Lemur Laments

The Duke Primate Center faces critical questions about its mix of research, teaching, and conservation.

In a typical sunny day at the Duke Primate Center, a steady stream of visitors find themselves charmed and captivated by the exotic lemurs that live in its cages and range through its forested open enclosures. Led by volunteer guides, tour groups may witness the long-limbed acrobatic sifaka leap soaring from branch to branch. Among these agile animals might be Zoboo, the stage name for Jovian, the wide-eyed Coquerel’s sifaka that is animal host of the popular PBS children’s series Zoboomafoo.

A sudden wave of raucous barking might roll across the facility, as the ruffed lemurs launch one of their periodic cacophonous choruses. In the darkened chambers of the nocturnal rooms, visitors might make out the constantly pacing aye-aye—ugly-cute animals with eerie names such as Nosferatu and Poe that look like a cross between raccoon, beaver, and bat. The tours also include skulls and skeletons of lemurs, and lectures about the peril of extinction faced by the animals on their native island of Madagascar. Tours complete, visitors may visit the gift shop to buy stuffed animals, books, and other souvenirs.

Such is the alluring public face of the Primate Center, as seen by some 13,000 visitors a year, including school classes, alumni, parents, journalists, and academics. As important as such outreach programs are, public education has never been among the center’s primary missions. Rather, the center’s major objectives—besides conserving endangered animals—are basic research and educating undergraduates and graduate students. Such objectives are potentially invaluable to science and science education because the center constitutes the world’s most extensive collection of endangered primates and primate fossils—more specifically, such “prosimians” as lemurs. But many who are familiar with the Primate Center believe it has become an institution out of balance—its research and teaching achieving neither the quantity or quality expected from a component of a twenty-first-century research university.

Says Provost Peter Lange, “We certainly recognize that the Primate Center is an attractive place where schoolchildren and others can learn, but Duke does not have a zoological mission in and of itself. Rather, our core missions are research and teaching. Our service to society is linked through those missions, and all of our facilities need to make a substantial contribution to teaching and to advanced research.”

In fact, he points out, the center originally began purely as a research facility. The departure from this historical mission was emphasized by the report last winter of an internal review committee led by biology professor James Siedow, now vice provost for research. According to Siedow, that committee, as well as outside experts, concluded that because research and education were apparently not receiving the priority given conservation, they had lost ground in recent years. After interviewing a range of scientists, the committee concluded that the problem was partly due to a discouraging of research at the center. “Many people who tried to use the facility told us that the atmosphere had become less conducive to research, so some just abandoned their attempts to do studies there,” says Siedow.

As a result of the report, Lange and the other senior administrators launched an initiative to attempt to strengthen those missions. The initiative—under which the center will report to the provost through Vice Provost for Research Siedow—includes continued funding of the university’s 70 percent share of the Primate Center’s annual $1.2-million budget. To jump-start research, the initiative includes $300,000 in seed money for new research initiatives.

As current Primate Center Director Kenneth Glander concluded his second five-year term on July1, William Hylander, professor of biological anthropology and anatomy, assumed the directorship and will guide the initiative. Hylander, whose research explores the function and evolution of the jaw in humans and higher primates, has agreed to a three-year term devoting half-time to directing the center. Under the agreement, Hylander is to develop a long-term strategic plan for the center by November 15, 2002, that will “ensure its contributions to the research and teaching missions of the university,” says Lange.

The university will also monitor the center’s progress, using as indicators renewal of the center’s National Science Foundation facility grant, which contributes about $300,000 per year to its budget; formation of an internal advisory committee; and growth in research and undergraduate educational use of the center. Duke will evaluate the center’s progress and decide on the future of the center in the late winter of 2003-2004, says Lange. “I hope the evaluation will be positive,” he says, “but if the evaluation is not positive at that time, we will move toward closure of the Primate Center.”

According to Lange, the initiative is necessarily limited in time by the need to decide over the next three years whether to invest the estimated $5 million to $10 million required to modernize buildings and construct new winter barns for the animals. “A central challenge of the initiative will be to obtain enough information relatively soon about the long-term prospects for the center to contribute to the core university mission to enable us to make a coherent decision about a strategic investment.”

