Friday, August 23, 2013

90% of all lemur species likely to be extinct in 20-25 years.

According to a news report in The Telegraph, the IUCN claims that 90% of all lemur species could be extinct in 20 to 25 years unless a 3-year, $7.6 million program to help local communities in Madagascar gets underway immediately.  (I'd donate if I had a job!)  I'm doing what I can on my end by trying to get this news blurb mentioned on the main page of Wikipedia.  Keep an eye out for it and pass the news along.

Friday, August 2, 2013

My Wikipedia work gets a noteable mention!

Okay, this really isn't about lemurs, but their cousins: slow lorises.  With that said...

I learned today from Dr. Anna Nekaris, the world's leading slow loris researcher and conservationist, that my work on Wikipedia got mentioned in a peer-reviewed journal article:
A while back, a group of dedicated Wikipedia editors and I collaborated with Nekaris to develop a series of slow loris Wikipedia articles, one of which was specifically about slow loris conservation--Conservation of slow lorises.  This was in response to a viral YouTube video that was inspiring many people to seek out these animal as pets... which is illegal and seriously hampering conservation efforts.  If you haven't heard about this, please read!
At least one (possibly 4) new species of dwarf lemur have been discovered in Madagascar:

The Lavasoa dwarf lemur (Cheirogaleus lavasoensis) is found in only 3 isolated forest fragments in southern Madagascar, and the genetic analysis suggests many new species of dwarf lemur exist on the island.  I wrote an article about it on Wikipedia, and it may get featured on the main page soon (under In the News):

Thursday, July 18, 2013


I had a dream about Obi last night--the first in a while.  Moreover, it was a happy dream.  All-to-often, when I dream about Obi and Janga, it's the same story: the two ring-tailed lemurs I was so close to are moving away from me, calling to me to keep up.  However, I struggle, finding myself tied down by obligations to other people.  But in last night's dream, I found myself sitting next to their enclosure at Moorpark, and Obi was so excited to see me that he reached through the bars to grab my hair and pull me closer.  His trainer (some guy I've never seen) appeared, opened the cage door, and Obi came flying out, jumped on my chest (knocking me to the ground), and licked my face and forehead with great zeal.  In that moment, I felt happier than I have since I last saw those two lemurs nearly five years ago.  I was so happy, in fact, that the joy of it woke me up.  I managed to force myself back to sleep and to return to the dream, but it was more mellow, though still relaxing.  I don't recall the details, though.  Eventually the dream shifted away from Obi into the typical realm of nonsensical dreaming, but not before inspiring me to start picking myself up and trying all of this again.

I've been away from the blog for a while.  The same can be said of my Wiki work, research, and book.  Life hasn't been too kind lately.  (But then again, it never is.)  Yet I'm going to try again, starting with little steps and slowly moving forward.

After I finish this entry, I'm going to start the book.  I'm going to try to take it as far as I can, and hopefully finish it... finally.  The story needs to be told.  And hopefully along the way, I'll be stopping in here to share bits and pieces of the story.

It's time for me to catch up to those lemurs and to keep the promise I made five years ago.  It's time to beginning again.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Welcome to the family (Cheirogaleidae)

Two new species were described on (or around) 26 March 2013.  Read the Live Science article Tiny Lemur Twins Are 2 New Species.  Special thanks to fellow lemur enthusiast Margie Deeb for bringing it to my attention.

Mouse lemurs (genus Microcebus) are the smallest of the lemurs, measuring just a few inches in length and weighing less than 100 g (less than 3.5 oz).  This also makes them the smallest living primates.  (Believe it or not, some potentially close relatives of our ancient ancestors were once smaller.)  Mouse lemurs were popularized in the Madagascar movies and related miniseries by the character, Mort.

Since I write lemur articles on Wikipedia, I have created some basic articles for these two new species to summarize the research.
As always, more lemur-related Wikipedia articles are on the way.


