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Spam and monkeys: Why rule-breaking isn’t always bad30:33
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One of the Dania Beach vervet monkeys hangs out in the parking-lot mangroves near the Fort Lauderdale Airport. (Courtesy of Missy Williams)
One of the Dania Beach vervet monkeys hangs out in the parking-lot mangroves near the Fort Lauderdale Airport. (Courtesy of Missy Williams)

The story appears in podcast feeds under the title, “Don’t Do That.”

Rules exist for a reason — not always, but often, a good one. Yet sometimes you have to do things the wrong way to make things right. This week, Endless Thread brings you two such stories of rule breakers.

First, co-host Ben Brock Johnson tells the story of Daniel Opdahl, a college senior who decided to spam his entire school at Luther College in Iowa last year. His email account was blocked, and he was called into an administrator’s office. But he has no regrets.

Next, producer Dean Russell recounts how a wild troop of Reddit-famous monkeys took residence at a parking lot near the Fort Lauderdale Airport in Florida. North America has no native monkey populations, so no one knew how they got there. Then, biologist Missy Williams did some sleuthing.

Show notes:

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Full Transcript:

This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text. 

Ben Brock Johnson: (Singing.) Dean is the guy that I’m talking to right now.

Dean Russell: That is my official ringtone now. Forever and always.

Ben: Hey, Dean Russell.

Dean: Hey, Ben Brock Johnson.

Ben: Happy Fro Day. And by that, I mean a day that you would get frozen yogurt, maybe.

Dean: Or a day that you would read about Frodo.

Ben: Or a day — no, I’m going to stop there. That’s fine. That’s good enough. Dean, thanks for jumping in to make an Endless Thread episode today.

Dean: My pleasure. Happy to be here.

Ben: And do you know the theme of our stories today?

Dean: So as I remember it, the theme was: a thing that you’re not supposed to do, but you do, and then things work out in the end and end up actually kind of better.

Ben: That’s right. So I have a story for you. This came from a listener. His name is Daniel Opdahl.

Dean: Daniel Opdahl?

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Ben: Yeah. That’s how he said it. And immediately, I had a question for him.

Ben: Do people say, “What’s Opdahl?” to you?

Daniel Opdahl: It’s funny that you should say that because that’s actually my older brother’s — if you go to whatsopdahl.com — that’s his personal webpage.

Ben: Dean, you should know that Daniel is participating in Teach for America, which, good for him. He’s also a Dungeons & Dragons player.

Dean: Amazing.

Ben: So Dean, in Dungeons & Dragons, you have a character alignment, which is sort of like how your character acts.

Dean: Like a personality?

Ben: Kind of personality. Or it’s like: Are you lawful good? Are you lawful evil? So if you follow the rules, but you’re bad. Or if you follow the rules, but you’re good.

Dean: Wow.

Ben: And also, there’s chaotic as in alignment. So you can be different kinds of chaotic, and Daniel Opdahl was definitely coming from a chaotic alignment.

Ben: You play Dungeons & Dragons. This is chaotic evil energy. This is, to me, full-on chaotic or, maybe, chaotic neutral. But it’s definitely chaotic.

Daniel: Oh, yeah. And I love chaos. I adore chaos.

Ben: Clearly.

Dean: Wow, Daniel and I, we might not get along. I’m not a chaos person, but I respect it.

Ben: This story really starts, Dean, when Daniel is a senior at a small liberal arts school called Luther College. And he’s graduating in the midst of the pandemic in 2021. So he really feels this lack of connection in this crucial moment. Right? You remember graduating from college. Senior spring is when you resolve all those issues and profess your love for that girl or guy or whomever. And all these intense emotional things happen your senior year of high school, your senior year of college. So he’s having this moment of feeling a lack of connection to his fellow students. And so, he was trying to figure out how to create that connection during his senior year of college.

Daniel: There was just this weird kind of energy about this student senior year where it was like, “This is our senior year. We all really want to solidify and build these friendships that we have.” But we, you know, for safety, it’s weird. And we can’t, really. And everybody has different opinions on when we should all be wearing masks, and it, I don’t know, just makes you want to kind of scream in frustration.

Ben: And Dean, how does one scream in frustration most effectively over the internet?

Dean: (Laughs.) I don’t want to answer that question.

Ben: Well, in Daniel’s mind, he went to these all-student messages that would be sent out over email by the college president. And he had this thought of, “What if you could reply-all to one of the emails and put the college president and everyone else on blast? What if you could email everyone in the school at once?”

