This was definitely the first birthday party for ten year olds I’d attended where a ten foot long snake was on the guest list.
The birthday party buzzed with nervous energy as the wildlife performer handled, then let the kids pet, a huge boa constrictor. Ten year old Andrew Zamora didn’t think it could get any cooler than that.
After calmly re-caging the boa, the wildlife performer retrieved a covered crate from behind the stage. It was difficult to see what was in the crate. Then—suddenly—a flash of white and black hair caught Andrew’s eye. A furry animal darted up onto the performer’s shoulder and sat there, swishing its big bushy tail in the afternoon sunshine.
“It looked like a cross between a medium-sized dog and a monkey with an Ebenezer Scrooge haircut,”Andrew recalled.
“It was by far the coolest animal I had ever seen. He was sleek and yet incredibly silly looking, and he seemed as curious about us as we were about him.”Never in all the nature shows and National Geographic magazines that Andrew had devoured had he seen a creature like this.
The performer smiled.
All the kids were in awe. . . and so were the parents. But Bugsy’s moment in the spotlight was only beginning.
Andrew had to wait what seemed like years for his turn. At long last, Bugsy made a casual yet elegant leap onto Andrew’s shoulder. His hands were velvety on top, with rubbery finger pads that were perfect for keeping a good grip on Andrew’s t-shirt. Bugsy took his time finding a comfortable perch atop Andrew’s head, all the while sniffing his hair and ears.
“The feel of his fur was gentle and his hands were strong, yet soft like the paws of a cat or dog. He sat happily on my shoulder while I fed him snacks. That moment, something inside me rang like a bell. There was something truly amazing about this quirky animal with orangish-yellow eyes, and I wanted to know all about him and the other lemurs.”
What did other lemurs like Bugsy do in Madagascar? How many types of lemurs were there? What did they eat? What were their families like? What were their predators? These were all questions that ran through Andrew’s head. Little did Andrew know that his chance encounter with Bugsy would lead him down a decade-long path to the forests of Madagascar.
Science came alive!
Even before that magical lemur encounter, Andrew loved animals. He grew up religiously watching the Crocodile Hunter, Animal Planet, and animal shows on Discovery Channel. He imagined himself a wildlife show host, and knew he would need to learn a lot about animals to become one.
Though Andrew had fallen in love with lemurs, he didn’t exactly love school.
During his junior year at Florida International University, that all changed. Andrew started working in research labs, studying night monkeys in captivity. Coincidently, Dr. Patricia Wright, Andrew’s mentor and the “human star” of the IMAX movie Madagascar: Island of Lemurs, also got her start studying owl monkeys.
“Once I started working face to face with these night monkeys, the only nocturnal anthropoids in the world, science came alive. (Anthropoids is a scientific term for monkeys and apes.) Suddenly I wanted to learn everything I could about science. It awakened something inside of me I hadn’t known was there.”
Andrew’s primary interest is examining primate social systems. Scientists have observed a wide diversity between—and sometimes within—species. Andrew is interested in examining the factors that lead a species to adopt a particular grouping style.
Research in the field can be thrilling, but it can also be difficult mentally and physically. Andrew spent a lot of time with guides who speak very limited English. There is a LOT of hiking.
Camp life is regimented, and it follows a strict schedule. The team wakes up at 5:00 each morning. They dress, grind coffee, eat breakfast, wash clothing in the river and hang it to dry. Some days they chop wood. The team leaves camp at 7:00 AM and spends the day searching for, then tracking, sifaka lemurs.
Depending on their success, they could be back at camp any time between 1:00 and or 6:00 in the afternoon. They typically bring lunch and eat in the forest many days.
“The sifaka are occasionally very well behaved and stop. Other times, the minute you take out your Tupperware, they dash away.”
Dinner is always at 6:00, and everyone in bed by 8:00.
Andrew’s field work was his first time sleeping in a tent, but he fell into the camp schedule easily. He learned to let go of little things, like the idea of taking a shower every day and generally being clean.
He let go of the food he’d been used to, and embraced dried fish, camp-made jerky, and a lot of rice. He embraced being constantly surrounded by things that are alive.
“One day I got out of the tent and noticed that no matter what I saw, I was always surrounded by things that were alive. Even the air felt alive. I would lie in my tent at night and hear lemurs vocalize. It was like they were inviting me to come out and see them.”
