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‘Island of Lemurs’ Scientist Still Loves Her Prime Primates

By Dave Sigworth, publicist of The Maritime Aquarium

You might think that, after studying a species for 26-some years, in one remote corner of the planet, you might become somewhat coldly scientific about the creatures.

That you might start to see them merely as … work.

But not Dr. Patricia Wright, a biologist and lemur conservationist, as well as the featured scientist in the new IMAX movie “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar.” In her presentation at The Maritime Aquarium on April 17, it was clear that she remains as passionate about primates today as she was when she first laid eyes on an owl monkey in the late 1960s. (… in a pet store across the street from the Fillmore East, waiting for that evening’s Jimi Hendrix concert! That was just one of many fun anecdotes in her life story.)

Patricia Wright with some of her beloved lemurs.

Several times during her slide presentation in the IMAX Theater, she would nearly gush about the lemur image on the giant screen. Like: “Oh my God, look at that. I just love them.”

Wright is not just some leftover flower-power child who wants to cuddle cute monkeys, though. She’s a force for change on the island-nation of Madagascar. Early in her career, when Wright learned that timber exploiters were on their way to logging a species of lemurs’ rain-forest habitat out of existence, she spent months trekking to define boundaries and securing funding to develop Ranomafana National Park (RNP).

“I didn’t know how to make a national park,” she said. “But I do now. First you walk around to all the villages and talk to the people. … The only way to do conservation is with the villagers.”

Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, RNP encompasses the home of 12 lemur species, some of which are listed among the world’s most endangered animals.

Over the last 20 years, public awareness of Madagascar’s ecosystem has flourished through Dr. Wright’s research and outreach efforts. Her long-term relationship with the local communities in Madagascar has catalyzed economic opportunities around the park. Tourist visits to the park increased from zero to more than 30,000 in 2010, and half the park entrance fees have always been returned to the villages for conservation projects.

Recently, she spearheaded the creation of Centre ValBio, a huge preserve that is a modern hub for multidisciplinary research, training and public awareness, the first in Madagascar. (Because of its remote location and lack of heavy machinery, she said, the entire facility was built by hand.)

The professor of biological anthropology at Stony Brook University generally spends about half the year in Madagascar. Her current role as the star scientist in the IMAX movie adds unique new commitments to her time. But those include such treats as walking the red carpet with Morgan Freeman – the film’s narrator – at its premiere.

Still, she’s most happy talking about lemurs.

“Lemurs are like … zen,” she said. “Monkeys are frenetic. Apes are devious.”

If you missed her presentation, you can see her in “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar” daily at The Maritime Aquarium, at 11 a.m. and 1, 3 & 4 p.m.

Two events remain in the Aquarium’s 2013-14 lecture series:
• Zookeeper/ TV host Jack Hanna for two shows on Tues., May 7.
• and Weston, CT, author Richard Hyman, who will talk about his expeditions aboard Jacques Cousteau’s Calypso, on Mon., June 23.

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The Maritime Aquarium inspires people of all ages to appreciate Long Island Sound
and protect it for future generations. A vibrant and entertaining learning environment,
it achieves this goal through living exhibits, marine science, and environmental education.

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