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Lemurs And Other Exotic Animals Promote Conservation In North Florida

Two lemurs forage for their lunch in a cardboard box.
Gina Jordan
Lunch time! Saka and Akondro enjoy berries, chives, cilantro, and other colorful food. They are awaiting girlfriends as they enjoy their bachelor pad at the North Florida Wildlife Center.

About a half-hour away from Tallahassee, theNorth Florida Wildlife Center (NFWC) cares for rescued and endangered animals. The public can visit and get a hands-on experience.

On this visit, it’s lunchtime for Akondro and Saka. The black-and-white ruffed lemurs climb into a cardboard box full of cilantro, chives, and berries. Their white fur turns purple as they roll around in berry juice.

“It’s an incredibly simple way to keep our animals entertained,” says Ryan David Reines, NFWC executive director and founder, as the lemurs bounce in and out of the box foraging for their food. “It’s very easy and part of our enrichment program.”

Akondro and Saka are males, and they’re part of a captive breeding program. “They are on a short waiting list for the next single girlfriends, if you will,” Reines says. “Until then, they are enjoying their bachelor pad together.”

They are curious and calm - until they hear a car door. That leads to an excited sprint around their habitat and a round of surprisingly loud, well, screaming.

“Ruffed lemurs, in general, are the second loudest primates on earth,” says Reines. Black-and-white ruffed lemurs are also among the most critically endangered mammals on earth.

Lemur reaches for phone
Gina Jordan
This guy wanted my phone.

The center sits on about 10 acres just outside the Jefferson County town of Lamont. Reines, an FSU graduate from Miami Beach, chose this rural location almost two years ago because it was spacious, affordable, and close to Tallahassee.

The nonprofit center is dedicated to wildlife conservation. Funding comes from donations and customers. The public is welcome for tours and hands-on encounters with exotic animals.

A Madagascar connection from Tallahassee

Madagascar is the only place lemurs are found in the wild, and it turns out NFWC has a Tallahassee connection in the island country near East Africa.

“A Thomasville Road kid is now in Madagascar re-growing rain forests, and went there via working on Wall Street for 15 years,” says Tallahassee native Matt Hill. “I’m kind of like the hometown kid that ended up 28-thousand kilometers away.”

Hill graduated from Maclay School. When he returned to town in late 2019 to accept the Maclay Distinguished Alumnus Award, he gave a seminar at the Rotary Club of Tallahassee about the organization he founded, Green Again. Reines was there.

“He gave a presentation on his work in Madagascar,” Reines says. “I approached him shortly after and told him about our work here with our captive lemurs, and we basically hit it off from there.”

Visitors to the wildlife center learn about the work Green Again is doing to restore habitats in Madagascar, where fires are common. Hill is helping educate farmers in tree-planting and eradicating invasive ferns on their property. He did a thesis on forest restoration in Madagascar.

“We plant 87 Malagasy tree species. Through our experiments, we've discovered five Malagasy tree species that actually stop forest fires,” Hill says. “These special trees, if you plant them a certain way, can act as living firebreaks. And that's a really, really important thing for the world.”

Replanting the rainforests will help preserve Madagascar’s biodiversity and save the lemurs. So, NFWC donates some of its proceeds to Green Again.

Ryan and a kangaroo joey
Gina Jordan
Kangaroo kisses for Ryan! This is Marlu, a red kangaroo joey.

In the meantime, a habitat expansion is underway for NFWC’s 40-plus residents, and the aviary complex is set to open in the fall.

Now that the pandemic is waning, Reines is ready to restart some offsite programs, like visits to summer camps.

“There is nowhere really between say Jacksonville and Panama City that is open to the public in this way that keeps incredible animals like this,” Reines says. “We have lots of local species here from monarchs to our rescue pelicans to our rescue barred owls - but also nonnative species, like for instance our kangaroos, or our vine snakes or mudskippers or lemurs. So it's really a unique facility.”

The North Florida Wildlife Center wants visitors, but reservations are required. They can be made by calling 850-347-0921 or via this booking site.

Gina Jordan is the host of Morning Edition for WFSU News. Gina is a Tallahassee native and graduate of Florida State University. She spent 15 years working in news/talk and country radio in Orlando before becoming a reporter and All Things Considered host for WFSU in 2008. Follow Gina: @hearyourthought on Twitter. Click below for Gina's full bio.