A Walking with Lemurs tour at the Duke Lemur Center might just seem like an ordinary walk through the woods at first. But at the rustle of a food bucket, tiny, energetic animals begin to descend from the treetops, and you know you’re not walking in any normal forest. Lemurs zip past you at will, some of them with tiny infants clinging to their backs, and there are no barriers between you and the furry primates. It might seem like an odd experience, to be surrounded by lemurs hanging off pine and oak trees in a North Carolina forest, but as they wander unabashedly at your feet, it’s hard not to become interested in the reasons they’re there.
The Duke Lemur Center has 85 acres of forest and about 250 individual lemurs. There are approximately 20 different species, ranging from the iconic ring-tailed lemur with a striped tail to the frazzled-looking nocturnal aye-aye, that has teeth like a beaver’s and had been known to chew through cinder blocks. Averaging nine pounds, the Coquerel’s Sifaka, is the largest species, while the tiny gray mouse lemur is among the smallest, resembling a tiny rodent with enormous eyes. The lemurs at the center have been in IMAX movies, BBC programs, and the popular PBS show Zoboomafoo. While lemurs receive a lot of time in the spotlight at the lemur center, they don’t get a lot of attention in their native home of Madagascar, which is being deforested at a rapid rate.
“They could very well be the first primate to go extinct in our lifetime,” says education specialist Chris Smith. “Lemurs are cute and cuddly. They’re also related to us.” Smith has been with the center since 2009, when he first began working there as an undergraduate at Duke University. His job is to speak to the 17,000 yearly visitors about the center’s lemurs, and occasionally to don a lemur suit to spread awareness around town.
In existence since 1966, Duke Lemur Center exists primarily to facilitate research and educate the public about these ancient human ancestors whose island home is quickly disappearing. Scientists from around the world visit the center to study the animals (right now, they’re hosting researchers from Spain, Canada, and the United Kingdom), and Duke undergraduates can also get involved with the center in their coursework. In addition to research and education, the Duke Lemur Center is also heavily involved in conservation. In recent years, they’ve launched efforts in Madagascar (home to all the world’s wild lemurs) to curb deforestation and lemur hunting, two of the reasons that the primates are considered the world's most endangered mammals.
The Duke Lemur Center opens its doors to visitors every year when it gets warm enough for them to let some of their lemur troops outdoors again, and they offer a variety of tours and programs for the public to interact with the primates. They range from the ten dollar Lemurs Live! tour, which offers a walk through the indoor and outdoor lemur cages, to the $350 Lemur keeper for a day experience, which involves everything from helping feed the lemurs to spending time with them in the forest, to washing out their cages. This year for the first time, the Center is also offering a summer camp for rising 6th to 8th graders.
For more information on how to sign up for a visit, head to the Duke Lemur Center webpage.