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March 04, 2024

Lessons from lemurs: Saint Louis Zoo grant allows keeper to work in Madagascar

Primate Keeper Emma Ahern always dreamed of observing lemurs in the only place in the world where they live in the wild: Madagascar.

Author: Saint Louis Zoo Primate Keeper Emma Ahern

If you told me five years ago when I was in school learning about primatology that I’d get to wake up in the middle of the forest in Madagascar, I would have never believed you.

But in September, I spent two-and-a-half weeks doing just that.

Emma Ahern with sifaka Calypso
Saint Louis Zoo Primate Keeper Emma Ahern with sifaka Calypso at the Parc Ivoloina Zoo in Madagascar

I work with lemurs as a primate keeper here in St. Louis and was awarded a 2023 Saint Louis Zoo Dexter Travel Grant to work in Parc Ivoloina Zoo in eastern Madagascar. My goal was to learn more about lemur care from keepers who work with them in their natural habitat on the only island in the world where lemurs live in the wild.

My days started with a long, beautiful walk into the zoo where I could spot groups of lemurs jumping through the trees above me along my way.

Once I arrived, I worked with a young sifaka lemur named Calypso who had been kept as an illegal pet before he came to the zoo. Calypso was the first sifaka in Ivoloina Zoo’s care, so I used my experience in St. Louis working with the species to share ideas with keepers about ways to track his health.

Ivoloina Zoo has groups of free-roam lemurs, so I was tasked with keeping an eye on Calypso when he would roam through the trees for a few hours in the mornings. I watched how other groups of lemurs interacted with the lone sifaka. Usually it went well, other days Calypso just liked to follow me around to see what I was up to!

I watched Calypso learn how to truly be a sifaka. He experimented with climbing and jumped through the trees. One day, I climbed into a tree with Calypso to show him how it’s done. I remember thinking to myself: ‘Is this really happening? Am I teaching a sifaka to climb?”

There was so much I learned from working in a zoo full of natural materials. The keepers showed me how to make enrichment items out of bamboo and other plant material that I would never have learned back home.

Gifts for Parc Ivoloina staff
Emma Ahern stuffed her suitcases to bring donated boots and other gifts for Parc Ivoloina staff.

We also used natural materials to build shift doors for the habitats out of items like bamboo. I built two different habitat doors that let the keepers separate themselves from the animals for safety.

Throughout my trip, I was able to build amazing relationships with many of the keepers. On my final day, I gifted them donations and brought in two large suitcases including boots for the staff and enrichment items for the animals donated by the Saint Louis Zoo and the American Association of Zoo Keepers, among others.

The keepers then had a gift of their own: They named a newborn lemur born during my stay “Emma” in my honor.

I am so thankful for the Saint Louis Zoo Dexter Travel Grant that funded my trip. The grants allow staff who don’t otherwise have travel budgets to participate in field conservation work.

My trip tied in with the longtime support of Parc Ivoloina by the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute Center for Conservation in Madagascar.

I will be forever grateful that I was able to learn so much from this life-changing trip.

Emma Ahern with Parc Ivoloina staff
Primate Keeper Emma Ahern poses with Parc Ivoloina staff.

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