Sunday, October 16, 2011

I Touched a Lemur and So Can You!

Jungle Island, Miami lemur experience
Lemurs jumping on me! See why I write about stuff that's more interesting than sex?

Life is all about serendipity. After I saw the amazing Animal Planet documentary Madagascar, I found out through a friend that Jungle Island here in Miami has an interactive lemur experience. This was on my bucket list and I didn't even know it was in my own backyard.

The lemur experience is the most fun you can have with your clothes on! Seriously. Mind you, I interviewed Ron Jeremy a few weeks ago but these primates were more touchable and less hairy. (Sorry, Ron, you're still awesome in your own way.)

For the lemur experience, a small group of people enters a nursery where juvenile lemurs are taken care of and, I might add, spoiled rotten by a lovely care giver. You sit on the floor and the pro-simians -- they're primates but not technically monkeys -- are let out of their enormous cage for playtime. They jump and leap all over the place, including you; you're part of the props. They eat treats out of your hand and just generally frolic.

As a yogi, I found it very grounding and therapeutic to hang out with the lemurs. I got in touch with some primal part of myself that had nothing to do with my damn iPhone, Facebook or Twitter. A truly "social" event, with no words spoken and none of the encumbrances of being human. One of them even nibbled my finger without biting!

I will probably go back to do this again from time to time because it's not like you can handle lemurs just anywhere in the world. These primates are endangered and heck, that plane ticket to Madagascar costs quite a few clams. This was truly a very special experience.

While most people come to Miami for beaches and nightlife, no one ever thinks to touch a Madagascar lemur right here on the shores of Biscayne Bay.

Lemurs are fascinating to me because their sexual and social behavior is worth pondering. In the animated movie Madagascar -- wildly riotous and funny for kids of all ages -- there is a lemur character named King Julian. But here's the thing: lemurs run a matriarchal society, so there is no "king" to speak of, only a queen. Women rule! So I guess that's a right match for South Beach, right? It's full of queens.

Jungle Island, Miami
I'm not sure if this was "Nibbler" or "Athena" ... in this particular group, there were four females and one male.

Female lemurs are only available to mate for a very short period of time -- we're talking 24-48 hours -- once a year. So the guys better be on the ball and get their mating on or no future lemur babies will happen. This is all timed to perfection, so that lemurs are born just around or after the monsoon season when there is plenty of food.

Lemurs are not particularly monogamous. It's a fair game mating sperm war, so oh boy, those 24-48 hours of mating must be quite a spectacle of sex.

madagascar lemur animal planetCredit: Animal Planet/BBC

Lemurs are also interesting because of the way they move. Think of a slow motion elegant ninja combined with a capoeira dancer with perfect posture. The yogi in me very much admires the flexibility and jumping power of these creatures. I think I need to create a lemur pose.

The Jungle Island lemurs are bred in captivity at refuge in Tampa; in my recent encounter with them, this particular troupe was just a few months old.

Eventually, the lemurs return to that facility where they spend the rest of their lives in as close as possible an environment to native Madagascar. The Tampa spot is not a public attraction, but rather a conservation sanctuary.

I had a bit of a moral dilemma with this as there is always the big question of how sad it is to see animals in captivity. But let's face it, we humans are stewards of the planet and we do "capture" animals, in every sense of the word, as they do us.

The old Parrot Jungle (the attraction preceding Jungle Island in Pinecrest) is a place I went to as a child and where I first learned to appreciate the animal kingdom. I think experiences like this further cement and bolster our potential to preserve and respect nature. I felt like a kid again coming here and breathed a sigh of relief knowing that there was something so special in a destination otherwise known for shallow entertainment.

I interviewed Mel, one of the animal handlers, after our group experience. The camera is a bit shaky, but that's because the lemurs were jumping all over the staff member who was kind enough to hold my phone! A very challenging shoot, for sure.


The 45-minute lemur experience is limited to adults or children of about 10 years or older who are well behaved. If you are skittish about animals and are a Monk-like OCD germaphobe, this is not for you -- although everything is extremely clean and tidy. But hey, if you have dogs and cats, you really shouldn't feel weird about this. There is a liability form to sign, but honestly, it's probably more dangerous to drive to Jungle Island than to spend time in close proximity to these animals. The lemurs are very soft and furry; they'll jump on your head and extend their tender paws gently when offered a raisin or bit of cereal.

At time of publication, the lemur experience costs $45 exclusive of entry to the rest of the attraction, which is a whole other park and a great place to visit if you only have a short period of time to explore South Florida. There is a beautiful tropical garden path (you won't see that many trees in South Beach) and even an authentic Everglades boardwalk, with mangroves, egrets and alligator gar in the ponds. For more information about the park, its shows and events, visit Jungle Island.

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