Lange emphasizes that in making such a long-term investment decision, the Primate Center must be seen in context of the other major efforts to strengthen science and engineering, as described in the university’s strategic plan, “Building on Excellence.” These programs include a $200-million university-wide Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy and a $100-million Fitzpatrick Center for Photonics and Communication—both of which faculty and administrative leaders see as exemplifying programs critical to the Duke’s leadership in key fields of twenty-first-century science and engineering.

“Just as we expect faculty in those disciplines to work at the forefront of their fields, we want to ensure that the Primate Center can make special and unique contributions to knowledge in its field,” says Lange. The basic criterion for research facilities, he adds, is intellectual and educational return on investment. The significance of a research field is usually reflected in its ability to attract funding, he says, quoting the strategic plan’s directive that “If we are to make the investments that significantly strengthen science and engineering at Duke, we must increase our presence in areas that are both at the research frontiers and sustainable through external support.”

Of the center’s university funding, Lange says, “It is our responsibility to ask whether the approximately $800,000 per year that supports the Primate Center—as well as the considerable infrastructure investment—could support other scientific enterprises that would have a higher return in terms of our teaching and research missions.”

The enhancement initiative, besides helping launch new research, includes up to $350,000 for stopgap improvements in winterization of the center. Frostbite injuries and the death of animals during the winter of 1996 led the center to establish a policy that animals will be protected from the cold without having to take refuge in the electrically heated boxes provided them. For the last five years, the center has relied on interim measures, including draping cages with plastic and heating them with propane and kerosene burners—a heating system that has tended to leak propane, created exhaust fumes, presented a fire hazard, and required constant monitoring by staff.

The initiative also seeks to increase educational use of the center. While the center currently sees about a hundred students from Duke and other universities each year, who conduct research for primatology courses and independent-study projects, Dean of Arts and Sciences William Chafe says, “We would like to develop a broader-based constituency for courses. The students who are able to take advantage of the Primate Center benefit enormously, but there needs to be greater use of the center to help students understand primate evolution, physiology, and other areas.”

Reality show:lemurs' lives watched by both scientists and visitors

Reality show: Lemurs' lives watched by both scientists and visitors. Chris Hildreth.

Glander, the outgoing director, agrees that the center has great educational potential, citing the undergraduate Program in Primatology, a curriculum he launched and directs to train students in primatology and independent research. To help forge a closer link between research and teaching, former scientific director Elwyn Simons proposes launching a summer field school to immerse students in research projects on the free-ranging animals in their outdoor enclosures. The educational impact of the center is also exemplified by its outreach program for grade-school students, which also helps the university meet its responsibilities to the Durham community. “These children are the ones who will have to face the issues of diminishing biodiversity and extinction of species,” says Glander. “And the center sought to get them involved and help them understand why they should be concerned with the lemur in Madagascar, which is a long way from North Carolina.”

In enhancing both teaching and research, Glander says, the proposed long-term investment in research facilities and winter barns is crucial. “There is no way to do research out here any more than what we are doing. Any expansion in research will take a significant amount of money, because there have been no capital improvements out here in thirty-six years.” Such multi-million-dollar renovations would include more space for laboratories, offices, meeting rooms, animal-handling rooms, and veterinary facilities, he says. Also, Glander and his colleagues advocate constructing redesigned cages to aid both animal care and research. Such cages include passageways for easy animal transfer, eliminating the need for technicians to capture animals to move them. The new winter barns, besides offering the animals refuge from the cold, could also allow them to be released into the open enclosures on warm winter days, which Glander says would enable year-round behavioral research. Besides new bricks and mortar, increasing research will require additional staff, say both Glander and Simons, including a research manager who can give researchers personalized attention and service.

The Duke administration has not ruled out closing the center, but they emphasize that their preferred objective is to improve it. Says Chafe, “There are people who are concerned that, because we have identified the problem as requiring a decision, and we have said the status quo is not acceptable, that means we’re automatically committed to closing the Primate Center. And that’s not the case. It is rather a question of recognizing that the time has come to make a decision.”

