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Pat WrightThe Wright Path

From a pet shop in Manhattan to the rain forests of Madagascar, the incredible journey of noted primatologist Patricia Wright has been a labor of love.

Patricia Wright is having quite a year. Last month the world-renowned primatologist and anthropology professor in Stony Brook University’s College of Arts and Sciences was honored at the Stars of Stony Brook Gala in New York City for her commitment to the people and wildlife of Madagascar, and the IMAX® film Island of Lemurs: Madagascar 3D, featuring her work to protect these fascinating and endangered creatures,opened nationwide.

Later this year For the Love of Lemurs: My Life in the Wilds of Madagascar, the second of her two-part memoir, will be released by Lantern Books. And, last week, she was announced the winner of the Indianapolis Prize, the world’s leading award for animal conservation, for her extraordinary efforts on behalf of lemurs in Madagascar, including the development of Ranomafana National Park.

Wright, who is also the founding director of Stony Brook’s Centre ValBio, a world-class research station on the edge of the Park, talked recently about her life and work, how she plans to use the prize money to benefit Madagascar, and the serendipitous encounter with a monkey in a Greenwich Village pet shop that started it all.

Q: First of all, congratulations on winning the prestigious Indianapolis Prize. How did you find out that you had won and what went through your head when you heard?

Patricia Wright: I was driving home after teaching my class at Stony Brook University when Mike Crowther, director of the Indianapolis Zoo, called. I told him I was driving, and he said, “Are you alone?” And I said yes, then he told me to pull over. I’m glad I did, because when he told me the news I was jumping out of my skin. I thought it couldn’t be possible, but this was the director of the Zoo, so he couldn’t be joking! After he finished telling me, tears were in my eyes, and I started to think about all the good things that we could do now for Madagascar.

Q: Can you share some of your plans for using the $250,000 prize money?

Wright: There is a real need to support Malagasy graduate students. I would like to set up a fellowship program for Malagasy students to fund their research at Centre ValBio. That could be research not just on lemurs, but also on chameleons, or birds, or other mammals or plants. We need Malagasy students to be experts on all kinds of biodiversity, and they need funding for field equipment and research fees. They also need funds to go to international meetings to participate in global science.

There is also a rain forest just north of Ranomafana Park that needs protecting. I would like to begin the process of surveying this land, which is about 24,700 acres, and working with the people toward protection. The more forest that is protected, the more wildlife that is saved. This area was targeted in the IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature] Lemur Action Plan, and is in dire need of protection. This forest is the only place we have found a new species of lemur being described by my graduate student James Herrera [PhD candidate, Interdepartmental Doctoral Program in Anthropological Sciences at Stony Brook], and has many rare species we need to protect. It is a nearly pristine beautiful rain forest. I can use the Indianapolis Prize money to get this project further along.

pulll quoteQ: Take us back to the beginning. You started out as a social worker, but your story as a primatologist and conservationist began in an exotic pet shop in Greenwich Village in 1968. Can you tell us what happened?

Wright: I was waiting for a Jimi Hendrix concert to begin at the Fillmore East in New York City when it started to pour. So I dashed over to the Fish N Cheeps pet store to get out of the rain and look at the macaws, and fell in love with an owl monkey, which I bought as a pet the following Monday. Then I ended up going to the Amazon to find out what this monkey did in the wild. The rest is history.

Q: Was there anything in particular that drew you to the owl monkey you bought for $40 from that pet shop and named Herbie?
Herbie had huge golden-brown eyes and a built-in smile. He reached out with his hand, put his hand around my finger, and looked up into my eyes. Herbie was also nocturnal and my artist husband wanted a companion after midnight.

Q: When you couldn’t find a mate in New York for your rambunctious monkey, you traveled to South America to find one there, and your subsequent observation of Herbie and his growing family was the impetus for your traveling to some pretty dangerous and remote regions to study the behavior of owl monkeys in their native habitat. You document all this very vividly in the first part of your memoir, High Moon Over the Amazon: My Quest to Understand the Monkeys of the Night. You even had your daughter, who was 3 at the time, with you at one point. How did you overcome your fear in such potentially dangerous conditions?

