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.