Often people talk about their passions as something that began in their childhood.  My love for lemurs is much more recent, and stems from two very special ring-tailed lemurs.  After I had relocated to California in 2005 to attend Moorpark College's Exotic Animal Training & Mangaement (EATM), I learned that I would be required to work extensively with at least one animal in four general categories: hoofstock, carnivores, birds, and primates.  I was looking forward to the first three, but believe it or not, when I first came to zoo keeping, I wanted to have nothing to do with primates.  I saw them as too human-like, particularly in their social manipulativeness.  Human drama annoyed me, I knew that I would still be dealing with it in my interactions with my coworkers, and I didn't want to see it in the animals I would be caring for.

At the time, I knew little to nothing about lemurs.  Like many students of biology or anthropology, my education was limited to a brief introduction to "prosimian" primates--"primitive, mostly nocturnal primates with small brains"--after which the instructor would move on to spend a few days on monkeys and even more time on apes.  The textbooks were slightly more descriptive, for those who go beyond the scope of the class.

My true introduction to lemurs came at Moorpark, when a girl I was dating at the time offered to let me tag along for a lemur feeding.  I wasn't in the EATM program yet, but was taking the basic biology classes while waiting for admission; she was a first-year student finally getting her first animal assignments.  Lemurs had been her first pick, so she was very excited.  Personally, I was more excited spending time with my girlfriend and seeing the zoo on a day when it was closed to the public; the primates were less of an interest.  When we got to the lemur exhibit, I remember two cat-sized balls of grey fur perking up and racing to the bars of the enclosure.  The smallest one--a male named Obi--was the first to the bars, but was quickly chased off by a slender, majestic female named Janga.  (According to zoo records and staff, her full name is "Maha Jenga"--supposedly a character from Star Wars, just like Obi [Obi-wan] and a former resident named Yoda.  However, there was no "Maha Jenga" in Star Wars, but there is a city in Madagascar called Mahajanga.  Therefore, several successive generations of lemur keepers at Moorpark--including me--called her Janga, not Jenga.)

Janga was dominant, as is typical in most lemur species.  In ring-tailed lemurs, females are not just dominant, they can be downright bossy!  Demonstrating that point, Janga launched after Obi once she saw that her trainer had come bearing grapes.

Now I've always had a weak spot for underdogs.  For example, when watching sporting events in which I have no ties with either team, I'll typically root for the losing team or the one least favored to win.  Obi was not just an underdog, he was also a bit of a misfit and notoriously aggressive towards people.  Given that I also have a weak spot for misunderstood people/animals, it was inevitable that I would be drawn to him.  At that moment, I thought, "If I have to be assigned to a primate, I guess I would prefer a lemur."  As the days and months went by, I went from simply wanting to be assigned to Obi so that I wouldn't have to work with the zoo's monkeys to favoring Obi above all other animals at the zoo.  My love for lemurs was born.

Animal assignments at EATM were based on academic merit, so the students with the highest grades and best attendance got first pick.  Since Obi had once come out on leash for animal shows, many in my class had their eyes on him.  (I'm sure cuteness was also a factor.)  The competition was pretty intense, but driven by my desire to work with Obi, I made sure my record was as spotless as possible.  When writing down my wishlist for animal assignments, I explicitly wrote that I would sacrifice all my other first picks in the other categories for Obi.  Needless to say, I got the assignment!

In future posts, I will share the stories of how the relationship between Obi and I developed.  It was an amazing adventure, and has shaped the way I live today.  For me, there's no love like lemur love.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Happy Birthday, Zoo Atlanta ring-tails!

A friend of mine, Joanna Robinson, just informed me that tomorrow (9 March) is Neal's 8th birthday.  The other ring-tailed lemurs at Zoo Atlanta, are also celebrating birthdays this month:
Julius turned 9 on the 6th, while Jason and Ringo will turn 10 on the 15th.

Like most other lemurs, ring-tailed lemurs are seasonal breeders, so all the babies are born around the same time every year.  Here in the northern hemisphere, it's in March and April.  In Madagascar, they are typically born in September or October.

Even Obi and Janga at Moorpark College are celebrating birthdays soon. Obi will be 20 on 11 April, and Janga will be 16 on 20 March.  They're getting old too fast!

Coincidence or not, I also have a birthday coming  up this month.  (I'm not sharing the date.  I don't celebrate.)  Very appropriate for someone who has been adopted into a lemur troop...