Dean: Oh, man. No. No.

Daniel: And then that eventually grew into the idea with my friend’s input, “What if you got everyone’s email address and put it into one email and made it really pure and simple and sent it out and see what people did? I bet there would be a really long chain of reply-alls.”

Dean: Oh, my god. Daniel is the harbinger of chaos.

Ben: This is definitely something that you are not supposed to do. But it’s tricky to do this. So a lot of schools now — as you probably know, Dean — they have university emails or college emails, but those emails are really Google emails.

Dean: Mm-hmm.

Ben: And Daniel had to set about figuring out how to email every single student in the entire school, of which I think he said there were about 2,000.

Daniel: I majored in computer science, so I know how to do this. So I just went on the college directory site where you can log in and look up whoever’s email that you want to. So I wrote a little computer script to go and scrape all of the email addresses of all the students and then collect them all. And then I think it was like a week and a half, or maybe it was a week before finals. I chose a Friday, and I put everyone’s address into the “to” space in an email so everyone could reply-all. And then I said, “Hi, everyone. Thanks for a great four years. All the best — Daniel Opdahl.” And that was the entire email. It was just really, really innocent and really sweet.

Ben: Innocent and sweet, Dean? Do you feel like it’s innocent and sweet?

Dean: I don’t know. This is like Daniel signed my yearbook “HAGS,” like “have a great summer.” But really, he’s saying, “Have the worst summer you ever can, Dean.”

Ben: (Laughs.) Well, I feel like I check my email five times if I’m sending it to over three people.

Dean: Yep, for sure.

Ben: It’s interesting because it was all publicly available information, right? Like he wasn’t actually doxing anyone. So.

Dean: Yeah.

Daniel: Pretty much the first thing that happens is the friends that I told about the email — I was like, I’m going to send it out at 10 a.m. on a Friday. The friends that I had told about the email responded first right away, and they were like, “Thank you as well for a great four years. I love you. This is hilarious. I can’t believe you did this.” And then after the first two replies to that, replies-all to that email, my Google account gets locked.

Ben: So his Google account got locked because of how many people he emailed. And Daniel immediately got flagged for being spam. And one of the things that happens when your Google account gets locked, at least at Luther College, is that you then can’t access the replies. So he had dropped this digital grenade, right? And then he didn’t really know what happened after that. But he started to ask some of his friends who were seeing the replies.

Daniel: There were a lot of like, “Yo, who the hell are you?” “What is this?” “I’ve never heard of you before. What are you doing?” And then it kind of developed into a meme. People made memes about it and then sent them in the reply-all.

Dean: I love this, though. This is like a local Luther College meme. That’s great. They have their own meme. Daniel has his own meme in his own community. And I think that’s lovely, even though it’s pure chaos.

Ben: Do you want to take a look at it?

Dean: Yes.

Ben: So I sent it to you. And one of the complexities of this is that it got so big that he had to turn it into a PDF document, and it’s hosted on like a Google Drive link. Some people responded in anger. Some people responded with joy. Some people responded with confusion, frustration. Daniel says that even though his account was locked, there was this kind of moment where everyone started to realize that they had all received the same email all at the same time.

Daniel: When everyone started getting the email, the chatter around the dining hall and the cafes quieted down. And then everybody simultaneously was like, “Did you just get an email from a dude named Daniel?” “Yeah, I got that.” “Well, you got the email, too. That’s weird.” And so it was a very all-college thing. Everybody was talking about it all day, and people had said, “This was the most connected I felt with the Luther community that I’ve ever felt in the past four years, let alone in COVID times.” You know?

Dean: I think that’s really sweet. This is Daniel’s chaotic way of pulling everyone in together. And there really are a lot [of emails] in here that are saying, “Congratulations” or “So happy to be here.” “What a joy.” There’s happiness in here.

Ben: And of course, there were other people who were extremely annoyed.

Daniel: The funniest response in the email chain was somebody who is like, “Everybody, shut up, I’m trying to do my work. I swear this is the most annoying. You can catch these hands, Daniel.”

Ben: OK, Dean, I did not know this phrase, which I guess the youths know.

Dean: I am not a youth, I guess. I didn’t know it.

Ben: Yeah. I guess it means, “I’m going to come and beat your behind,” right? “I’m going to come and smack you around. You can catch these hands.” So, you know, they weren’t all full of love. I think Daniel feels like ultimately, it was worth it. There was a lot of joy and a lot of connection. I should say, eventually, his email did get unlocked but not without him getting marched down to the IT department.

