On its website, the Monkey Whisperer in Central Florida describes itself as a family-owned, “fastidiously clean and well organized exotic animal ranch with many unique animals in our care.”
One page of the website celebrates the recent birth of “our baby bull bongo antelope” who is “being raised by his parents” on the ranch. Other small animals at the Monkey Whisperer, which is owned and operated by Jimmy Wayne Hammonds, have a different future in store for them.
“We are accepting deposits on upcoming babies, we have several pregnant mommies expecting soon !!” the site says, under a banner for Baby Marmosets and Baby Asian Small Clawed Otters. Another image describes the operation in more straightforward terms: It shows a man in a red vehicle with a white sign on one of its doors that reads: “Baby Monkeys for Sale. Ask for Jim.”
But according to federal prosecutors, some of those sales were against the law. On Tuesday, prosecutors in Florida unsealed a seven-count indictment that charged Mr. Hammond with the illegal sale of several rare monkeys. Among the charges were violations of the Endangered Species Act and the Lacey Act, a federal conservation law that prohibits importing and shipping wildlife that may endanger native species.
Mr. Hammond was also charged with witness tampering and falsifying records of some of his animal sales. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison for the top charge of witness tampering, according to a statement from Maria Chapa Lopez, the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida.
Telephone and text messages left for Mr. Hammond on Wednesday were not immediately returned. Court records did not identify a lawyer for Mr. Hammond.
The marketplace for exotic animals can be lucrative, and laws governing it vary by state. Regulating that marketplace has long been a battle of deception involving breeders, buyers and law enforcement officials.
Though legislation has long been in place to stop illegal sales, some questionable players in the trade have operated in plain sight, as highlighted by the yearslong saga in Florida of Joseph Maldonado-Passage, a zoo operator known as “Joe Exotic,” and his nemesis, the animal rescue activist Carole Baskin, depicted in the Netflix documentary series “Tiger King.”
According to the indictment unsealed Tuesday, in September 2017, Mr. Hammond made plans to sell a capuchin monkey to a person in California for $12,650. (The Monkey Whisperer site acknowledges it is illegal to own monkeys as pets in many states, including California.)
Capuchin monkeys are small, boisterous and smelly. They “soak their hands and feet in urine to leave a scent,” according to the World Wildlife Federation. They are also smart. Researchers have said that the capuchin monkeys exhibit a level of intelligence, smartly selecting effective tools to help them crack open palm nuts for eating.
After the money was deposited in Mr. Hammond’s bank account, he had two people transport the animal, first to Nevada, then to California, according to the indictment. The animal was delivered to the buyer in October 2017, and law enforcement officials seized the animal from that buyer in January 2018, the indictment said. A month later, Mr. Hammond told law enforcement officials that he had sold the animal to a person in Nevada, which allows monkeys, according to the indictment.
In March 2016, Mr. Hammond sold a cotton-top tamarin — a small primate described by the federal government as critically endangered — to a person in Wisconsin, according to the indictment. In April 2017, he sold another one to a person in Alabama; and that October he sold two cotton-top tamarins to a person in South Carolina, the indictment said.
Cotton-top tamarins are one of the world’s tiniest primates. Though small, they are “big in hair and noisy,” with “a shock of white fur” around their skull, giving the appearance of an “Einsteinian Mohawk,” as once described in a New York Times article. The article playfully labeled them the “punks among monkeys” and said they make “gorgeous punk music, squealing, whistling, chirping, letting loose with slicing screams.”
In August 2020, Mr. Hammond tried to persuade one of his customers to falsely tell law enforcement officials that she had purchased cotton-top tamarins at a flea market, rather than from Mr. Hammond, according to the indictment.
According to prosecutors, this customer had bought the animals from Mr. Hammond and later returned them to him “with the intent to hinder, delay, and prevent” officials from learning about the transaction.
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