Pictured above: A 1939 postcard of the Sanford Zoo and Monkey Island on the north end of Park Avenue. Sanford City Hall sits on this site today.

Take a walk through the Central Florida Zoo and you will see nearly 600 animals representing 205 species.

In 1925, the animal roster was substantially less impressive: there was an opossum, a raccoon, a squirrel, a skunk, a bulldog and a couple of monkeys. 

It was the monkey that started the whole thing.

A traveling circus came through town in 1923 and, for reasons unknown, gave a rhesus monkey to the Sy Smith, who was the custodian of the Sanford Elks Lodge.

Sy kept the monkey at the lodge, but the Elks brothers were able to create enough monkey business on their own without the help of the primate (the membership roster included Sanford Mayor Forrest Lake, who would be convicted of bank fraud in a few years).

The Elks decided the monkey was a better fit at the Sanford Fire Department. That seemed to encourage citizens to drop off various animals – including the skunk and a female monkey – at the fire department on Palmetto Avenue. 

Eventually this motley crew of animals outgrew the fire department, forcing city fathers to officially create the Sanford Municipal Zoo in 1925. It was located on the north end of Park Avenue. Today we know that site better as City Hall, and some contrarians will say that not much has changed – it’s still a zoo.

Responsibility for the animals was transferred to the police department. Inmates from the nearby jail were assigned to clean the cages, while residents and local restaurants donated food for the animals.

For 50 years the locals and visitors flocked to the downtown zoo, the centerpiece of which was Monkey Island, a tiny patch of land surrounded by a moat to keep the monkeys separated. 

On more than one occasion, however, downtown was overrun with monkeys as mischievous teenagers – and sometimes adults – freed the primates, in most cases by laying a 2×4 plank across the moat.

By 1975, the zoo had outgrown its residents on Park Avenue. Thanks to a donation of 104 acres by Seminole County, the zoo moved its 39 animals to its current location on U.S. Highway 17-92 near Interstate 4. The move also signaled a name change to the Central Florida Zoo.

And it all started with a monkey.

– by Dan Ping