Dean: Uh-oh.

Daniel: The director of IT was just very, very confused, was the vibe. It wasn’t like he was really upset. He was just like, “Why would you do this?” He couldn’t see a possible reason for doing it. And I just kind of played a little dumb here and there and then weaseled my way out of any consequence for it.

Ben: This is the guy teaching young minds right now, Dean.

Dean: For sure. It’s great. That is who I want teaching my kids, that’s for sure. I don’t have any kids, but, you know.

Ben: A prankster? A chaotic neutral prankster?

Dean: You got to break some rules to make things happen.

Ben: Good on you, Daniel. Thanks for listening to the show and being ridiculous.

Dean: Yeah. Bravo.

[SPONSOR BREAK]

Ben: All right. You got one for me, Dean?

Dean: How much time do you spend on the subreddit r/FortLauderdale?

Ben: (Laughs.) About as much time as I spend in Fort Lauderdale, which is just to say almost none.

Dean: I don’t spend a lot of time on r/FortLauderdale. But often, when I’m traveling, I like to look for an area’s subreddit. And a few weeks ago, Michelle, my wife, and I headed to Fort Lauderdale to visit my in-laws. And so I got perusing Fort Lauderdale’s charming subreddit, and I found a post about a group of somebodies doing something they shouldn’t do and being somewhere they shouldn’t be.

Ben: So is this like teenagers making out behind the 7-Eleven, or what are we talking about?

Dean: This is a little more PG. Also a tad familiar if you listened to our last episode, so apologies but not really. Anyway—.

Ben: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Is this going to be monkey-related?

Dean: Well, OK. The title of this post is “Ive heard people talk about monkeys in Florida, i just assumed they meant the drivers.” And there’s this video attached with a couple of string-bean-like monkeys strolling on all fours by some Florida crabgrass and a dumpster in the background. It’s very clear that they are not a zoo. These are wild Florida monkeys. Did you know about this? Did you know that North America has wild monkeys?

Ben: What I can say I know is that Florida seems to be the entry point for lots of illegal animals. So I guess I would assume that if there were monkeys anywhere, they would be in Florida. But I have not spent very much time thinking about monkeys in Florida. So no, I’m surprised.

Dean: Any guesses on where in Fort Lauderdale they live?

Ben: Making out behind the 7-Eleven? That’s my guess.

Dean: You’re not far off. They live by the Fort Lauderdale Airport at the Park N’ Go. They are parking-lot monkeys.

Dean’s father-in-law: Hello.

Attendant: Do you have a reservation?

Dean’s father-in-law: No. We’re just here to see the monkeys.

Attendant: Oh, OK.

Dean: So we showed up out of the blue. The monkeys, I have to say, were not immediately visible, but the parking lot attendants, you know—.

Ben: I was going to say, do the monkeys have a manager? What’s happening right now?

Dean: I mean, they were unfazed when we showed up, as you could probably hear. This is like an everyday occurrence, people coming to see the monkeys at their Park N’ Go parking lot.

Ben: I like that the statement “We’re just here to see the monkeys” feels like a password that you use to give directions to the rave. You know what I mean?

Dean: Absolutely.

(Airplane sounds.)

Dean: Just to describe it, this is not a place for monkeys. There are planes going nonstop. There’s traffic and trucks. And there’s also this fence. And behind that fence is several acres of mangroves.

Dean: … giant, rich mangroves …

Dean: So in my effort to see the monkeys, I walked the perimeter of this fence, and I played some tape of other monkeys hoping that they would, you know, be interested and come out and see.

(Dean plays green vervet monkey calls on his phone.)

And I got nothing.

Dean: Hi.

Attendant: We don’t know.

Dean: What do you “don’t know”?

Attendant: The question usually is, “What time do they come out?” like they’re wearing a wristwatch.

Dean: Oh, OK. And the answer is, you don’t know?

Attendant: Got a banana? Wave it around.

Dean: We went to the parking lot a couple times and failed. I obviously was disappointed. But I went back to the web to see what I could find out. And I actually discovered quite a story about these monkeys because I came across this one biologist. She’s now an adjunct professor at Lynn University. Her name is Missy Williams.

Missy Williams: They literally threw — you know, I don’t want to sound corny but — a monkey wrench in my plans. I wasn’t anticipating where I’m at today. It was definitely not in my plans.