Life in Madagascar
This past summer, he got his feet wet with field work.
“I spent my whole life saying that I wanted to do something, and building towards it. I was worried that I would finally get to the forest and hate it.”
Andrew was in the field for three months in the summer of 2014. He and his team worked in an unprotected area just north of Ranomafana. He chose the spot because fellow primatologist James Herrera reported that he has seen a good density of sifaka there.
The Milne Edwards sifaka is one of the larger lemurs, averaging just over thirteen pounds. It is distinguishable by its coloration. Except for a saddle-shaped patch of light-colored hair on its lower back, it has black hair. It lives in the eastern coastal rainforests of Madagascar. The Milne Edwards sifaka leaps between trees, rotating a half circle (180 degrees) in midair to face the branch on which it is landing. They rarely come down to the ground, spending most of their lives amongst the trees. They can leap an impressive thirty feet through the air.
Andrew worked on compiling counts of males and females, determining how frequently babies were born into the lemur troops, and observing these lemurs’ habits. He looked at what trees they preferred, and their overall diet. Andrew and his team are still compiling the data now, but we look forward to providing an update when his results are available.
Conservation through education
Andrew also observed many interesting things about the local Malagasy people during his time in the forest. Some hide their cattle in the forests to prevent them from being stolen by bandits. Some engage in “artisanal” gold mining using very simple tools. Some cut down trees to sell hardwood, others for firewood. Still others cut trees as part of unsustainable agricultural practices.
His experience working in the forests around Ranomafana National Park provided a window into how prevalent the hand of man has become in Madagascar. Because of the poverty in the nation, many residents are pushed into reckless agriculture that involves slash-and-burn agricultural practices.
“I was always concerned about animals and their protection, but it always seemed like something that someone else would do.” This insight has moved Andrew to support “conservation through education” programs.
In addition to learning about lemurs, Andrew’s time in Madagascar taught him a lot about himself. When the time came to go to Madagascar for his field work, he worried that he might not actually enjoy the work he had spent so long preparing to do.
“What I had been saying about myself since I was a kid is real. It’s easy to spend time saying you are someone or that you want to do something. My time in the forest provided an enormous sense of validation. I had spent so much time wanting to do something and finally got to do it. . . and I loved it!”
Thinking about lemurs also helped him think about his own place in the world.
“When the weather was good, I was able to stretch out on the forest floor and just watch them. You reflect on how an animal like that can exist.” It was the first time he felt a deep connection to another animal, and understood that he was looking at another creature that was just as old as him in evolutionary time. This was an animal so different. . . yet so similar.
“It was cool to step back and see that we have the ability through science to study the world around us. You can look at another animal and understand why it behaves the way it behaves .You can find out how it lives and how it eats. We have ways of investigating almost every aspect of another creature’s life. It informs us about how WE are. That connectedness is a real thing.”
Andrew offers this advice for people considering science as a career:
“It’s not always about how smart you are or your background, it’s about how determined you are. If you are passionate about a species or a concept, let that power you through.” Andrew has experienced scientific successes and challenges. Sometimes he creates an experiment and he finds data and results that are very rewarding. Other times, the experiment does not go as planned and all the prep work for that study can feel like a big waste of time. Andrew laughed, then quoted Albert Einstein.
“If we knew what we were looking for, it wouldn’t be called research!”
Although Andrew is not hosting his own TV show. . . yet, he has found something that he loves even more. And who knows, perhaps someday you’ll be flipping through channels and see Andrew and some of his lemur friends smiling back at you!
Andrew Zamora is currently a Masters student studying under Dr. Patricia Wright at the department of Anthropology of Stony Brook University. He recently returned from his first field expedition in Madagascar. His research interests lie in using a comparative approach to examine the influences of ecology, life history, and phylogenetic history on primate social systems.
Hans and Jen Hartvickson write books and stories for elementary students under the pen-name “Mister Lemur.” Their newest title, The Scheming Lemurs: Rivals in Rhyme is available on Amazon. Leveled for grades 3-4, this fictional story features a group of lemurs on an adventure in Ranomafana National Park and Madagascar’s capital city of ‘Tana. Hans holds a bachelor’s degree in Economics from Stanford University and an M.B.A. from The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Jen earned a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and a master’s degree in Education from Stanford University. Visit www.misterlemur.com