Duke University Primate Center’s most eligible bachelor is still without a mate, and it’s hard to figure out why. He’s got long, muscular legs, chestnut eyes that blaze when they focus on you and soft, lush fur that ranges from white to gray to orange depending on which side of him you see. Romeo is a nine-year-old Diademed sifaka from Madagascar.
Sifakas are just one of the many kinds of lemurs living, and increasingly dying, or more likely, being killed, on the African island nation that has been so badly deforested its red soil can be seen from space as it bleeds into the ocean. The Diademeds gets their name from the crown of black fur at the top of the head that contrasts with the white fur framing their black faces and muzzles.
Romeo’s a lanky sort of lemur, about the height of a small child, and his strong leg muscles lift him with grace as he bounds from branch to branch, with an occasional sojourn on the ground. Like most lemurs, he’s unafraid of humans, and actively curious about the ones he comes in contact with. He’ll approach you, doing that gliding sideways hop that sifakas do, examine you with his eyes, maybe leaning the cool palm of his black hand on your arm as he studies any object you might be carrying. If he wants to play, his mouth will open enough that you can see his pink tongue (but not his teeth, since that would be threat) and his eyes will seem to brighten. Conversely, a quick toss of the head backward is a deliberate threat, and several of them in succession means you might want to come back tomorrow.
Romeo relocated to Durham, North Carolina when he was only five months old. His mother, Titania, was darted by Dr. Ken Glander, then director of the primate center, who was out on an expedition to find the endangered Diademed sifakas, and bring them back to Duke for observation and breeding. Romeo is one of the many kinds of lemurs found on Madagascar, and like the rest of his prosimian relatives there, his kind are threatened with extinction. People are so poor that they keep burning tracts of land to clear it so they can grow rice, the mainstay of their diet. As the land burns, the trees that provide the likes of Romeo and his cousins with leaves to eat are destroyed. On top of losing their homes and food sources, lemurs, especially the larger sifakas, are hunted for food. In fact, the Malagasy name for Romeo’s particular type of lemur translates as “it takes two days to eat them”.
Romeo and Titania came close to missing the boat, or plane as it were. Dr. Glander had been searching for Diademed sifakas near Andasibe, a town north of the capital, Antananarivo, for seven days. The expedition had begun well enough. Three days into it, Ken had found and caught one young male, later christened Oberon, who he held in a kennel back at the hotel. But by the end of seven days, Ken was in the last thirty minutes of the hike back to town, feeling dejected and all prepared to release Oberon, since a single male lemur isn’t much use when you’re hoping to breed them. And then all of a sudden Ken spotted Titania up in a tree and took aim. As the tranquilizer took effect, the female Diademed slid down the trunk and into Ken’s arms, and that’s when he discovered Romeo clasped across her stomach, like a small orange fanny pack.
The group of four primates, one human and three prosimian, embarked on the 22-hour pilgrimage back to the home of the Blue Devils. On transit in Paris, the Air France pilots and flight crew joined Ken in heated belly of the plane to see how their special Malagasy passengers were doing. Titania was holding Romeo in a motherly hug as Oberon peered out, bright-eyed, from his kennel. “They were in better shape than I was,” Ken comments with a laugh.
All three Diademeds seemed to adjust well to life in North Carolina until an inability to digest the calcium in their Monkey Chow slowly killed Oberon then Titania, leaving Romeo an orphan at age two. Subsequent missions to find a mate have been unsuccessful, but the Primate Center continues to search.
What Romeo may have missed in motherly love after Titania’s death, he got in huge quantities from the Primate Center staff, especially the techs. They are the people who care for the Duke lemurs, feeding and observing them, cleaning up after them and helping the vet to care for them if they fall ill. The girls especially will visit his spacious indoor/outdoor enclosure – almost the size a New York City studio apartment – and offer him the flowers from the mimosa trees on the grounds. He gently accepts all offerings, holding the green stems upright – much like you or I would an ice cream cone – his flat black thumb wrapped around his fingers. Romeo then quietly chews the fluffy pink sprigs, while basking in the glow of his admiring female fans, like Hugh Hefner at the mansion.