Wright: My goal is to get the research accomplished, and I focus on getting the job done. I do worry, but I'm not usually afraid, except when facing down jaguars, or my daughter being overturned in white water rapids. When in a dangerous situation I try to keep my head, and then later I nearly have a heart attack. I am scared to death, after the danger is over.

Q: Eventually you traveled to Madagascar armed with a grant from the World Wildlife Fund to find the greater bamboo lemur thought to be extinct. Not only did you find that this lemur was alive and well in the rain forest, you also discovered a new species of lemur. How did that happen?

Pat WrightWright: After I searched the southeast of Madagascar, living in tents and bathing in cold streams, I needed a bath. In the town of Ranomafana there was a thermal springs hotel with bathtubs filled with hot water piped in from the ground. Above the thermal springs was a rain forest filled with big trees and big bamboo. Since I was searching for a bamboo lemur, I asked if I could go into the forest. This forest was beautiful, and my team and I began the search every day to find the bamboo lemurs. I found the new species — the golden bamboo lemur (Hapalemur aureus) —first on a misty cold morning. I didn’t really know it was a new species until I found the large gray lemur with white ear tufts, called Prolemur simus [the greater bamboo lemur]. When I saw the two of them in the same forest, I realized they were two different species.

Q: What poses the greatest threat to the survival of lemurs?

Wright: Slash-and-burn agriculture [the cutting and burning of trees and plants in forests to create fields for planting or livestock] is a major threat, and hunting can drive them to extinction even faster.

Q: You were the driving force behind the creation of Ranomafana National Park, a 106,000-acre site in southeastern Madagascar that is home to lemurs as well as many endangered species. Giving the villagers something in exchange for the land was very important to you, and today there are schools, healthcare centers and libraries in the park as well. You have been commended for your ability to see the intimate link between the beauty of the animals and the lives of the people. Where do you think that ability comes from?

Wright: My dad showed me the beauties of nature with many walks in the woods at a young age, and that led me to being a biology major at Hood College. Then I worked as a social worker in Brooklyn when I was 20, and I learned early on that people are people, whether they are poor or not. That helped me to understand that both the lemurs and the people of Madagascar need natural resources, and saving the forest also saves the people. Now, living next to the National Park the people of Madagascar earn good livings from ecotourists who come to see the beautiful lemurs. An additional factor is that I am anthropologist trained to look at the relationship of people to their culture. I have always loved animals, especially wild animals, but I have also always appreciated people.

Q: You are also the founder of Stony Brook University’s Centre ValBio, which is adjacent to the Park. What work is being done there?

Wright: Centre ValBio is a research station that is not only a hub for wildlife science, but also for environmental arts, health for people, conservation education, reforestation, artisans and tourists. Centre ValBio is a “one conservation” approach [preserving the local people and wildlife together].

Q: The recent IMAX film focuses on lemurs and your efforts to protect them. What do you hope viewers will take away from this film?

Wright: I hope viewers of the film will learn to love lemurs as much as I do and help to save them from extinction. Donating to CentreValBio.org and other small NGOs [non-governmental organizations] that are working hard on the ground is one way. Going to Madagascar to be an ecotourist and contributing that way is another.

Q: Of all the primates you have tracked over the years, do you have any favorites?

Wright: I love owl monkeys. I love sifakas, I love bamboo lemurs, I love aye-ayes, I love mouse lemurs. Each one is so unique and charming; I love them all.

Q: The story of your life story would make a fantastic movie. Sigourney Weaver played Dian Fossey in Gorillas in the Mist. Is there anyone you’d like to see playing you?

Wright: Hmm, that is a tough one. Angelina Jolie, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Sandra Bullock? She was outstanding in Gravity.

—By Patricia Sarica

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