Should university officials judge the research and education initiatives and fund raising to have failed, any plan to close the center would likely bring major repercussions, say the Primate Center’s leadership and staff. For one thing, they believe that criticism from the public and scientific community would be substantial, citing as an example a recent letter from University of Miami anthropologist Linda Taylor, who studies the center’s ringtail lemurs. She wrote, “‘Disinvesting’ the Primate Center is akin to paving the Duke Gardens to provide additional parking while saving on groundskeeping costs, or to Yale University ‘disinvesting’ the Peabody Museum. Such facilities are part of what makes few institutions stand out among their peers as great universities. ‘Disinvestment’ diminishes not only research careers of many individuals, but it ultimately diminishes the reputation of Duke University as an academic leader in innovative research programs.”

Efforts to close the center would prove prolonged at best, Glander says, and might not even be feasible. “If the decision were made to close the center, it would take two to five years, mainly finding homes for the animals or waiting until they die, which might be even longer than five years.” Many of the animals live for decades in captivity, he says, and zoos would have difficulty accommodating them. “Most zoos are not capable of taking the animals and, in fact, wouldn’t want to risk their dying and generating bad publicity. A typical zoo wants only a couple of lemurs for exhibit, but they don’t have room for more. Zoos don’t do research or sponsor long-term breeding programs. They’re not interested in social behavior or understanding the animals’ ecology.” 

Center veterinarian Cathy Williams says that her experience with scientists has convinced her that the center’s closure would mean loss of a unique resource for prosimian tissues, as well as decades of experience in the care and management of lemurs. “There are a lot of people at the center with an 
incredible amount of knowledge about how to handle these animals and keep them healthy in captivity “ she says. “There is also a huge amount of physiological, medical, and behavioral information in records that is scientifically valuable and might be lost. That information could not be re-created anywhere else, because no other institution in the world matches the center in its numbers and variety of prosimian primates.”

Finally, Simons believes that closure of the center would end a valuable international relationship with Madagascar, including efforts to explore its caves for lemur sub-fossils, to capture critically endangered species for captive breeding, and to establish a self-sustaining zoological park at Ivoloina. That cooperative effort also includes participation in a five-year project to introduce captive-born black and white ruffed lemurs to a Madagascar nature research, Betampona, whose population of the animals is threatened because of lack of genetic diversity.

A major commitment to raising funds will be critical to meeting the Primate Center’s need for $5 million to $10 million in facilities renovations, not to mention an estimated $20 million needed for a permanent endowment, Glander says. “I believe that the director has to be turned loose, and that there is potential out there for fund raising.” In particular, he says, many potential donors are especially interested in species preservation.

David Ingram, a longtime supporter of the center, is one such benefactor. His donations include $1 million to its endowment and support for the first new winter barn for the animals. “It does seem to me that species as interesting as these lemurs deserve more attention than they have been getting,” says Ingram, chairman and president of Tennessee-based Ingram Entertainment. “I have felt that the center is a worthwhile cause, and I’ve wanted the Duke administration to get more excited about what they have in the Primate Center. But there are many worthy causes and needs within any university, so I’m not going to be so presumptuous as to sit in [President Keohane’s] chair and say, ‘Well, here’s how you should divide up your money,’ because I am not qualified to make that type of decision. But I have felt good about the money that I have given to the Primate Center, because I think that it at least has shown the administration that somebody cares about what’s going on and thinks that they’re doing a good job.”

To Provost Lange, fund raising will likely become far easier with an enhanced research program. “It’s hard to raise money if you don’t have a clear picture of the mission, and both our internal and external reviews confirmed that the center’s mission is inappropriately unclear,” he says. “As long as there’s been this cloud over the Primate Center about what exactly is its contribution to the university’s broader missions in teaching and research, it’s been difficult to raise money.”

Deciding the future of the Duke Primate Center is certainly an extremely complex, and even emotional, endeavor. Ambitions must be balanced with resources, and potentials with realities. But as excruciatingly difficult and multidimensional as the decision process is, it represents only one of many such challenges Duke will face as it heightens its profile among research universities. ”

Share your comments

Have an account?

Sign in to comment

No Account?

Email the editor