Daring Escape Leads Lemurs to School Library

Lured by fruit, two ringtailed lemurs are rounded up at Cresset Christian Academy.

Two ring-tailed lemurs at the Lemur Center.  Two other ring-tails escaped from the Lemur Center over the weekend and were captured unharmed Monday.

When the authorities arrived, the fugitives were lounging in the school library, stuffing themselves on a tropical fruit salad that the lunch lady had thoughtfully provided. A gaggle of admiring school girls stood around, snapping cell phone pictures from every angle and offering treats in their palms.

So ended the 36-hour adventure of Berisades and Ivy, a pair of 6-year-old ringtailed lemurs who daringly vaulted the electric fence of Natural Habitat Enclosure #4 at the Duke Lemur Center (DLC) late Saturday.

The first call came in to Duke Police from a neighbor of the Lemur Center who said she saw lemurs eating her neighbor's garden on Saturday night, but it was chalked up as a possible raccoon sighting. Then the two half-brothers failed to show up for brunch on Sunday morning, and the call went out to all Lemur Center staff to drop what they were doing and join the search.

This same pair had experienced a brief breakout the week before when a storm pushed over a tree, forming a bridge over the electric fence, said Greg Dye, Operations Manager of the Lemur Center. "We're still not sure how they did it this time, but let's just say that where there's a will, there must be a way."

DLC staff fanned out in the neighborhoods south of the center rattling their chow buckets, but the search was called off at about 8 p.m. Sunday as a thunderstorm moved through.

It resumed at 6 a.m. Monday and then quickly shifted farther south as a motorist called in to say she'd seen the pair crossing Cornwallis Road on her way to work. Calls started coming in more frequently, many through Durham animal control. One woman called to say they ran through her back yard as she was standing on the deck.

Based on these reports, Dye thinks they made it almost to Mark Jacobson Toyota at Garrett Road and 15-501 before turning around and heading back north.

At about noon, a pair of teenagers helping run the summer camps at Cresset Christian Academy at 3707 Garrett Road spotted the animals in front of the school and alerted preschool teacher Anna White. "I said, 'You guys are absolutely nuts!'" until she saw the lemurs.

The school is a mile and half from the lemur's enclosure as the crow flies, but based on excited reports phoned in from surrounding neighborhoods, they likely traveled a considerable amount more than that. Together, White and the teens trailed the animals as they worked their way around to the rear of the school, and then somebody had the idea of getting them inside for safe-keeping with a bit of fruit left over from lunch.

"At one point, one of them was sort of lounging in a chair at the table, and somebody put a book in front of it," White said. "I had one eat out of my hand. I never thought to put that on my life list, but I could cross it off now."

Dye arrived shortly before 1 p.m. with a pair of kennel carriers. When they returned to the Lemur Center, "we did a ‘perp walk' and then they had a quick weigh-in and checkup to make sure they were in good health," Dye said.

"They are so grounded," said Lemur Center Director Anne Yoder. The pair will be restricted to an indoor-outdoor style caged enclosure until DLC officials can figure out how they escaped.

"Both boys are of the age when they would normally leave their family group and go out to set up new territories of their own," Yoder said. "That may have been their motivation for hitting the road, so to speak."

Escapes have happened before at the Lemur Center, not always with such happy endings. But the natural habitat enclosures that the animals enjoy are essential to their well-being and natural behavior, explained Colony Manager Andrea Katz. Some DLC lemurs have been repatriated to their native Madagascar, and it's important they don't lose their natural edge.

"They were able to forage and they stayed together while traveling," Dye said. "They did what lemurs do in the wild," including, apparently, striking out in search of young lady lemurs.