try to push that to the limits so they can have a bigger cage, so to speak. The water is the barrier, or the fence, that would normally keep them in.”
Katrina, a calm capuchin, is next to go. Windsor picks up Katrina and sweet-talks her in a gentle, motherly voice. The monkey rides to the island on Windsor’s shoulders, a smoother trip than Todd’s.
The final monkey making the move is E.T.. Savorelli grabs the net and sneaks into E.T.’s cage. “E.T.’s a hell-raiser,” he says. “He’s a little bastard. I’ll probably net E.T. because he can be as good as he is bad.”
E.T. hides in a tunnel.
“He’s smarter than shit,” Savorelli says. “He’s the life of the party out there. He gets everything wound up and everybody pissed off.”
“E.T., come here, baby,” Windsor coos. “Come on, E.T..”
E.T. chatters while peering out of the tunnel.
“It’s OK. Come on, E.T.,” Windsor says. “Come on, baby. Come on. I know. Come here, baby.”
E.T. finally lets his guard down and hops down. Savorelli sneaks up on him and nets him, compressing E.T.’s body in the mesh.
“Be a good boy,” Savorelli tells E.T. “He is wound up in that net so tight to keep him from hurting him or me. It doesn’t really bother him. So it works out well.”
Windsor rows the boat to the island again, stopping near a tree stump in the water. Savorelli unwinds the net and lets E.T. loose on the stump. The little monkey gives Savorelli a what-the-fuck look but eventually climbs across a downed tree limb and jumps onto the island.
“That’s it,” Savorelli says as the boat docks. The only other primates that might also move to the island are two gibbons, whose high-pitched whooping can be heard from anywhere in the sanctuary. Savorelli says he’s waiting to move them because the female is pregnant.
The five-month vacation on the island for Todd, Katrina and E.T. may be their last.
Savorelli says Monkey Island may be forced to close by winter.
Savorelli started Monkey Island after moving to his two-story farmhouse in 1996. He knew the house’s former owners, who had bred and sold monkeys. When they put it up for sale, Savorelli saw “the opportunity of a lifetime.”
“Never looked back,” he says of buying the house, where today he lives alone. “I love it out here.”
Savorelli had planned to continue breeding and selling monkeys. But he came to believe that he was just taking people’s money — he’d sell a monkey for $5,000 and end up getting the monkey back for free within a few years, when the owner would almost invariably return it.
In 1998, Savorelli built the island in a wooded and brushy area of his front lawn that never dried out.
“Now the monkeys can go out there, and it’s a cool place for them,” Savorelli says.
Savorelli once had a dispute over Monkey Island with a power-hungry Jackson County Animal Control officer in 2003, who claimed that Savorelli was harboring wild or exotic animals without permission from Jackson County Animal Control. But Savorelli didn’t need the county’s permission. He was (and is) governed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which issues dealer permits to keep animals such as those at Monkey Island. Savorelli won the fight against Jackson County Animal Control.
The USDA conducts surprise inspections to ensure that the Animal Welfare Act is being followed. (Do the animals have access to clean water? Are their cages the right size? Are they receiving proper veterinary care?) Savorelli passed his 2010 inspection.
The USDA doesn’t statistically track the number of private animal sanctuaries, which appear to be rare. “With the economy being what it is nowadays, it’s probably not so common to be a self-contained, self-sustained wildlife sanctuary, because it takes a lot of volunteers,” USDA spokesman Dave Sacks says. “It takes a lot of money to feed these animals. And if you’re not charging money for people to view these animals, it’s not contributing to your financial state of being. They’re just being taken care of by you, which is certainly a noble effort.”
Part of Monkey Island’s mission is to take in abandoned or confiscated exotic animals in the Kansas City area.
“Animal control, you never know what they’ll bring,” Savorelli says. “We take in whatever. It’s all life to us, whether it’s mean or not mean.”
Most of the animals that end up at his front gate come from people who thought owning a monkey would be cute but then find that the realities of ownership — feeding expenses, the occasional bite — are less than adorable. Savorelli also receives alligators and reptiles confiscated in drug raids.
“I tell people that it’s like an old folks’ home,” Savorelli says of his enterprise. “They come here after they’re too hard to handle or whatever, and then we maintain their lives for the time that they get to live, however long that is. But that’s an expensive process.”
Derrick Jones, a field supervisor with Kansas City’s animal control division, counts Savorelli as an ally and calls Monkey Island “very valuable.” Jones recalls taking Savorelli about 10 alligators, three monkeys and several poisonous snakes, including a copperhead. If Monkey Island hadn’t been an option, the
gators likely would have been euthanized.
