Out of Africa: endangered lemurs find a champion--and a refuge--in Myakka City.
"Lemurs are incredibly alert and wildly adaptable," explains Penelope Bodry-Sanders, the petite, slim president and director of this place called the Lemur Conservation Foundation (LCF). "They're interested in you, and everything about you."
Tsard, a red ruffed lemur with piercing yellow discs for eyes, slinks across the ground and rests two soft-padded paws on my feet. Like Cheetah from a Tarzan movie, he grasps my hand and uses it for leverage as he sidles up my leg, to my elbow and finally perches beside my head.
"Don't touch him, just let him touch you," Bodry-Sanders instructs. Tsard slides a long, smooth tongue along my neck and behind my ear as my notebook spills its contents. Unwrapping my tangled camera strap, Bodry-Sanders offers to take our picture.
A Miami native and liberal arts major with no formal anthropology training, Bodry-Sanders first encountered lemurs in Madagascar during a 10-day scouting expedition for the American Museum of Natural History in 1993. She was charmed by their curiosity, but horrified by the poachers and deforestation that were decimating the species.
"The natural environment of Madagascar is under tremendous siege right now," says Dr. Ian Tattersall, curator of the museum's anthropology department. At least 17 species are already extinct, he says, and nearly a dozen more will vanish in a decade without preservation. Bodry-Sanders was so struck by the lemurs and their impending fate, that when she came into an inheritance after returning to the States, she took $35,000 and in 1996, started the Lemur Conservation Foundation.
The move surprised many of her friends and family, but not Tattersall, who has known Bodry-Sanders 20 years and helped her develop the idea. "Everybody is entranced when they first come into contact with lemurs," he says. "We all become infatuated."
Florida seemed an obvious choice to replicate the lemurs' natural tropical environment, and land in Myakka City was cheap. After she bought the property, Bodry-Sanders lived on the grounds in a tent for the first year and a half. Today, the tent's tattered remnants remain at the 90-acre facility, which now hosts 29 lemurs of various species that roam its natural forests at will.
The lemurs come to LCF from zoological facilities throughout the country. New arrivals are kept in smaller enclosures for several months until they adjust to their surroundings, then they're slowly acclimated to the open range.
In captivity, lemurs can live up to 35 years, though it's probably less in the wild, Bodry-Sanders says. In addition to the threats posed by disease and predators, their natural curiosity makes them sitting ducks for hunters. "Lemurs don't run away from you, ever," she says.
At LCF, they're surrounded by a 10-foot fence, which they have not broached. "They have everything they need here," Bodry-Sanders explains. They're fed once a day and also forage on 50 native Florida plants and trees. A veterinarian who specializes in treating exotic animals provides health care, including vaccinations against rabies.
The foundation's goal is to maintain a strong genetic pool of lemurs by creating a natural setting where they behave much as they do in the wild. To that end, volunteers plant trees, build greenhouses and clear fallen branches from the rivulets running through the woods. It's not glamorous work, especially when they're covered with mosquitoes the size of mothballs. But the result is a facility that's gaining a national reputation as a research center. College students can do fieldwork here without traveling overseas, and a scientific library is currently in the works. And the endowment now is close to half-a-million dollars, ensuring continued refuge for these endangered creatures.
Even Tattersall is astonished by what Bodry-Sanders has accomplished. "In the context of lemur conservation, it's a unique thing," says Tattersall. "She's a quick study and has been careful to create a board of respected scientific advisors."
"Sometimes it's good to be naive and totally unrealistic," says Bodry-Sanders with a smile.
About a Lemur
in the wild, lemurs can weigh from an ounce to 10 pounds (the heaviest one at the LCF weighs eight pounds). Females usually dominate the males, and give birth to as many as four in a litter, with babies weighing about two ounces. When threatened, they utter guttural snarls that can be misconstrued as aggressive. "But mainly they're just trying to warn other lemurs of danger," Bodry-Sanders says.
Like humans, lemurs have opposable thumbs. Like cats, they are curious and can be stealthy. Bodry-Sanders says that when one lemur escaped from Duke University's primate center, someone at a golf course called to tell them that one of their "cats" had escaped.
Want to help?
because it's such a young scientific research facility, the Lemur Conservation Foundation is currently closed to the general public. The group is funded solely by private donations. If you'd like to help, contact LCF at: Lemur Conservation Foundation, P.O. Box 249, Myakka City, FL 34251, 322-8494 www.lemurreserve.org
Story by Pat Haire