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The tuft

Sorry for the long delay between posts.  I've finished moving from North Carolina to Atlanta, though I still have much to go through and get rid of.  Life's been kind of crazy lately.

In the process of packing, I came across a small plastic container with some lemur fur.  While attending Moorpark College's Exotic Animal Training & Management program, I was fortunate enough to have been assigned to the school's two ring-tailed lemurs, Obi and Janga.  Though we had many adventures over the course of the year, this brief memory comes from the very end of our relationship.  On one of my last days in the program, Janga put Obi in his place when a few classmates and I were standing nearby.  (Female dominance is the norm among many species of lemur, and especially ring-tailed lemurs.)  Following the brief spat, a tuft of Obi's fur drifted our way, and my co-trainer, Rebekah, caught it.  Knowing that it would hold a lot of meaning for me, she handed it to me and said, "Something to remember Obi by."  Indeed, it's the only physical reminder I have of my best friend.  The photos and videos I took over the course of our year together are priceless, but that small tuft of grey and brown fur is certainly one of my most cherished possessions.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

And it's Neal by a nose!

Today was my last official day as a seasonal keeper in Primates at Zoo Atlanta, and therefore my last day working with their lemurs.  :-(  We had two training sessions today, and the honor of "top performer" goes to Neal!  It was closer than I expected.  This morning Ringo was as sharp as a tack and moved up to the point of correctly distinguishing his target stick from the other three.  Unlike Neal, though, Ringo wasn't able to maintain the consistency in the afternoon and regressed, making Neal the clear winner.  Jason finished not too far behind, still as confident as before, but not as good on distinguishing.  Julius continued to make very slow, steady progress, but never reached the point of learning to distinguish targets.  Good luck to the other primate trainers as they take over their training!  The Primates department is loaded with skilled keepers, so I know they are in good hands.

In truth, my days at Zoo Atlanta are not over.  Starting sometime next week, I will be a seasonal keeper with Birds, and I may even continue helping out with Primates.  The details have yet to be worked out.  But for now, this post will conclude the daily updates on the Zoo Atlanta lemurs.  If I remember any other good stories to tell, I will certainly share them.  In the meantime, I have many, many stories to tell about two very special ring-tailed lemurs: Obi & Janga.  I'll try to share one later this weekend.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Approaching the finish line

With only one day left to train the ring-tailed lemurs at Zoo Atlanta, today's training session felt like a pivotal moment in my two weeks of lemur training.  As we approach the finish line, one lemur holds a clear lead: Neal!  Although Jason and Ringo are doing very well, and even Julius is starting to make progress, Neal may actually satisfy my idealistic training goals by tomorrow afternoon.

This afternoon, with the help of Alicia, one of my fellow keepers, we put Neal to the test--first discovering that he would follow his target stick if held by someone other than me, and then watching him distinguish between three of the target sticks, each held far apart.  Tomorrow, I hope to test with all four target sticks, and if he gets that, he will have mastered my targeting goals!  Furthermore, Neal has also demonstrated that he can return to his station with only a verbal command (without the trainer touching the carabiner).  This is excellent news, since I had been concerned that the ring-tailed lemurs might have problems with a mobile station, given their difficulties with object permanence problems.  Neal has shown that with careful training and a very attentive lemur, many great things are possible.  Go Neal!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Neal. Target!

The ring-tailed lemurs at Zoo Atlanta never cease to amaze me.  During today's two training sessions, all four made good progress, including troublesome Julius.  Jason is showing increased confidence, strong stationing and targeting behavior, and has even shown great promise at differentiating his target stick from the target sticks of others.  (The latter is a newly introduced criteria, and he seemed to get the idea almost immediately.)  Ringo is now back on track and demonstrating his ability to differentiate target sticks.  Of course, he's always been strong on stationing (grabbing the carabiner hooked to the cage mesh)--the trick will be to get him to stop offering the behavior when I'm not asking for it.  Julius' targeting behavior, on the other hand, is still poor (at best), but he is finally getting the idea of the carabiner and stationing.  Finally, progress!