“Because he took them, we saved the alligators,” Jones says. “The monkeys, I’m not sure what we would have done with them. He has a long history of dealing with them. It’s probably the best place for them.”
Asked how many times Animal Control has taken exotic animals to Monkey Island, Jones replies, “More than we’d like.” He adds: “It’s a great thing he’s there helping out.”
Savorelli doesn’t get paid for the exotic animals he takes in. “We just try to be there as a service because we have the experience,” he says. “It’s like second nature to us to deal with them. I don’t mind helping them out. But there’s also only so much money to go around to feed these guys, especially when things are tough.”
Savorelli doesn’t keep track of the number of rescues he takes in a year. He clips newspaper articles documenting his rescue work and puts them on his refrigerator. The door is covered. There’s a story about Savorelli saving a 12-foot, 50-pound Burmese python on Christmas Eve 2010. The python was on the verge of being euthanized after someone tried to decapitate it with a box cutter. Savorelli quickly found the snake a new home. There’s also a story about Suco, the chimpanzee who went on a mini rampage around Indiana Avenue between 77th and 78th streets last October. Savorelli baby-sat the chimp before it was transferred to the Kansas City Zoo.
A three-toed sloth hangs in a cage in
Savorelli’s pantry, and inside the garage attached to Savorelli’s home is a metal tub that used to house wayward alligators. Savorelli’s garage also holds cases full of snakes —
anacondas, a carpet python, a boa constrictor and a Burmese python. Most impressive is the long wooden case containing an 18-foot, 250-pound Burmese python, which was given to Savorelli by a man who bought it (when it was just 8 feet long) for his grandchildren.
“My daughter got married a month ago, and the snake was in the actual wedding along with a dog and a horse,” Savorelli says.
Savorelli has a connection with his monkeys. On a May afternoon, he greets each one as he might an old friend, and each greets him as one, too.
“Yes, I know you need a scratch on that belly,” he told a monkey waiting at the side of a cage. The monkey grunts as Savorelli scratches her belly. “Yeah, that’s a good girl right there,” he says. He feeds her some grass. “You’re a sweetheart.”
Savorelli points out two pigtailed macaques, named Nicholas and Abby. In October 2007, they were drugged and kidnapped from his farm. Catherine Montes, a former Monkey Island volunteer, was charged with burglary and theft. But Jackson County prosecutors dropped the charges, citing a problem with evidence (despite Savorelli having captured the theft on surveillance video). A third macaque, Melissa, was never found.
Lisa Shinkle, who hid the kidnapped macaques, was prosecuted in Buchanan County and served 20 days in jail after being convicted of receiving stolen property.
Savorelli makes it to the last cage in a row of seven. “Hi, Mr. Todd,” he says and shakes hands with the spider monkey who was reluctant to depart for the island.
Savorelli’s first love wasn’t monkeys but snakes, which he started collecting at age 12. He says he learned to read by memorizing books about snakes. He was also a young entrepreneur, selling snakes to collectors. His best customer: serial killer Bob Berdella. Savorelli says his ex-wife later found a ledger that Savorelli had used to track his snake deals and discovered Berdella’s name in his book.
“Bob Berdella picked me up and took me to the house where he slaughtered those people, when I was 13 years old,” Savorelli recalls. “I didn’t have anybody with me. Nobody knew where I went.” Berdella showed him the room in his home where he kept snakes, mice and rats.
“Bob would always pay what you asked,” Savorelli says. “Never talk you down a dime. Never tried to hustle you. Never tried to trade you this or that. He always paid cash.”
In what might be the world’s most dangerous office, Savorelli conducts business for Midwest Tongs. He began designing snake-handling equipment in 1985. He bought designs, for what would become his tongs, from a friend of a friend.
On the triple-locked door to an office in a work shed behind his home, where he works and also keeps his venomous snakes, a sign reads: “Danger: Area protected by a crawling cobra.” Two walls of cases in his office contain more than 20 deadly snakes: cobras, vipers, mambas, rattlesnakes, taipans (the most dangerous in the world). Hanging on another wall of Savorelli’s office is a poster of him skydiving. In the last few weeks, he has been learning to race motorcycles. He talks about making turns at sharp angles at 120 mph. Savorelli refers to himself as a “managed risk taker.” Without risk, he says, life would be boring. It’s a philosophy that colors his approach to business.
Working in close proximity to the snakes lends Savorelli and Midwest Tongs credibility, he says. “I’m working with the most deadly snakes in the whole world, and the people that are buying from me are doing the same thing.”
