Duke Lemur Center

Pedro and I, while we were waiting for the tour to begin

I’m one of those people that gets goofy in the face of fame. When I met Arlo Guthrie for the first time, I was literally struck mute. I handed him a bouquet of flowers and ran away. I am awed by famous places, famous books, pretty much anything famous. I was thrilled to find out that the grandchildren of Zoboomafoo, the lemur star of a public television children’s show that aired from 1999-2001, were living in Durham. Tara was ages 2-4 during these years, and a great age for watching an animated lemur on TV.

Each episode of Zoboomafoo began with the actual real-life Zoboomafoo (played by a Coquerel’s sifaka named Jovian), who leapt around his climbing gym and entertained us while the human introduced the show. That lemur (and that part of the show) was filmed at the Duke Lemur Center. The original lemur has died, but his offspring still live at the Lemur Center. And I was dying to meet the relatives of a famous TV star!

Colourful signs at the main building helped build our anticipation.
I entertained myself by photographing butterflies.
This butterfly provided a particularly lovely shot until one of the elder guests reached out and grabbed it by one wing – to my utter astonishment.
These plants in the landscaping near the parking lot are new to me. I have no idea what they are.

Lemurs are mammals. They are also primates, and look kind of like the primates we are familiar with, but like us they share an ancestor and evolved independently from monkeys and apes. They are only found naturally in Madagascar. They live in trees and are mostly active at night. Their name comes from the Latin lemurs, meaning “spirits of the dead,” an image evoked because of their quiet and stealthy movement. (We watched them jumping and running and it reminded me of cats because it was completely silent.)

In order to visit the lemurs at the Duke Lemur Center, one must get reservations. There are different kinds of tours, and they are seasonal, offered only from about May through the end of September. You must make reservations and pre-pay in order to be allowed into the facility. The most exclusive behind-the-scenes lemur tour is a private tour for $400. The most popular, and advertised as best-for-cameras, is $95 and sells out a month in advance. You get to walk through the forest where Lemurs free range, and observe them in near what they would behave like in the wild. Since I only discovered this place right before we left, I had to get the next available tour, the self-guided tour, which was also nearly sold out for the week, but I found us two spots for $14 each on Friday evening. We were told that masks were mandatory!

The Duke Lemur Center is part of Duke University, and just on the edge of their West Campus. It is an 85-acre sanctuary for rare and endangered strepsirrhine (a primate suborder) primates. Outside Madagascar, the most diverse population of lemurs in the world is right here. They host 200 lemurs and bush babies across 13 species. Their mission is to protect rare and endangered species, and they have produced over a thousand peer-reviewed research papers, and have a successful breeding program. They host over 35,000 visitors each year.

We showed up a little early for our 5pm tour and checked in and were asked to wait. Soon the parking lot filled almost to capacity, as all the other 5pm people showed up and checked in. When the hubub died off a little, we were met by a volunteer who led us down a path toward the lemurs. She explained where to find the different areas of lemurs, said there was no time limit, and no difference in which order we visited them, and then turned us loose.

We were the first two people to walk down this path, and saw two cages with two volunteers, getting ready to answer our questions.

The volunteers were great. Some just oozed enthusiasm. Some could hardly stop talking. They were all clearly enamoured by their charges. All the cages had at least two lemurs, and it was explained to us that they are social creatures and in the wild might travel in packs of 20. Here in the lemur forest, the family groups were smaller, they said, the biggest group around 8 animals.

Some lemurs were selected to spend time in the forest, and that could last all summer. The descendants of the famous Zoboomafoo as well as others were lucky winners this year and were living out their summer in the forest and hidden most of the time from tourists. We would see other lemurs. I was sad for 7 or 8 seconds about that, then got distracted by the many fabulous lemurs that were available for me to meet.

In the first cage we stopped at, the lemurs had ice-blue eyes. These are called Blue Eyed Black Lemurs (the males are black, females red), and all of the lemurs in this family are named after celebrities with blue eyes, like Hemsworth and Hiddleston.
You can see a bit of blue eye above the wire.

The Blue Eyed Black Lemur is among the top endangered primates in the world and is nearly extinct in the wild. This is due to deforestation of their habitat to create agricultural land, hunting for bush meat, and capturing for exotic animal trade which is BAD. Do not keep a pet lemur! Blue Eyed Black Lemurs are the only primate other than humans that can have blue eyes.

I was challenged to get good photos through the metal cages, as my camera really wanted to focus on the metal in the foreground and not the more interesting animal in the background. My iPhone did better. With a combination of the two, I managed to get some fun shots.

Each type of lemur has a naming convention, such as Spanish names, literary characters, witches and wizards, and plants. This is a Red Collared Brown Lemur.
Here’s a better look at its face. It’s front paws are kind of like ours, but lemur back paws are dramatically different. I’ll try to find a photo of that.
Here is a Red Ruffed Lemur. These are named with a science theme, such as the two new babies, Hubble and Kitt, named after telescopes.

We stood outside the Red Ruffed Lemur cage for a long time, as the volunteer there kept our interest with facts about lemurs. I had time to get several good photos. It was a hot, muggy evening, and at one point, a lemur plopped down on a beam and let its arms and tail dangle. I thought I knew what it was feeling.

