Durham, N.C. — All we could see were these large, glowing eyes staring a hole through us. The long, claw-like fingers gripped the branches.
The aye-aye lemur is like a cross between a lemur, rodent and bat. Adding to its mysterious appeal, it is nocturnal.
Despite being a native to Madagascar, we were face to face with this animal in Durham. And we were on her turf, in her special room at the Duke Lemur Center.
The center offers the world's largest and most diverse collection of lemurs outside of Madagascar. Lemurs are the world's most endangered group of mammals. There are only about 50 aye-aye lemurs in captivity in the world. More than 30 of those live in the United States at Duke Lemur Center.
We were able to view these primates up close as part of the "Lemur Keeper for the Day" experience the research center offers. For $350 per person, you get to see what keepers do each day. (More on that experience later.)
The Out and About team first visited the center last month for the announcement of Lemur Week in conjunction with the new IMAX 3D film, "Island of Lemurs: Madagascar." After a tour through the grounds during their morning feeding, we became fascinated with them. With so many options for touring the center, we decided to check out what each entails.
Now, Duke Lemur Center is a research center first. Experiences are designed to help enrich your understanding of these animals. So, don't expect to be holding them and taking selfies. You won't even be allowed to hand-feed them. Head lemur keeper Britt Keith said there are too many liabilities in allowing the public to hand-feed lemurs at the center. Keith was our guide through each experience at the center.
Live with Lemurs
This is the least expensive tour offered at the center, but you still get to see about 10 different species of lemurs, so bring your camera. The tour is an hour to an hour and a half long and is designed for those ages 7 and up. Prices are slightly lower before June 1; adult tickets are $10, children 3-12 years old, senior citizens 65 and older, military and college and university students are $7. Prices go up a dollar or two on June 1. Tours are conducted at several different times during the day.
Walking with Lemurs
At $95 a person, this tour is pricey but worth every penny. You get to see the lemurs enjoying their morning feeding around 10:30 a.m. You will be in the woods, so dress accordingly. There aren't any barriers between you and the animals, so sometimes they just walk right up to you. This is the tour we took the first time we went to the center. You must be 10 years and older to take it and it is limited to eight people at a time. These tours are conducted only in the warmer months - May through October - because you are seeing the lemurs in their outdoor sanctuary.
We also took this tour when we visited last week. We didn't visit early enough for the morning feeding, so the lemurs had retreated to the shade of their open cages. We stood there as a beautiful blue-eyed lemur carried her baby around the hallway. The child hung from its mother, clinging tightly to her belly with its long limbs. As long as the animals didn't feel cornered, they would be calm and OK with us observing them, Keith said.
We went to another area where Coquerel's Sifaka lemurs climbed their cages and hung from the ceiling. Another mother lemur and her baby stayed close together, but we did observe the child climbing on its own for a bit. The mother, like most human ones, stayed close by to help out.
Learning with Lemurs
When we arrived for this experience, we were told to walk quietly through the hallway to the back cages. Specifically, we were told not to make noise or "linger" because a mother lemur in that unit had a habit of taking out her aggression on her new baby. One member of our group even had to remove her hat because Margaret (the mother lemur) would become very upset by it. Keith told us that Margaret is "set off" by certain things - hats, men, short hair, loud noises. She will even lash out at the human keepers.
Apparently, Margaret had a very rough childhood. Her mother became competitive with her young and basically tried to kill them. Margaret was rescued and hand-reared, so she really doesn't want to hang with the lemurs, Keith said. After being forced to live with lemurs, Margaret is now not a fan of her human keepers anymore. Margaret was able to feed and care for her first child until the child was able to eat on its own. Then, Margaret viewed her child as a rival and had to be taught not to attack it.
That's why the learning with lemurs program is so insightful. You get to see and participate in training and learning activities with these animals.
For $150 per person, you get to assist researchers in training exercises - like holding a wand and getting the lemurs to go across a cage to touch it. The program is designed to help get lemurs comfortable with certain activities like sitting for an insulin shot (some lemurs are diabetic) or being examined by a doctor. Training them to go into a position and not be afraid to be examined helps prevent stress on the animal and veterinarian.