Dean: So it’s 2014. And Missy was a Ph.D. student at Florida Atlantic University. She was living in Fort Lauderdale. She was learning about primates. And she was all set to go to the Gombe National Forest in Tanzania to do her fieldwork — where Jane Goodall did all of her work and stuff like that. But then, one day, a colleague said something to her about the local airport parking-lot monkeys.

Missy: So I called that lot, and the woman answered. And I said, “This is Missy Williams, Ph.D. student. I heard you have monkeys on your lot.” She giggled. She’s like, “Yes, we do.” And I thought, OK, all right, is this a joke? What’s going on? I said, “Well, can I come look at them?” She’s like, “Of course, come on down.”

Dean: She had better luck than me.

Missy: I’ve only seen monkeys in the U.S. at a zoo or a sanctuary, but here they are just walking through the parking lot very nonchalantly. Didn’t really seem bothered by me or anybody else in the lot. And I thought this is crazy.

Ben: Wow.

Dean: So Missy was so taken by these monkeys that she abandoned her work in Africa and decided to write her dissertation on the Fort Lauderdale monkeys.

Ben: I already got enough anxiety while I’m driving around a parking lot. Do I really need monkeys to contend with? Do I need to be looking out for monkeys? But more importantly, I think monkeys in parking lots — I want them to be in the forest, you know?

Dean: I think that’s fair. That’s fair. And that’s something that Missy thinks a lot about. But I should tell you a little bit about these monkeys. They’re called vervet monkeys or green vervet monkeys. And as you could probably assume, they’re not native to Florida. But no one really knew how they got there. Why were they at the mangroves by the parking lot?

They’re pretty small, and they’re very cute. And they weigh as much as a cat. They have these very long golden tails and these night-black faces and white bellies and this greenish-brown hair everywhere else. Plus…

Dean: I’ve also seen that they have very distinctive coloring on their genitals?

Missy: Oh, yes. I wasn’t going to bring it up, but excellent. Yes, you are correct. So all the males, yes, have blue testicles. And the species that we have in Dania, out of all the species of vervet, they have the palest blue.

Ben: What? These monkeys sound insane. They sound crazy to look at.

Dean: They really are. And combined with the white belly, and Missy left out the fact that they have very bright red penises—

Ben: Oh, my god.

Dean: —they’ve got a very American theme going on, which I can really appreciate. But, OK. So what intrigued Missy so much was the fact that nothing was really known about these Dania Beach monkeys. No one had seriously studied them, and no one seemed to know how they got there. How did they get here? So Missy started talking to locals. She was reading through newspaper archives for any little shred of mention about monkeys. And then, in 2016, she stumbled upon this amazing-sounding website.

Missy: It was Backroads Florida or something like that. So I don’t even know how I found it, but I was scrolling down, and then I found this gentleman mentioned the monkeys in Florida or something. It caught my attention. But there was a way that you could comment underneath. It was like a thread. So I said, “Hey, my name’s Missy. I’m studying these monkeys. Do you recognize them?” And I uploaded a photo, and I got a reply back. “Oh yes. Those monkeys escaped from the Dania Chimpanzee Farm.” And I thought, Bingo, this is great.

Ben: Wow.

Dean: When World War II ended in the 1940s, all of a sudden, the seas opened up for various types of trade, including legal animal trade. I found an old newspaper clipping that said chimps at the time would go for $500 “off the dock,” which is about $8,000 today. And this couple, Armand Dennis and Lila Roosevelt, who is the second cousin of FDR, they started the Dania Chimp Farm in Florida, which sold chimps and green vervet monkeys.

Missy: This was back during the era they were looking for a polio vaccine. So from what I understand, the chimps were used for that. And also, the vervets were sold to Johns Hopkins. And I also believe some of the armed forces had picked them up as well. So, yes, they were brought in and sadly used for biomedical research.

Ben: Whoa.

Dean: Dania Farm primates specifically went to, among others, Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, the inventors of the polio vaccine.

Ben: Yeah. Wow.

Dean: So you can thank these unwitting monkeys for their contribution to Homo sapiens. But the monkeys, they were kept in this aviary-type enclosure that was secured only — only — with a screen-door hook lock.

Ben: My five-year-olds can get out of that pretty easily. So eye-and-hook locks — not to be trusted for animals with opposable thumbs.

Dean: Yeah. I mean, Missy found this old worker there who basically described to her that one day in 1947, the lock became unlocked, and all 50 of the monkeys did something they weren’t supposed to do. They escaped.