Once again, Neal is leaping ahead.  Today, he was showing very strong ability to differentiate targets, and even had no problem distinguishing between his target (a stick with a heart on the end) vs. Jason's target (a stick with a circle).  The shapes are similar, and up until now, I had only asked him to distinguish his heart from either Julius' square or Ringo's triangle--both with sharp edges and no round edges.  Tomorrow, if I have help, I hope to give Neal the ultimate test: asking him to target using all four target sticks simultaneously.  If he can distinguish his target stick from the other three, then he will have completed all the training I had planned--all in less than 2 weeks!!

If that wasn't enough, Neal did something even better today.  For those of you familiar with my December Keeper Blog for Zoo Atlanta (reposted below with permission), it is well known that Neal is notoriously bad about coming inside at the end of the day.  Well, today I used his target stick, called "target", and Neal jumped up and came inside immediately to train.  Victory!!  Although he first ignored the carabiner (his "station" behavior), we may now have a way to bring Neal in and save a lot of time in the afternoon.  I hope with all my heart that these extra few minutes in the afternoon can now be converted to training sessions--a win-win for both keepers and lemurs.  Hopefully he does this again tomorrow!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Go Jason!

While training lemurs today at Zoo Atlanta, Jason showed some amazing improvements  When I first started training the four ring-tailed lemurs about a week ago, Jason was the slowest.  Being close to the bottom of the pecking order, he was hesitant about coming down from the highest branch and was easily frightened whenever I told him "good" just before rewarding him with fruit.  For nearly a week, I was worried that I would make no progress with him, but during the training session just prior to my weekend and the one today, he seemed calm and confident on the floor, went to his target stick when asked, and even succeeded in grabbing the carabiner on the side of the mesh--a "stationing behavior", which will help us get him to sit still in one place.

Of the other three lemurs, Neal and Ringo are still doing very well, with Neal showing great promise in distinguishing his target stick (with a heart-shaped tip) from those of the other three lemurs.  Julius is still a problem, though.  He has never been very trusting of me, though he will come over to me and wait for treats.  With only three days left in my seasonal employment, I'm still hoping for a breakthrough with him.  But today... Go Jason!!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Neal @ Zoo Atlanta

To start my blog off, I thought I'd share another blog post that I wrote for Zoo Atlanta back in December 2012.  I have been working at Zoo Atlanta since October 2012 as a Seasonal Keeper in Primates--primarily with lemurs and gorillas.  This is a story about Neal, my favorite ring-tailed lemur.  Neal's personality reminds me a lot of Obi, another very special ring-tail who followers of this blog will learn more about as time goes on.

Thursday, December 20, 2012
When I was a kid, I hated being called indoors and locked in for the night.  My mother always called us in for dinner when the sun was still out, and I felt I was losing valuable play time, so needless to say I was a bit resistant to her calls. Now as a lemur keeper at Zoo Atlanta, I get to fill my mother's shoes and deal with someone stuck in the same dilemma: a ring-tailed lemur named Neal. Ring-tailed lemurs are primates from the island of Madagascar, off the southeast coast of Africa. They are easily recognized by their black-and-white striped tails. They live in large female-dominated social groups and love to sunbathe in order to warm up when it is cool outside.

Of the four ring-tailed lemurs at Zoo Atlanta, Neal is one of the most independent. Ring-tailed lemurs are biologically driven to stay close to their troop, so when the three others – Ringo, Julius and Jason – come inside for the night, Neal usually comes over and sits just outside the window. With his back to me and the troop, he often sits calmly, staring out into the yard serenely and savoring the open air and last rays of the afternoon sun. Meanwhile, all I see is his back, and I get an occasional glimpse from over his shoulder along with a look that says that I have got to be kidding about coming in for the night. Even if I could explain to him that it gets too cold at night for him to stay outside in the winter, I doubt he would care. At moments like that, I am certain that he knows he has the yard to himself and that he is enjoying some quiet time alone. It is impossible to compete with that.
Although my mother might call this payback, I lose a lot of valuable time in the afternoon due to this behavior. In the future, we would like to train him to come inside using positive reinforcement. But for now, Neal will enjoy his much-earned quiet time in the window sill, free of the lemur drama that dominates the rest of the day. Seeing the tranquility in his relaxed posture and calm facial expression, I must admit: I envy him.
Alex Dunkel 
Seasonal Keeper I, Primates 

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