Painting with Lemurs
This was one of the highlights of our day. The lemurs don't hold paint brushes and do your portrait. They don't even paint on purpose. It's all kind of a cute accident. For $95 a person, a lemur will make you an original work of art. This is used more as a fund-raising element as opposed to an actual "research" part of the center, but the lemurs love it. First you select the paint, then the lemurs get their white canvases. We watched through the bars as Licinius, a ring-tailed lemur, walked across the three different colors of non-toxic paint to get to a raisin the keeper was holding. As he stepped each time to get his treat, he made some pretty cool artwork. His painting companion wasn't feeling it that day, so our paintings were Licinius originals. (Fun fact: Licinius appears in the "Islands of Lemurs: Madagascar" film.)
The full experience is an hour and includes a video and tour.
Lemur Keeper for a Day
This experience is the longest and most expensive (tours are noon to 4 p.m. and $350 per person), but you really get an insight to what keepers do. And it is pretty amazing being able to care for these animals. Our experience was abbreviated for time, so we didn't get to hose the poop out of the cages! We did, however, get to put on some scrubs, rubber boots, gloves and masks and feed some nocturnal lemurs.
First, we suited up in scrubs, rubber boots and rubber gloves They wanted to make sure that we didn't get anything on our regular clothes because lemur keeping can get messy.
We started by labeling the cardboard boxes that they eat out of with their name and how many grams of gruel they eat. The boxes are all donated, so some were even old beer six-pack holders. After labeling each box with the info from the chart, we used masking tape to close and secure the bottom of each box. Then, we filled each box with gruel, an oatmeal-like substance that apparently lemurs love. We just called it "lemur chow." We weighed each box to ensure we weren't over or underfeeding them, then headed into the dark corridors where the nocturnal animals are kept.
Before entering each cell, we had to pull masks over our faces. All lemur keepers have to have regular tests for tuberculosis and other illnesses to ensure that they don't get the lemurs sick. Since they couldn't verify that we were not carrying any diseases, we had to cover our noses and mouths.
With names like Norman Bates and Morticia, we were a little apprehensive to meet the lemurs. We made one "Lemur Meals on Wheels" delivery at a time. When Keith first opened the metal door, we peered in to find branches, boxes and a mini-forest inside. As she raised the red-tinted light a little, we got a glimpse of an aye-aye lemur sitting on a branch. We placed the food on a stump in the cell and then were able to observe the lemur for a few minutes. If we saw the aye-aye in the wild, we would probably never guess it was a lemur. It looks more like a rodent or bat, with fur similar to an opossum's, large ears and reflective eyes.
While most of the aye-ayes we delivered food to were calm, a few were not too excited to see us. One female - about 2 to 3 years old - was trying to intimidate us by swinging around and puffing out her fur. Keith said this particular lemur was similar to a teenager acting out. Around that age, they have to normally separate mothers and daughters because the lemurs will challenge each other.
Females are definitely the ones in charge in the lemur world. In one cell, we watched as a female chased her male companion away from his food box. Keith said they have to weigh the male every few days to make sure his mate wasn't stopping him from eating.
Some lemurs were really interested in us, even sticking their heads and claws out of the cells to see us better. And then there was Norman Bates.
Keith told us that Norman was in a bad mood most of the time, which could be contributed to his genetics because he was inbred. We weren't allowed to bring his food into his cell for fear he would bite us. Keith brought the food into his cage and then opened the door a little so we could see Norman. He was sitting on a branch staring at us. We were told not to move an inch. So we stood there with this literally crazy bat-looking lemur staring at us. Then, he started scratching his stomach, prompting Keith to shut the door. She told us the sudden scratch was a sign of stress and that she didn't want to aggravate him further.
Other Aye-Aye Lemur Observations:
- They have birth control. We met an older lemur who lives with her son. A vet implanted her with an IUD to prevent her from breeding with her son. Apparently, it isn't as common in the wild - lemurs will run their young away when it is time to start mating - but when they are in captivity it is a possibility.
- They have roommates. Some aye-ayes are living with other lemurs like the Slender Loris. Since the female aye-ayes are so dominant, they need an easy-going person to room with like the loris.
- They can chew through concrete. That is why their cell doors are metal.
- In Madagascar, aye-ayes are seen as a bad omen and are sometimes even killed by the Malagasy people because of it.
Lemurs are endangered and any chance you can get to view these animals, do it! Your visits to the center help fund their research and outreach.
All tours require an appointment and are conducted seven days a week. They book up to three weeks in advance in the spring and summer months so book early. You can make a reservation at 919-489-3364 ext. 0 or 919-471-7420. Find out more about the tours at the Duke Lemur Center website.