Missy: Vervet monkeys are very smart, so I almost feel like the individual watching the animals probably locked it, and they just waited and found the perfect moment, opened it, and they’re like, “We’re out of here.” And it was all mangroves and agricultural space, so it was perfect for them.

Ben: Wow.

Dean: The monkeys, I should say, they kept coming back, though, because they did like the food at the farm. So they were stealing the food. And so, eventually, most of them actually got recaptured. But—.

Ben: Most but not all.

Dean: Yeah, most, but not all; 12 to 15 of them remained forever on the lam, which I think is amazing.

Ben: Twelve monkeys. How appropriate.

Dean: Yup.

Ben: Wow.

Dean: They colonized the mangroves near the airport. And to a certain extent, for decades and decades, they have actually thrived. Today, there are about 30 to 40 of them. And according to Missy, they are pretty healthy.

Missy: I would say living under the airport all day would stress me out with the noise level, but they seem to have adapted to it. And so they’ve learned how to maneuver their way through the mangroves and how to use the industrial setting to their advantage, i.e. meaning they know that there are people on the lot so, “I can go get food and, once I get my food, I can retreat back into the safety of the mangroves.”

Ben: Wow.

Dean: Yeah. They figured it out. And along with the health of the monkeys, the ecosystem seems to be doing pretty well. The residents, they really like them. They bring them fruits and veggies. And they also don’t really have any predators. The only real predator—. I mean, can you guess?

Ben: Humans.

Dean: Yeah, of course, humans. And this is through traffic and electric fencing and people like this one exotic pet trader that Missy told me about.

Missy: So he would float in behind the Motel 6 there in the mangrove space, and he would blow-dart them.

Dean: That just sounds like it’s from a cartoon. Wow.

Missy: Right? I thought that was wild. Yup.

Dean: I’ll take it one shade darker before I lighten it up. And I will—.

Ben: You got more dark?

Dean: I always have more dark in my back pocket, Ben. So on top of this, Florida Fish and Wildlife [Conservation Commission], they refuse to actually help the monkeys that much because they are not native to the state. And so there’s no one but Missy’s team watching out for the monkeys and keeping track of them.

Ben: That’s so weirdly xenophobic. “They’re not native to the states, so we won’t help them.”

Dean: Yeah, according to Missy, if Fish and Wildlife knows that a monkey is injured in the wild, it will either ignore it and let nature run its course, or it will euthanize the animal. To be clear, I reached out to Fish and Wildlife, and while they did not directly answer my questions, they did tell me that the monkeys could hurt the ecosystem and carry disease, two things that Missy refuted. Officially, the monkeys are only very thinly protected by anti-cruelty laws. And Missy is not cool with that, so she started a nonprofit called the Dania Beach Vervet Project.

Missy: Florida’s policy is: Any non-native, we want them gone. Kill them all. And so I’m like, “OK, this is not what I want for the monkeys,” you know? So the next best thing I thought was to open a facility. So if an animal is injured and it does need to be trapped, we can trap it. We can’t release it because it’s illegal to release a non-native. But we will have a safe space for the animal to go.

Dean: So far, the Dania Beach Vervet Project has one sanctuary space, and they plan to open more as more donations come in and things like that. And this month, actually, they are getting their first rescued monkey resident at the sanctuary. And for these monkeys, they have found their place in America. And there are some good reasons — people like Missy — to have some hope. So that’s my story. And because I couldn’t see them, Missy sent me plenty of videos to watch.

Ben: Well, thanks, Dean. This is a good set of stories. We’ll hang next week.

Dean: Yup. See you later.

Ben: Bye.

[CREDITS]

Ben: This episode was produced by this monkey and that monkey, Ben and Dean, and also co-hosted by us. And it was produced by Kristin Torres. Our web producer is Megan Cattel. Our team also includes our good buddy Amory Sivertson, who’s been away; Grace Tatter; Paul Vaitkus; Emily Jankowski; Matt Reed; Quincy Walters; and Nora Saks.

Dean: Also, shout out to Pete and Ellie Vancisin and the great Michelle Martin, my fellow monkey trackers. For all you other listeners, we will have another episode for you next week.

Ben Brock Johnson Twitter Executive Producer, Podcasts
Ben Brock Johnson is the executive producer of podcasts at WBUR and co-host of the podcast Endless Thread.

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Dean Russell Twitter Producer, WBUR Podcasts
Dean Russell is a producer for WBUR Podcasts.

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Kristin Torres Twitter Associate Producer
Kristin Torres is an associate producer in WBUR’s podcast unit.

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