For the Love of Lemurs

To her delight, social worker-turned-scientist Patricia Wright has found the mischievous Madagascar primates to be astonishingly complex

A verreaux's sifaka lemur can jump 30 feet (Frans Lanting)
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Ranomafana, it turned out, was home to more than a dozen lemur species, all with behaviors worth studying. Wright went on to build an independent research station there called Centre ValBio (short for a French phrase meaning “valuing biodiversity”), which now employs more than 80 people and accommodates up to 30 students and researchers.

A few prominent academics say privately that Wright has not produced enough solid science, or trained enough students from Madagascar as full-time scientists, given the funding she has received. (Wright points to more than 300 publications from research at Ranomafana.) Some conservationists complain that she steers initiatives to Ranomafana, sometimes at the expense of other parts of the island. “A lot of people are jealous of her,” says Conservation International president Russ Mittermeier, who gave Wright the grant that brought her to Ranomafana. “But, boy, give me 100 Pat Wrights and we could save a lot of primates.”

Wright was a Brooklyn social worker when her career as a primatologist got its start with a purchase she describes now as “almost a sin.” Before a Jimi Hendrix concert at the Fillmore East in Manhattan, Wright and her husband visited a nearby pet shop. A shipment had just arrived from South America, including a male owl monkey, says Wright, “and I guess I fell in love with that monkey.”

Selling wild-caught monkeys is illegal today. But this was 1968, and the monkey, which she named Herbie, took up residence in the apartment where the Wrights also kept a large iguana, a tokay gecko and a parrot. Monkey and parrot soon developed a mutual loathing. One night, the monkey “made a leap for the parrot, and by the time we got the lights on, he was poised with his mouth open about to bite the back of its neck.” The parrot was sent to live with a friend.

Wright began to read everything she could about Herbie’s genus, Aotus, nocturnal monkeys native to South and Central America. After a few years, she decided to find a mate for him. She took a leave of absence from her job and headed to South America for three months with her husband. Since no one wanted Herbie as a houseguest, he had to go too.

“I thought Herbie would be excited to see his own kind,” Wright says of the female she eventually located in a village on the Amazon. But he regarded the female with an enthusiasm otherwise reserved for the parrot. Wright ended up chasing the two of them around a room to corral them into separate cages. Later, this menagerie moved into a 25-cent-a-day room in Bogotá. “I think the truth is, it was 25 cents an hour because it was a bordello. They thought it was hilarious to have this couple with two monkeys.”

Back in New York, both Wright and the female owl monkey gave birth a few years later to daughters. Herbie turned into a doting father, returning his infant to its mother only for feeding. Wright stayed home with her own baby while her husband worked, and dreamed about someday discovering “what makes the world’s only nocturnal monkey tick.” Meanwhile, she sent off hapless letters—Brooklyn housewife yearns to become primatologist—to Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall and the National Geographic Society.

Eventually she discovered that Warren Kinzey, an anthropologist at the City University of New York, had done fieldwork on another South American monkey species. Wright prevailed on Kinzey to talk with her about how to study monkeys, and she took careful notes: “Leitz 7 x 35 binoculars, Halliburton case, waterproof field notebook...” Then she persuaded a philanthropist from her hometown of Avon, New York, to pay for a research trip to study Aotus monkeys in South America.

“Don’t go!” said Kinzey, when Wright phoned to say goodbye. An article had just arrived on his desk from a veteran biologist who had been unable to follow Aotus at night even with the help of radio collars. “You don’t have a radio collar,” said Kinzey. “I don’t think you should waste your money.”

But Wright was undaunted. She’d been spending summers at a family cottage on Cape Cod, following her two monkeys as they wandered at night through the local forest. “It was just fun to see the things they would do in the middle of the night. They loved cicadas, and there was a gypsy moth outbreak one year and they got fat. They saw flying squirrels.” So she told Kinzey, “I think I can do it without radio collars, and I’ve just bought a ticket, so I have to go.”

About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

Richard Conniff, a Smithsonian contributor since 1982, is the author of seven books about human and animal behavior.

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