Red-ruffs and ring-tails: Lemur grrls rule

The zoo got lemurs in 2004, soon after I started volunteering and not long before the movie “Madagascar” came out. There are 38 surviving subspecies of this pointy-nosed primate on that African island, and two at the zoo. In the early weeks, a family of five ring-tailed lemurs could always be seen cuddling in the central trees, just like in the photo below, while a quartet of red-ruffed lemurs hid around the edges. Eventually, the red-ruffs ventured front and center, sometimes hanging upside down by their hind feet as if to prove that they, in fact, are the arboreal ones who live in the forest canopy and build nests for their young in the wild. (Ring-tails, also known as “cat lemurs” because they make a purring sound, are ground-dwellers by comparison, living farther south in Madagascar’s more desert-like terrain.)

The two varieties coexisted warily but calmly in our space for years, and perhaps they will again. But last year the group lost its only female red-ruff, Dorothy, who was born at the Los Angeles Zoo and enjoyed a maximum lemur lifespan of more than 20 years. Red-ruffs are a subspecies managed by matriarchs, and without Dorothy to keep them in line, the red-ruff males grew domineering toward the smaller ring-tails and herded them into the exhibit’s lower corner. These days, the two types take turns on exhibit, and you won’t see them mingled. (I don’t think I ever saw them closer together than in this photo.)

Twice in the past month, I’ve seen zookeeper and lemur expert Cathy (I think of her as the other Cathy, since that’s my name too) hanging out by the exhibit with clipboard in hand, watching and noting. She explained Dorothy’s protective role and said any female red-ruff would probably have the same civilizing effect on the boys. Red-ruffs are endangered in Madagascar but fairly common in zoos, so the other Cathy predicts we’ll get another one in time. I like the idea of just one female serving as connector and cushion between the two tribes, and I can’t wait to see how it all shakes out.