A few days earlier, one of Savorelli’s three taipans chased him out of the room. Savorelli was feeding the snake a dead rat, but the snake focused on him.
“It mistook me for food,” Savorelli says. “It came blasting out of the cage at me. I had to take a few steps back, get out of the way, pick up some snake tongs and put it back in the cage.”
Savorelli has never been bitten, but he keeps antivenom stocked in his refrigerator, which he opens to pull out a small vial.
“This right here is the key to life if you’re bitten by a snake,” he says.
Savorelli wants to bring the key of life to developing nations. He’s a director with Animal Venom Research International, a nonprofit humanitarian organization working to bring antivenom first to Sri Lanka, the world’s capital of death by snake bite. Savorelli has contributed money to the project, though he says he initially was met with skepticism from people who believed he was just trying to sell his snake tongs.
“It has nothing to do with money,” Savorelli says. “It has to do with you have less than me in life; let me try to show you a better way.”
In two years, Sri Lanka will have the best antivenom in the world, Savorelli says.
AVRI executive director Roy Malleappah says it has taken four years to complete the project because of bureaucratic red tape. “We’re on the verge,” he says. “Dana is the momentum behind the operation.”
But the survival of Monkey Island will require something more complicated than a dose of medicine.
Midwest Tongs has been a viable business, and Savorelli says it could still turn a significant profit. For years, sales of his snake-handling equipment have paid for the care of the animals in his sanctuary. What started with a $1,500 investment and the sale of equipment at $35 a unit has evolved into a line of tongs, hooks, snare poles and other specialty items.
“All of my profits in general go to taking care of these animals,” Savorelli says. “We don’t have any bank accounts that amount to anything. It’s all for what you believe in life. And this, to me, is the moral thing to do. People think there’s something to it — ‘Oh, there’s a bunch of money somewhere.’ There isn’t. It’s real simple.”
But Savorelli says a bad business deal with a management company that he subcontracted to handle Midwest Tongs’ bookkeeping, manufacturing and shipping now threatens to end Midwest Tongs and Monkey Island. He won’t go into detail, but he says his sanctuary might be closed before the end of the year.
“Will Monkey Island be here six months from now?” Savorelli asks. “That’s definitely the question. I don’t know. We have nothing but private funding, which is ourselves. There’s only so much to go around, and it seems like there are more and more of these animals coming out of the woodwork.”
Monkey Island is a nonprofit but it has accepted less than $1,000 in donations over its history, Savorelli says. Caring for more than 200 animals costs thousands of dollars a month. Just heating the concrete, bunkerlike building connected to the monkeys’ cages costs him as much as $1,700 a month in the winter. The monkeys alone can consume 40 to 60 pounds of bananas in one feeding. “We just spent $1,800 yesterday on some food for them,” Savorelli says.
A deal gone south isn’t the only thing working against Savorelli. He owes more than $10,500 — and counting — in unpaid property taxes.
“It’s not huge money. It’s nothing that’s going to kill us,” Savorelli says. “But are they putting liens against the house? Sure they are, because they want to get their money out of it.
“I’m going to ride this as long as I can and feed these animals, no matter who has to sacrifice,” he continues. “If I miss these guys’ feedings for a week, they die. I’m not saying what I’m doing is right. What I’m saying is, what I’m doing is morally right. We want to pay the taxes even if we have to pay interest on them. And I can fix that part, but I can’t fix not feeding these guys.”
Savorelli isn’t sure what will happen to his monkeys, snakes and exotic animals if Monkey Island doesn’t survive. He fears that they’ll be sold on the secondary market.
“It’s something I try never to think about,” he says. “If our hands get tied as tight as they could be, we may not have a choice.”
He’s looking for a new investor for Midwest Tongs. He says he could pay the investor back with good interest in just three years.
“Getting a $250,000 loan or investment will allow the company to continue what it has done for years and to provide for the animals — in other words, [stay] self-sufficient,” Savorelli says. “There’s somebody out there in this world that can help us. But how do I get in touch with them? How do you go out and ask for money that people don’t have nowadays? I don’t know how you do that.”
Savorelli says he’s also looking for an attorney to pursue a case against the management company.
“We’re going to lose everything,” Savorelli says. “The house is going to go. It’s going to be a rapid domino effect. I’ll liquidate my life, everything I’ve done for 51 years.”
He isn’t optimistic that financial or legal assistance will come in time.
“I will push it to the very end,” Savorelli says. “My savings are their lives. If I’m alive, they’re going to be alive.”