So the routine for us was: wander the paths, from cage to cage, choosing places that had less people. When we arrived at a new spot there would be a volunteer who would introduce us to the occupants of the cage, tell us their species, their names, and their family relationship. We learned that some lemurs like to eat a lot of leafy vegetables, and some like mainly fruit. Some lemurs prefer to forage in branches of trees, and some prefer to get their food off the ground. Different species can occupy the same part of a forest because of their different food and different foraging times.

During our visit, the volunteers began feeding them – a trick that zoos always use to get the animals active for visitors.

Other visitors learning about lemurs.
The cage behind that awning looks a bit crowded, and more people are headed that way. We will go a different direction.
It’s King Julian! This is a Ring Tailed Lemur.

The Ring Tailed Lemurs are probably the most recognizable. They come from dry, sparsely treed forests in Madagascar, which are the most convenient forests for humans to cut down trees. Sadly, the habitat for Ring Tailed Lemurs appears to be vanishing at a faster pace than any other lemur habitat. You can “adopt” a lemur through the Duke Lemur Center without actually having to take care of a lemur. Follow this link to watch a message from John Cleese inviting you to adopt a lemur by donating to Duke Lemur Center. The video is entertaining and if for nothing else, you might want to watch it just to see great video of lemurs in action.

They are so cute!! Here is another good shot of the front paws, but still not a good one of the back paws.

Please take a look at my video below, which shows how they can use their opposable thumbs on their feet. You can hear me observing that they seem comfortable on two feet. ha ha. You can also hear their darling little chirps at the beginning. Lemurs can shriek quite loudly, as I have heard at another zoo. But we did not hear any loud calls on this visit.

This image is not mine, and taken from the website for the San Diego Zoo.
In this video you can hear a volunteer answering questions about how to call the lemurs in from the forest, and stating that the Crowned Lemurs in this cage are ages 2 and 4.

I thought that having a lemur foot would be more handy than having the foot I currently use. I think I would also like having a tail, especially a long fluffy one that I could wrap around myself on cold mornings.

After we were done meeting all the lemurs in the big cages in the forest, we walked back up to where there is a single building with lots of cages on the outside. That is where we saw the lemurs eating popsicles. These cages allowed us to get close.

This crowned lemur is eating a fruit popsicle. The frozen treats help them cool off.
A different crowned lemur eating a different popsicle.
Here’s a shot of two Blue Eyed Black Lemurs. You can see a male on the left and a female on the right.
This panda-looking guy is a Black and White Ruffed Lemur. Their species names are too spot-on for me. No creativity is involved in naming lemur species by describing physical features.

After all the outside cages, Pedro and I got in line for the indoor lemurs who apparently need it to be dark all the time. Since all lemurs are naturally active at night, I am not clear on why some got special dark homes and were called “nocturnal” lemurs. We stood in line outside, and a staff member (not a volunteer), barked a list of rules and checked each person for a properly fitted mask. Once she was convinced of our compliance, we were allowed into the building.

Inside the small building was dark, lit only with small red lamps. It was a short hallway with curtains. The staff member opened one curtain at a time, introducing the critters inside, and telling us to be quiet and look fast. We were introduced to four more species, including Bush Babies and Mouse Lemurs. Mouse Lemurs are the size of mice! At first no one could see anything inside the dark rooms. After a few minutes, eyes adjusted, and someone would spot one, then tell other people where to look. Then we were told again to be quiet. The windows we looked through were small, allowing 2-3 people to look at a time, so we mostly stood in the middle of the hall, waiting our turn. Pedro and I managed to spot a lemur-shaped shadow in three of the four windows. Then we were all told to get out of the way and the curtains were closed and we were marched out. We decided that, compared to all the generous and effervescent volunteers, that staff member was the crankiest person in the place. I would have liked to have gone in there with half the people and twice the time. Maybe the other tour packages allow that.

All of my activities for the day accomplished, it was time to return the Turo car to its owner. Pedro rode with me out into the country and we dropped it off, then got an Uber back into Durham and went to dinner.

Can you believe this was only the end of day two? I had been having so much fun, spotting art and museums, the Duke University campus, and going for a hike in a state park, and touring historic homes and the capital city and learning Civil War history and meeting lemurs. We had one full day left before going home again.

6 thoughts on “Duke Lemur Center

  1. Another informative post, Crystal. I now know more about lemurs. One of my students in Liberia brought a bush baby by to see. I’m pretty sure he was destined for the dinner table. I paid my student to release the animal back into the nearby rainforest. –Curt

    1. I’m glad you got to see one in the daylight and not in a darkened room behind glass! I looked at a shadow that was moving, that I was told was a busy baby, but I still don’t really know what they look like except for the photos on the website, ha ha. Yes, you are probably right that it was destined for dinner. It’s a main reason for the decline in lemur populations, behind deforestation.

      1. I actually held the bush baby, and it didn’t bite me. Liberians tend to think of animals as meat flying, meat running, or meat swimming. When my students came by to visit, they would pinch my cat Rasputin and say, “Fine meat, Mr. Mekemson. ” And then laugh. 🙂

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