Dr. Patricia Wright considers the Central Park Zoo’s Tropic Zone a refuge for herself and other New Yorkers. Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal
Whatever its challenges, this column hasn’t required trekking through tropical rain forests. Until a few days ago. It wasn’t really a rain forest, but the Central Park Zoo’s Tropic Zone.
Nonetheless, it sufficed. And in a heavy coat, I wasn’t dressed for the occasion. Also, the humidity was so intense that droplets of water kept falling onto my reporter’s notebook, blurring my notes and making my handwriting even more illegible.
My companion—Dr. Patricia C. Wright, a primatologist and a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stony Brook University—displayed none of my discomfort. Perhaps because she spends much of her time in Madagascar studying lemurs, and has since the 1980s.
I’m tempted to describe Dr. Wright as the star of a new 3-D IMAX film called “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar.” Except the lemurs earn top billing with several Oscar-worthy performances.
We visited the zoo because that’s the location closest to my office where lemurs can be found.
I neglected to ask Dr. Wright whether lemurs make good house pets. But I suspect not, unless your apartment includes a flourishing tree canopy.
“This is beautiful,” Dr. Wright said in a mellifluous, almost dreamy voice, as parrots and golden weavers watched us from overhead. “I think it’s a refuge for all of us who live in New York.”
Her demeanor may be the result of spending lots of time in the wilds of Madagascar with lemurs, the only place on Earth, except at zoos or primate study centers, where lemurs exist.
One of zoo’s black-and-white ruffed lemurs passes the time hanging out on a vine. Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal
By the way, the lemurs at the Central Park Zoo are black-and-white ruffed lemurs. They were mostly just hanging on vines and dining on blueberries.
“Aren’t they beautiful?” Dr. Wright intoned. “They look like panda bears.”
There are more than 100 species of lemurs, 90% of them threatened, endangered or critically endangered because the vast majority of Madagascar’s forests have been destroyed.
Part of the film’s mission, besides selling tickets, is to draw attention to this peaceful animal’s plight before it’s too late.
“I first went in the early ’80s,” Dr. Wright remembered. “There were all kinds of lemurs I’d never seen before and most species had never been studied before. I was amazed at the variety.”
Indeed, in 1986, Dr. Wright discovered one unknown to science—the Golden Bamboo lemur—on a trip where she was searching for the Greater Bamboo lemur, which hadn’t been seen in 50 years.
“I got up really early in the morning and was looking for this other one,” she recalled, of the Greater Bamboo lemur, which she also spotted. “We were just walking along and this animal as big as a cat came this close to us. It was orange. In the sunlight it was gorgeous. It made this sound I hadn’t heard before—like a growl, almost a roar.”
I wondered what it felt like to discover a species. The hair on the back of my neck bristles when I spot a bird I haven’t seen before. And obviously this is way more impressive than that.
“I almost thought I was going to faint,” Dr. Wright said. “It took my breath away.
“It was on a stalk of bamboo,” she continued. “I knew it had to be a bamboo lemur, but it didn’t look like it was supposed to. I knew I’d never seen it before and it wasn’t in any of the books.”
Unsurprisingly, “Island of Lemurs,” narrated by Morgan Freeman, is visually stunning. But it almost has to be—a balloon-mounted camera took some of the footage—because many lemurs tend to live in inaccessible locations, such as the rock fortresses of Anja Community Reserve in southern Madagascar, where filmmakers Drew Fellman and David Douglas shot Ring-tailed lemurs.
One of the film’s more memorable scenes involves a family of the Ring-tailed lemurs—females are dominant in lemur society, by the way—sunbathing atop a cliff in the early morning sun.
“They are very Zen animals,” Dr. Wright noted. “They’re very peaceful.”
The Anja Community Reserve is also an example of the way people and lemurs can coexist, indeed how the local population can prosper through lemurtourism.
“We have to work with the poverty, helping with their health and assisting with their education and giving them jobs,” Dr. Wright explained. “I have 85 local people working on research. We teach them how to read and write. We teach them how to take data.”
The Sifakas may be my favorite lemurs, with mouse lemurs, the world’s smallest primate, coming a close second. Sifakas are arboreal, built for leaping between trees in an upright position. When they travel along the ground, and somewhat out of their element, they do so by jumping from side to side.
I thought the filmmakers were employing special effects to make them appear to be dancing—the vivid soundtrack, including Madagascar artist Hanitra Rasoanaivo putting her own spin on “I Will Survive,” only reinforces the impression—but Dr. Wright assured me that they move that way.
Not too long ago—within the last 500 years—there existed lemurs the size of gorillas. I proposed that given the remoteness of some of Madagascar’s landscape, perhaps there are still a few lurking and waiting to be discovered, or rather rediscovered.
Dr. Wright acknowledged such a discovery would be delightful. But it isn’t a priority.
“We’re not going out there to discover the extinct ones,” she explained. “But to find out how many are left of the living ones.”