Up close and cuddly with a rare creature

I'll be honest, the invitation to be the first non-Wellington Zoo employee to have a lemur Close Encounter made me as nervous as I was excited.

Would they be like the singing, dancing stars of the Madagascar movies? Far from it.

Wellington Zoo offers Close Encounters with red pandas, meerkats, giraffes, cheetahs and lions and, as of September 13, they will be taking bookings for the black and white ruffed lemurs.

Led by senior primate keeper Harmony Wallace, we sat on a log inside the enclosure and waited for Lucky, 15, and son Ankari, 4, to come down from their perches in the tall greenery.

The pair - whose species is endangered in their native Madagascar - arrived in Wellington from Hamilton Zoo four months ago.

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"We were never able to offer the lemur Close Encounter before because we had two females and, being the dominant one in the lemur species, they would get a bit more upset and didn't like people in their territory that much," Wallace says.

"But the boys are happy for a good scratch."

At the sight of their favourite food - grapes, followed closely by cooked kumara - one of the cat- sized, fluffy creatures plodded closer.

A few minutes passed before he was happily eating out of my hand as I patted him with the other, even discovering he loved a good scratch under the arm.

Wallace did warn that at some point Lucky and Ankari would "vocalise" - and it wasn't to "move it, move it", in a Sacha Baron Cohen voice.

Their bark seems far worse than their bite but Wallace says the sound is non-aggressive. It was not long before they were calm, quiet and curious again.

Their fur is as soft as a brand new sheepskin rug.

"They probably have the softest fur of any animal at the zoo," Wallace says.

"They've got a specially designed toe which goes out on an angle, it's called the grooming claw. Considering they are so fluffy they never seem to get knots or anything."

I came away from the encounter smiling from ear to ear.

Not just because any little accidents had been avoided, but because I'd just experienced an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime encounter with an endangered species.



Lemur close encounters will begin from September 13, daily at 3.15pm.

Bookings for all close encounters must be made in advance. Visit Wellingtonzoo.com for the schedule.

The minimum age for a lemur encounter is 4, and under-14s must be accompanied by a paying adult.

The cost is $95 a person for 30 minutes, which includes entry to the zoo.

Each encounter must include a minimum two people, maximum four.

Ten per cent of the cost of each lemur encounter will go towards the Wellington Zoo Conservation Fund, which supports various organisations including the Madagascar Fauna and Flora Group.

The Dominion Post