The World's Largest Captive Lemur Facility Is Bracing For Florence

Hermione, a black and white ruffed lemur, awaits Hurricane Florence from the safe confines of an indoor housing unit.
Photo: Courtesy of Duke Lemur Center

The folks over at the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, North Carolina, are pros at hurricane preparedness. They have to be. Home to the largest number of lemurs in the world outside Madagascar, the Lemur Center’s got a serious responsibility in protecting the 240 lemurs that roam its facilities.

The Duke Lemur Center could see tropical storm conditions through the weekend due to Florence, which has already caused power outages for more than 600,000 North Carolina customers. The impacts at the center so far have been minimal: a few fallen branches here and there. But center employees are anticipating losing power, too. That’s why they’ve ordered weeks’ worth of food like fresh fruits and veggies, flashlights, ponchos, lights—and secured enough fuel to power their buildings via a generator for a full three days.


This power is essential for safeguarding the 15 species of lemur that call the center home—including the fat-tailed dwarf lemur, the aye-aye, and even the crowned lemur. Usually, a good two-thirds of the lemur population lives free-range on the center’s 80 acres within Duke Forest, land owned and managed by Duke University. With a tropical storm in full throttle, however, the staff has brought all the outdoor colonies inside.

All these lemurs have been trained to live free-range only during the spring, summer, and early fall, so bringing them indoors is no hassle. In fact, staff members don’t even need to capture or handle the animals, Sara Clark, the center’s communication director, told Earther. The team used positive reinforcement—with food, duh!—to train the animals to come to their keeper upon hearing a particular sound: a tambourine, whistle, or maraca, for example.

“It’s really easy,” Clark told Earther.

By late Wednesday, all lemurs were in their assigned indoor enclosures, fit with appropriate heating and cooling measures for comfort, branches from the great outdoors for fun, some enrichment activities for brain food, and, of course, some actual food (like hibiscus flowers) for the munchies.

A primate technician feeds Drusilla, a Coquerel’s sifaka, some yummy hibiscus flowers as they hide from the hurricane inside.
Photo: Courtesy of Duke Lemur Center

Now, they’re braving out the storm alongside seven to 10 staff members who are staying at the center with them.


Lemurs are in a precarious position: Nearly 95 percent of the 111 lemur species and subspecies are critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable, according to a recent report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

That’s why the population at the Duke Lemur Center is so important. The founding group of around 200 lemurs arrived at the center from Madagascar in 1966. Its existence opened the door to a vast non-invasive research program that didn’t require awfully expensive travel to Madagascar.


“It’s an irreplaceable colony because of how rare lemurs are now and because of import and export regulations now that were very different in the ’60s,” said Clark. “You could never have another Lemur Center.”

The center has also created a genetic safety net in the terrible—yet possible—scenario in which lemurs go extinct in the world. Because of the center, some lemurs that are lost could one day be re-introduced.


So the staff takes every measure to ensure its lemurs are all right. This doesn’t involve any cuddling, though: No staff member is to touch the animals unless for the animals’ health. The Duke Lemur center feels it’s important not to perpetuate the idea that lemurs can be pets, which is part of what’s fueled an illegal trade that has contributed to their decline in the wild.

“They’re wild, not domesticated,” said Clark, “and we treat them like wild, undomesticated animals.”


That doesn’t mean the lemurs won’t get lots of attention as Florence’s winds roar through their area. Because best believe: The lemurs are loved.

Red-ruffed lemur Kalani waits out the storm in a hammock made by animal care staff.
Photo: Courtesy of Duke Lemur Center

Update: This article has been updated to clarify that Durham could experience tropical storm-like conditions this weekend. The headline and text has also been updated to reflect that Florence is no longer a hurricane, but a tropical storm.

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About the author

Yessenia Funes

Senior staff writer, Earther. The one who "pulls the race card" in the name of environmental justice. You dig?

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