Lessons We Can Learn From Lemurs

14 Mar Lessons We Can Learn From Lemurs

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 15.3.21


If you asked me to draw up a list of the nicest things that have happened to me, somewhere on that list it would say, “Having my ear sniffed by a lemur”.

This was at Wellington Zoo in the early 1990s – a chilly day, making some kind of TV nonsense. I can’t remember the show or why it involved a ring-tailed lemur, but it was one of those times when working in television felt properly privileged, almost as fancy as people who don’t work in TV might think it is. That it opened doors that would have stayed closed if you’d picked some other sort of job.

I see now on their website that Wellington Zoo offers these kinds of close encounters to all-comers for a fee, which is fabulously democratic of them. I honestly recommend saving up your pocket money for an up-close-and-personal with a meerkat or giraffe, but particularly with a lemur. Bang for your buck, right there. 

He sat on my shoulder (not something you can arrange, I imagine, with a giraffe) and ate (dried fruit? fresh grapes?) carefully from my fingers. Which was already delightful, but the magic was when, for a time, he found me more interesting than the treats and gently nuzzled his nose into my hair for long enough for me to feel his quick, soft breathe on my ear and little dabs of nose. I can feel it and hear it now. Like sniffing a baby’s head except in this scenario I was the baby being sniffed.

You know what I mean, I’m sure, about the flood of warmth you get when animals pay you a bit of attention and you imagine somehow that your existence has been approved. Dogs are easy, cats are hard, lemurs feel like a proper achievement. On a rough day you might think, remember that lemur? That lemur really liked you. You must be alright.

I can spot the word “lemur” in print now from fifty paces in much the same way I can spot “New Zealand” in an overseas newspaper – that particular arrangement of letters leaping out from the page. Which is how I stumbled across a story about Cheyenne, a red-bellied lemur in North Carolina who, at age 32, has had a rich life and maybe something to tell us about what matters in the end.

Lemurs, like humans, favour monogamous relationships – or regard them as aspirational, anyway. So far, so human. In the wild, red-bellied lemurs like Cheyenne form tight, long-term bonds with their mates, rarely moving more than 10 metres from each other. (Potentially claustrophobic but stay with me.) Other species such as crowned or ring-tailed lemurs are less strict about the monogamy, but still prefer a small tight group of friends and lovers. None of them like to spend much time alone. A little bit “hippie commune” then, or “what really happens in the suburbs”.

Cheyenne’s first partner at the Duke Lemur Centre was another red-bellied monogamist. But when he died, Cheyenne hooked up with Geb, a similarly mature crowned lemur. Geb had recently been dumped by his younger partner, Aria, who had left him for an even younger lemur with whom she could make babies, and haven’t we heard that story a thousand times. Cheyenne and Geb, both too old for breeding, nevertheless spent many years in a happy platonic relationship until Geb passed away a couple of years ago.

Now, Cheyenne lives with Chloris. Chloris is a 32-year-old ring-tailed lemur with cataracts and a touch of arthritis. The two old girls spend their days hanging out, grooming each other, and cuddling up for naps. It’s a pairing that has nothing to do with sex (both of them are post-reproductive) and everything to do with comfort, companionship, and having someone to snuggle at night.

The goal for keepers at the Lemur Centre is to match-make geriatric residents so that no lemurs live alone, pairing temperament and physical ability so they can keep each other’s fur fluffy and the loneliness at bay. In the wild, a ring-tailed and a red-bellied lemur wouldn’t interact, but in the retirement wings of a breeding centre, these kinds of conventions don’t matter anymore – certainly not to Cheyenne and Chloris who make themselves into a yin-yang symbol all hours of day.

We wonder sometimes about the kind of place we’d like to live in our autumn years, with more urgency once we start visiting them to see our gran, then our dad, and realise – look out – whose turn it is next. We will want a movie theatre and a bar, we declare, and the same species of people we’ve hung out with before – a retirement village of mad lefties or creatives, and a menu designed by a chef.

What we will really need might have less to do with the facilities (the what) than the quality of the companionship (the who). Personally, I’ll be angling for a place with ready access to cuddles with a lemur.