That’s a lemur who knows what he wants. Naturally, the above video showing his seemingly incessant demands for stroking has become a viral sensation over the past week (it first appeared on Facebook on last week, where it now has nearly 20 million views).
Everything about the video—the lemur, the young boys, and the incessant demands—is adorable. The cuddly mammal’s attitude no doubt inspired an affection for these creatures—which, unsurprisingly, has manifested into a desire to keep them as pets. Tara Clarke, assistant professor at Duke University and co-director of a nonprofit called Lemur Love, is currently studying what is said about lemurs on social networks and she found that there were more tweets saying things such as “I want a pet lemur” in response to this video over the past few days than they normally see in a month. Go figure.
Many of these tweeters won’t actually go adopt ring-tailed lemurs (for one thing, they only live on the southern end of Madagascar). But some might. And that’s gotten these mammals into real trouble—hence why Clarke is studying how they’re discussed on social media in the first place. Ring-tailed lemurs are an endangered species whose numbers have fallen dramatically in the past few decades, in large part because of the illegal pet trade. A study published last year estimated that 28,000 lemurs were stolen from the wild during the previous three years, and more than a quarter of those were ring-tailed lemurs, which often end up displayed in hotels or restaurants. No one knows exactly how many ring-tailed lemurs are left, but recent estimates put the population at less than 10,000 and possibly as low as 5,000 animals.
Lemurs are not bred as pets—so all the captive lemurs have been taken from the wild, says the lead author of that study, Kim Reuter, with Conservation International, who is also conducting an ongoing survey into lemur pet ownership in Madagascar.
Unfortunately, the lemurs sold into the illegal pet trade don’t live very long. Lemurs are not well-suited to living with humans, and humans aren’t super aware of how to live with lemurs, either. Even the most well-meaning owners don’t know how to care for these complicated animals, Reuter said. Captive lemurs, she has found, are often fed unnatural diets such as rice and bananas that they have trouble metabolizing instead of native fruits. They also get exposed to human diseases they wouldn’t encounter in the wild, such as giardia.
In the wild, lemurs live in complex social groups—but their isolation when they’re taken to live as pets means the lemurs often become frustrated and aggressive, particularly when they reach sexual maturity at about 3 years old, says Marni LaFleur, an adjunct professor at the University of California–San Diego and co-director of Lemur Love. “Once their instincts kick in, they become very frustrated and lash out. Male lemurs would normally migrate to new groups at this time, so being stationary makes them a bit crazy.” This craziness tends not to end well for the lemurs: Reuter’s research shows that about 30 percent of pet lemurs in Madagascar “are killed by their owners following an aggressive incident.”
Of course, many captive lemurs don’t even reach sexual maturity. LaFleur says most ring-tailed lemurs are captured in November each year when they are about 2 months old, because tourists visiting for the holiday season want to interact with pet baby lemurs in hotels and owned by street vendors. The babies should be nursing through early spring, and the pre-emptive weaning causes at least half of them to die.
Meanwhile, the man who originally posted the video, Tsimanova Nazaire Paubert, told the French-language site Info Chrétienne that the lemur, which they call Sefo, is not a pet but a willing visitor to the village of Ambovombe. The animal’s behavior suggests that it may have been a pet somewhere else before making it there, LaFleur says. (After the video surfaced, her organization made plans to visit the village in June to get a better understanding of the factors at play there.)
Some argue that videos such as this help raise awareness about little-seen, imperiled species—but given our natural inclination to anthropomorphize animals, especially primates, they need to be accompanied by the correct context. This lemur may appear to be happy, but its species certainly is not. And the directors of Lemur Love say this kind of publicity actually makes it harder to raise funds to protect species that people don’t realize are in danger of extinction. This video helps show the delight of the natural world—it should also be a reminder of what we have to lose.